History/GWS 249 Reading Guide

African American Women in mid-Twentieth-Century White America

  • Cynthis Griggs Fleming, “Black Women Activists and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee:  The Case of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson,” Journal of Women’s History 4:3 (1993), 64-82.  Academic Search Complete.  Also available from Project Muse Premier Collection and Periodicals Archive Online through the Bowdoin College Library, Journal Titles A-Z tab. 
  • Note:  for a revised version, see Cynthia Griggs Fleming, “‘More than a Lady’:  Ruby Doris Smith Robinson and Black Women’s Leadership in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” in Virginia Bernhardt and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, eds., Southern Women: Hidden Histories (1994); reprinted in Vicki Ruíz and Ellen Carol DuBois, eds., Unequal Sisters:  A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History.


  • Alice Walker, Meridian (1976; 2003 reissue edition), Meridian: “The Last Return” through “The Attainment of Good.”


  • According to Fleming, what were the foundations of Robinson’s activism?  In her experience, what had led to her committed involvement?
  • How does Fleming describe the tensions for black women between their activism and their womanhood?
  • What does she suggest about the tensions between black women and the attention that white women received in SNCC—and the difficulty that both groups had understanding each other’s position?
  • As you read Meridian, think about the ways that Robinson’s experience resembles aspects of the story that Walker tells.
  • Alice Walker centers her novel in a very particular historical moment—an era that was similarly located in a specific historical past.
    Note: the first chapter is actually the beginning of the final section—Endings.  The opening section introduces some of the characters, themes, and issues of the book.  In a series of vignettes, in chronological order within sets but out of sequence as a whole, the chapters present particular periods in Meridian’s experience that also suggest aspects of black women’s ambivalent position in American society.
  • How does Walker describe the specific historical past—the heritage—that shaped Meridian prior to the moment when she became involved in the Movement:  “And so it was that one day in the middle of April in 1960 Meridian Hill became aware of the past and present of the larger world” (73).
  • In Walker's description of Meridian’s personal and family history, does Meridian have a positive matrilineal heritage?  What does womanhood mean in this context?  What issues about women in general, and black women in particular, does Walker address in her novel?

Further reading:

  • Zora Neale Hurston, “Sweat” (1926) and “How it Feels to be Colored Me” (1928), in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, pp. 1637-1653.  (reserve