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From Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winner The Color Purple, comes Meridian, "a classic novel of both feminism and the Civil Rights movement" (Ms.).

Meridian Hill is a young woman at an Atlanta college attempting to find her place in the 1960s revolution for racial and social equality. She discovers the limits beyond which she will not go for the cause, but despite her decision not to follow the path of some of her peers, she makes significant sacrifices in order to further her beliefs.

Working in a campaign to register African American voters, Meridian cares broadly and deeply for the people she visits, and, while her coworkers quit and move to comfortable homes, she continues to work in the deep South despite a paralyzing illness. Meridian's nonviolent methods, though seemingly less radical than the methods of others, prove to be an effective means of furthering her beliefs.

"A glowing affirmation of the possibility...of love and forgiveness—between men and women, black and white."—Baltimore Sun

ISBN-13: 9780063346826

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 11-28-2023

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple. She has written numerous poems, essays, and short stories, including her most recent book, The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart. Originally published in 1974, Langston Hughes: American Poet was Alice Walker's first book for children. This picture book biography is now back in print with a new author's note and beautiful new illustrations. Ms. Walker lives in Northern California. New York Times best-selling author Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. A winner of numerous literary awards, she is a professor of creative writing at Emory University.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Return

Truman Held drove slowly into the small town of Chicokema as the two black men who worked at the station where he stopped for gas were breaking for lunch. They looked at him as he got out of his car and lifted their Coca-Colas in a slight salute. They were seated on two boxes in the garage, out of the sun, and talked in low, unhurried voices while Truman chewed on a candy bar and supervised the young white boy, who had come scowling out of the station office to fill up the car with gas. Truman had driven all night from New York City, and his green Volvo was covered with grease and dust; crushed insects blackened the silver slash across the grill.

"Know where I can get this thing washed?" he called, walking toward the garage.

"Sure do," one of the men said, and rose slowly, letting the last swallow of Coke leave the bottle into his mouth. He had just lifted a crooked forefinger to point when a small boy dressed in tattered jeans bounded up to him, the momentum of his flight almost knocking the older man down.

"Here, wait a minute," said the man, straightening up. "Where's the fire?"

"Ain't no fire," said the boy, breathlessly. "It's that woman in the cap. She's staring down the tank!"

"Goodness gracious," said the other man, who had been on the point of putting half a doughnut into his mouth. He and the other man wiped their hands quickly on their orange monkey suits and glanced at the clock over the garage. "We've got time," said the man with the doughnut.

"I reckon," said the other one.

"What's the matter?" asked Truman. "Where are you going?"

The boy who had brought the news had now somehow obtained the half-doughnut and was chewing it very fast, with one eye cocked on the soda that was left in one of the bottles.

"This town's got a big old army tank," he muttered, his mouth full, "and now they going to have to aim it on the woman in the cap, 'cause she act like she don't even know they got it."

He had swallowed the doughnut and also polished off the drink. "Gotta go," he said, taking off after the two service station men who were already running around the corner out of sight.

The town of Chicokema did indeed own a tank. It had been bought during the sixties when the townspeople who were white felt under attack from "outside agitators"-those members of the black community who thought equal rights for all should extend to blacks. They had painted it white, decked it with ribbons (red, white, and of course blue) and parked it in the public square. Beside it was a statue of a Confederate soldier facing north whose right leg, while the tank was being parked, was permanently crushed.

The first thing Truman noticed was that although the streets around the square were lined with people, no one was saying anything. There was such a deep silence they did not even seem to be breathing; his own footsteps sounded loud on the sidewalk. Except for the unnatural quiet it was a square exactly like that in hundreds of small Southern towns. There was an expanse of patchy sunburned lawn surrounding a brick courthouse, a fringe of towering pine and magnolia trees, and concrete walks that were hot and clean, except for an occasional wad of discarded chewing gum that stuck to the bottoms of one's shoes.

On the side of the square where Truman now was, the stores were run-down, their signs advertising tobacco and Olde Milwaukee beer faded from too many years under a hot sun. Across the square the stores were better kept. There were newly dressed manikins behind sparkling glass panes and window boxes filled with red impatiens.

"What's happening?" he asked, walking up to an old man who was bent carefully and still as a bird over his wide broom.

"Well," said the sweeper, giving Truman a guarded look as he clutched his broom, supporting himself on it, "some of the children wanted to get in to see the dead lady, you know, the mummy woman, in the trailer over there, and our day for seeing her ain't till Thursday."

"Your day?"

"That's what I said."

"But the Civil Rights Movement changed all that!"

"I seen rights come and I seen 'em go," said the sweeper sullenly, as if daring Truman to disagree. "You're a stranger here or you'd know this is for the folks that work in that guano plant outside town. Po' folks."

"The people who don't have to work in that plant claim the folks that do smells so bad they can't stand to be in the same place with 'em. But you know what guano is made out of. Whew. You'd smell worse than a dead fish, too!"

"But you don't work there, do you?"

"Used to. Laid off for being too old."

Across the square to their left was a red and gold circus wagon that glittered in the sun. In tall, ornate gold letters over the side were the words, outlined in silver, "Marilene O'Shay, One of the Twelve Human Wonders of the World: Dead for Twenty-Five Years, Preserved in Life-Like Condition." Below this, a smaller legend was scrawled in red paint on four large stars: "Obedient Daughter," read one, "Devoted Wife," said another. The third was "Adoring Mother" and the fourth was "Gone Wrong." Over the fourth a vertical line of progressively flickering light bulbs moved continually downward like a perpetually cascading tear.

Truman laughed. "That's got to be a rip-off," he said.

"Course it is," said the sweeper, and spat. "But you know how childrens is, love to see anything that's weird."

The children were on the opposite side of the square from the circus wagon, the army tank partially blocking their view of it. They were dressed in black and yellow school uniforms and surrounded somebody or something like so many bees. Talking and gesticulating all at once, they raised a busy, humming sound.

The sweeper dug into his back pocket and produced a pink flier. He handed it to Truman to read. It was "The True Story of Marilene O'Shay."

According to the writer, Marilene's husband, Henry, Marilene had been an ideal woman, a "goddess," who had been given "everything she thought she wanted." She had owned a washing machine, furs, her own car and a fulltime housekeeper-cook. All she had to do, wrote Henry, was "lay back and be pleasured." But she, "corrupted by the honeyed tongues of evildoers that dwell in high places far away," had gone outside the home to seek her "pleasuring," while still expecting him to foot the bills.

The oddest thing about her dried-up body, according to Henry's flier, and the one that-though it only reflected her sinfulness-bothered him most, was that its exposure to salt had caused it to darken. And, though he had attempted to paint her her original color from time to time, the paint always discolored. Viewers of her remains should be convinced of his wife's race, therefore, by the straightness and reddish color of her hair.

Truman returned the flier with a disgusted grunt. Across the square the children had begun to shuffle and dart about as if trying to get in line. Something about the composition of the group bothered him.

"They are all black," he said after a while, looking back at the sweeper. "Besides, they're too small to work in a plant."

"In the first place," said the sweeper, pointing, "there is some white kids in the bunch. They sort of overpower by all the color. And in the second place, the folks who don't work in the guano plant don't draw the line at the mamas and papas, they throw in the childrens, too. Claim the smell of guano don't wash off.

"That mummy lady's husband, he got on the good side of the upper crust real quick: When the plant workers' children come round trying to get a peek at his old salty broad while some of them was over there, he called 'em dirty little bastards and shoo'em away. That's when this weird gal that strolled into town last year come in. She started to round up every one of the po' kids she could get her hands on. She look so burnt out and weird in that old cap she wear you'd think they'd be afraid of her-they too young to 'member when black folks marched a lot-but they not."

Catching his breath, Truman stood on tiptoe and squinted across the square. Standing with the children, directly opposite both the circus wagon and the tank, was Meridian, dressed in dungarees and wearing a light-colored, visored cap, of the sort worn by motormen on trains. On one side of them, along the line of bright stores, stood a growing crowd of white people. Along the shabby stores where Truman and the sweeper stood was a still-as-death crowd of blacks. A white woman flew out of the white crowd and snatched one of the white children, slapping the child's shoulders as she hustled it out of sight. With alarm, Truman glanced at the tank in the center of the square. At that moment, two men were crawling into it, and a phalanx of police, their rifles pointing upward, rushed to defend the circus wagon.

It was as if Meridian waited for them to get themselves nicely arranged. When the two were in the tank and swinging its muzzle in her direction, and the others were making a line across the front of the wagon, she raised her hand once and marched off the curb. The children fell into line behind her, their heads held high and their feet scraping the pavement.

"Now they will burst into song," muttered Truman, but they did not.

Meridian did not look to the right or to the left. She passed the people watching her as if she didn't know it was on her account they were there. As she approached the tank the blast of its engine starting sent a cloud of pigeons fluttering, with the sound of rapid, distant shelling, through the air, and the muzzle of the tank swung tantalizingly side to side-as if to tease her-before it settled directly toward her chest. As she drew nearer the tank, it seemed to grow larger and whiter than ever and she seemed smaller and blacker than ever. And then, when she reached the tank she stepped lightly, deliberately, right in front of it, rapped smartly on its carapace-as if knocking on a door-then raised her arm again. The children pressed onward, through the ranks of the arrayed riflemen up to the circus car door. The silence, as Meridian kicked open the door, exploded in a mass exhalation of breaths, and the men who were in the tank crawled sheepishly out again to stare.

"God!" said Truman without thinking. "How can you not love somebody like that!"

"Because she thinks she's God," said the old sweeper, "or else she just ain't all there. I think she ain't all there, myself."

"What do you mean?" asked Truman.

"Listen," said the man, "as far as I'm concerned, this stuff she do don't make no sense. One of my buddies already done told me about this mummified white woman. He says she ain't nothing but a skeleton. She just got long hair that her ol' man claims is still growing. That fool sets up breshin' it every night." He snorted and sucked his two remaining side teeth.

"Just because he caught her giving some away, he shot the man, strangled the wife. Throwed'em both into Salt Lake. Explained everything to the 'thorities up there and they forgive him, preacher forgive him, everybody forgive him. Even her ma. 'Cause this bitch was doing him wrong, and that ain't right!"

He poked Truman in the ribs. "That ain't right, is it?"

"No," said Truman, who was watching Meridian.

"Well sir, years later she washed up on shore, and he claimed he recognized her by her long red hair. He'd done forgive her by then and felt like he wouldn't mind having her with him again. Thought since she was so generous herself she wouldn't mind the notion of him sharing her with the Amurican public. He saw it was a way to make a little spare change in his ol' age."

Another poke in the ribs. A giggle.

"He drags her around from town to town, charging a quarter to see her. Course we don't have to pay but a dime, being po' and smelly and all. I wouldn't pay nothing to see her, myself. The hussy wasn't worth a dime."

The schoolchildren were passing in and out of the wagon. Some adult blacks had joined the line. Then some poor whites.

"Her casket though!" said the old sweeper. "They tell me it is great. One of those big jobs made of metal, with pink velvet upholstery and gold and silver handles. Cost upwards of a thousand dollars!"

The crowd, by now, had begun to disperse. The last of the children were leaving the wagon. Meridian stood at the bottom step, watching the children and the adults come down. She rested one foot on the rail that ran under the wagon and placed one hand in her pocket. Truman, who knew so well the features of her face, imagined her slightly frowning from the effort to stand erect and casually, just that way.

"Her name's Meridian," Truman said to the sweeper.

"You don't know her personally?" asked the sweeper in sympathy.

"Believe it or not," he said.

The door to Meridian's house was not locked, so Truman went in and walked around. In the room that contained her sleeping bag he paused to read her wallpaper-letters she had stuck up side by side, neatly, at eye level. The first contained Bible verses and was written by Meridian's mother, the gist of which was that Meridian had failed to honor not just her parents, but anyone. The others were signed "Anne-Marion" (whom Truman knew had been Meridian's friend and roommate in college) and were a litany of accusations, written with much viciousness and condescension. They all began: "Of course you are misguided..." and "Those, like yourself, who do not admit the truth..." and "You have never, being weak and insensitive to History, had any sense of priorities...," etc. Why should Meridian have bothered to keep them? On some she had gamly scribbled: "Yes, yes. No. Some of the above. No, no. Yes. All of the above."

Above and below this strip of letters the walls were of decaying sheetrock, with uneven patches of dried glue as if the original wallpaper had been hastily removed. The sun through a tattered gray window shade cast the room in dim gray light, and as he glanced at the letters-walking slowly clockwise around the room-he had the feeling he was in a cell.

It was Meridian's house-the old sweeper had pointed it out to him-and this was Meridian's room. But he felt as if he were in a cell. He looked about for some means of making himself comfortable, but there was nothing. She owned no urniture, beyond the sleeping bag, which, on inspection, did not appear to be very clean. However, from his student days, working in the Movement in the South, he knew how pleasant it could be to nap on a shaded front porch. With a sigh of nostalgia and anticipation, Truman bent down to remove his hot city shoes.

"How was I to know it was you?" he asked, lying, when her eyes opened. He could not have walked up to her in front of all those people. He was embarrassed for her.

"Why, Che Guevara," she said dreamily, then blinked her eyes. "Truman?" He had popped up too often in her life for her to be surprised. "You look like Che Guevara. Not," she began, and caught her breath, "not by accident I'm sure." She was referring to his olive-brown skin, his black eyes, and the neatly trimmed beard and moustache he'd grown since the last time she saw him. He was also wearing a tan cotton jacket of the type worn by Chairman Mao.

"You look like a revolutionary," she said. "Are you?"

"Only if all artists are. I'm still painting, yes." And he scrutinized her face, her bones, which he had painted many times.

"What are you continuing to do to yourself?" he asked, holding her bony, ice-cold hand in his. Her face alarmed him. It was wasted and rough, the skin a sallow, unhealthy brown, with pimples across her forehead and on her chin. Her eyes were glassy and yellow and did not seem to focus at once. Her breath, like her clothes, was sour.

Four men had brought her home, hoisted across their shoulders exactly as they would carry a coffin, her eyes closed, barely breathing, arms folded across her chest, legs straight. They had passed him without speaking as he lay, attempting to nap, on the porch, placed her on her sleeping bag, and left. They had not even removed her cap, and while she was still unconscious Truman had pushed back her cap as he wiped her face with his moistened handkerchief and saw she had practically no hair.

"Did they hurt you out there?" he asked.

"They didn't touch me," she said.

"You're just sick then?"

"Of course I'm sick," snapped Meridian. "Why else would I spend all this time trying to get well!"

"You have a strange way of trying to get well!"

But her voice became softer immediately, as she changed the subject.

"You look just like Che," she said, "while I must look like death eating a soda cracker." She reached up and pulled at the sides of her cap, bringing the visor lower over her eyes. Just before she woke up she had been dreaming about her father; they were running up and down steep green hills chasing each other. She'd been yelling "Wait!" and "Stop!" at the top of her lungs, but when she heard him call the same words to her she speeded up. Neither of them waited or stopped. She was exhausted, and so she had woke up.

"I was waiting for you to come home-lying out on the porch-when I saw these people coming carrying a body"-Truman smiled-"which turned out to be you. They carried you straight as a board across their shoulders. How'd they do that?"

Meridian shrugged. "They're used to carrying corpses."

"Ever since I've been here people have been bringing boxes and boxes of food. Your house is packed with stuff to eat. One man even brought a cow. The first thing the cow did was drop cowshit all over the front walk. Whew," said Truman, squeezing her hand, "folks sure are something down here."

"They're grateful people," said Meridian. "They appreciate it when someone volunteers to suffer."

"Well, you can't blame them for not wanting to go up against a tank. After all, everybody isn't bulletproof, like you."

"We have an understanding," she said.

"Which is?"

"That if somebody has to go it might as well be the person who's ready."

"And are you ready?"

"Now? No. What you see before you is a woman in the process of changing her mind."

"That's hard to believe."

"It's amazing how little that matters."

"You mean that kindly, of course."


"Tell me," said Truman, who did not want to show how sad he suddenly felt, "did you look inside the wagon yourself?"


"Why not?"

"I knew that whatever the man was selling was irrelevant to me, useless."

"The whole thing was useless, if you ask me," said Truman, with bitterness. "You make yourself a catatonic behind a lot of meaningless action that will never get anybody anywhere. What good did it do those kids to see that freak's freaky wife?"

"She was a fake. They discovered that. There was no salt, they said, left in the crevices of her eyesockets or in her hair. This town is near the ocean, you know, the children have often seen dead things wash up from the sea. They said she was made of plastic and were glad they hadn't waited till Thursday when they would have to pay money to see her. Besides, it was a hot day. They were bored. There was nothing else to do."

"Did you fall down in front of them?"

"I try never to do that. I never have. Some of the men-the ones who brought me home-followed me away from the square; they always follow me home after I perform, in case I need them. I fell down only when I was out of the children's sight."

"And they folded your arms?"

"They folded my arms."

"And straightened your legs?"

"They're very gentle and good at it."

"Do they know why you fall down?"

"It doesn't bother them. They have a saying for people who fall down as I do: If a person is hit hard enough, even if she stands, she falls. Don't you think that's perceptive?"

"I don't know what to think. I never have. Do you have a doctor?"

"I don't need one. I am getting much better by myself...." Meridian moved her fingers, then lifted her arms slightly off the floor. "See, the paralysis is going away already." She continued to raise and lower her arms, flexing her fingers and toes as she did so. She rolled her shoulders forward and up and raised and twisted her ankles. Each small movement made her face look happier, even as the effort exhausted her.

Truman watched her struggle to regain the use of her body. "I grieve in a diffrent way," he said.

"I know," Meridian panted.

"What do you know?"

"I know you grieve by running away. By pretending you were never there."

"When things are finished it is best to leave."

"And pretend they were never started?"


"But that's not possible."

Meridian had learned this in New York, nearly ten summers ago.

"You are a coward," one of the girls said then, though they knew she was not a coward.

"A masochist," sniffed another.

And Meridian had sat among them on the floor, her hands clasping the insides of her sneakers, her head down. To join this group she must make a declaration of her willingness to die for the Revolution, which she had done. She must also answer the question "Will you kill for the Revolution?" with a positive Yes. This, however, her tongue could not manage. Through her mind was running a small voice that screamed: "Something's missing in me. Something's missing!" And the voice made her heart pound and her ears roar. "Something the old folks with their hymns and proverbs forgot to put in! What is it? What? What?"

"Why don't you say something?" Anne-Marion's voice, angry and with the undisguised urgency of her contempt, attempted to suppress any tone of compassion. Anne-Marion had said, "Yes, I will kill for the Revolution" without a stammer; yet Meridian knew her tenderness, a vegetarian because she loved the eyes of cows.

Meridian alone was holding on to something the others had let go. If not completely, then partially-by their words today, their deeds tomorrow. But what none of them seemed to understand was that she felt herself to be, not holding on to something from the past, but held by something in the past: by the memory of old black men in the South who, caught by surprise in the eye of a camera, never shifted their position but looked directly back; by the sight of young girls singing in a country choir, their hair shining with brushings and grease, their voices the voices of angels. When she was transformed in church it was always by the purity of the singers' souls, which she could actually hear, the purity that lifted their songs like a flight of doves above her music-drunken head. If they committed murder-and to her even revolutionary murder was murder-what would the music be like?

She had once jokingly asked Anne-Marion to imagine the Mafia as a singing group. The Mafia, Anne-Marion had hissed, is not a revolutionary cadre!

"You hate yourself instead of hating them," someone said.

"Why don't you say something?" said another, jabbing her in the ribs.

This group might or might not do something revolutionary. It was after all a group of students, of intellectuals, converted to a belief in violence only after witnessing the extreme violence, against black dissidents, of the federal government and police. Would they rob a bank? Bomb a landmark? Blow up a police station? Would they ever be face to face with the enemy, guns drawn? Perhaps. Perhaps not. "But that isn't the point!" the small voice screeched. The point was, she could not think lightly of shedding blood. And the question of killing did not impress her as rhetorical at all.

They were waiting for her to speak. But what could she say? Saying nothing, she remembered her mother and the day she lost her. She was thirteen, sitting next to her mother in church, drunk as usual with the wonderful music, the voices themselves almost making the words of songs meaningless; the girls, the women, the stalwart fathers singing

The day is past and gone

The evening shade appear

Oh may we all remember well

The night of death draw near

Sniffing, her heart breaking with love, it was her father's voice, discerned in clarity from all the others, that she heard. It enveloped her in an anguish for that part of him that was herself-how could he be so resigned to death, she thought. But how sweet his voice! It was her mother, however, whom she heeded, while trying not to: "Say it now, Meridian, and be saved. All He asks is that we acknowledge Him as our Master. Say you believe in Him." Looking at her daughter's tears: "Don't go against your heart!" But she had sat mute, watching her friends walking past her bench, accepting Christ, acknowledging God as their Master, Jesus their Savior, and her heart fluttered like that of a small bird about to be stoned. It was her father's voice that moved her, that voice that could come only from the life he lived. A life of withdrawal from the world, a life of constant awareness of death. It was the music that made her so tractable and willing she might have said anything, acknowledged anything, simply for peace from his pain that was rendered so exquisitely beautiful by the singers' voices.

But for all that her father sang beautifully, heartbreakingly, of God, she sensed he did not believe in Him in quite the same way her mother did. Her mind stuck on a perennial conversation between her parents regarding the Indians:

"The Indians were living right here, in Georgia," said her father, "they had a town, an alphabet, a newspaper. They were going about their business, enjoying life...It was the same with them all over the country, and in Mexico, South America...doesn't this say anything to you?"

"No," her mother would say.

"And the women had babies and made pottery. And the men sewed moccasins and made drums out of hides and hollow logs."


"It was a life, ruled by its own spirits."

"That's what you claim, anyway."

"And where is it now?"

Her mother sighed, fanning herself with a fan from the funeral home. "I never worry myself about those things. There's such a thing as progress. I didn't invent it, but I'm not going to argue with it either. As far as I'm concerned those people and how they kept off mosquitoes hasn't got a thing to do with me."

Meridian's mother would take up a fistful of wire clothes hangers, straighten them out, and red, yellow and white crepe paper and her shears, and begin to cut out rose petals. With a dull knife she scraped each petal against her thumb and then pressed both thumbs against the center of the petal to make a cup. Then she put smaller petals inside larger ones, made the bud of the rose by covering a small ball of aluminum foil with bright green paper, tied the completed flower head to the end of the clothes hanger, and stood the finished product in a churn already crowded with the artificial blooms. In winter she made small pillows, puckered and dainty, of many different colors. She stuck them in plastic bags that piled up in the closet. Prayer pillows, she called them. But they were too small for kneeling. They would only fit one knee, which Meridian's mother never seemed to notice.

Still, it is death not to love one's mother. Or so it seemed to Meridian, andso, understanding her mother as a willing know-nothing, a woman of ignorance and-in her ignorance-of cruelty, she loved her more than anything. But she respected even more her father's intelligence, though it seemed he sang, beautifully, only of death.

She struggled to retain her mother's hand, covering it with her own, and attempted to bring it to her lips. But her mother moved away, tears of anger and sadness coursing down her face. Her mother's love was gone, withdrawn, and there were conditions to be met before it would be returned. Conditions Meridian was never able to meet.

"Fallen asleep, have you?" It was a voice from the revolutionary group, calling her from a decidedly unrevolutionary past. They made her ashamed of that past, and yet all of them had shared it. The church, the music, the tolerance shown to different beliefs outside the community, the tolerance shown to strangers. She felt she loved them. But love was not what they wanted, it was not what they needed.

They needed her to kill. To say she would kill. She thought perhaps she could do it. Perhaps.

"I don't know if I can kill anyone..."

There was a relaxing of everyone. "Ah..."

"If I had to do it, perhaps I could. I would defend myself..."

"Sure you would..." sighed Anne-Marion, reining in the hatred about to run wild against her friend.

"Maybe I could sort of grow into the idea of killing other human beings..."



"But I'm not sure..."

"Oh, what a drag this girl is..."

"I know I want what is best for black people..."

"That's what we all want!"

"I know there must be a revolution..."

"Damn straight!"

"I know violence is as American as cherry pie!"

"Rap on!"

"I know nonviolence has failed..."

"Then you will kill for the Revolution, not just die for it?" Anne-Marion's once lovely