When pondered together, these mediations on difference raise some perplexing questions. How do we discover a shared humanity without erasing difference? How do we use difference to enrich our vision if we fear it? How can we come to understand difference differently? When Zora Neale Hurston wrote "What White Publishers Won't Print" in 1950 before the civil rights movement began, she believed literature could help reduce white prejudice by proving blacks to be "just like everybody else" (171). When Audre Lorde called for new patterns of relating across differences at Amherst College in 1980, she ended her powerful plea with lines from an unpublished poem, "we seek beyond history/for a new and more possible meaning" (358), lines that suggest the power and importance of imaginative literature in producing change. Currently Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing when racism is once again on the rise, continues to insist on the power of language to shaper perception: "Race has become a trope of ultimate, irreducible difference....we carelessly use language in such a way as to will this sense of natural difference into our formulations. To do so is to engage in a pernicious act of language, one which exacerbates the complex problem of cultural or ethnic difference, rather than to assuage it or redress it" (5). Several contemporary Southern novelists are attempting to assuage a redress this complex problem in their fiction, to deal with difference in the way Audre Lorde calls for. I am limiting my discussion to two novels written by Southern women after it was obvious that desegregation, in and of itself, would not eliminate prejudice--Meridian (1976), by Alice Walker, and A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), by Gail Godwin. I am interested in the literary techniques they employ to dismantle the stereotypes of Southern womanhood produced by the patriarchy of the Old South -- stereotypes that persisted after the Civil War ended slavery and after the civil rights movement ended legal segregation. Both Walker and Godwin imagine shared experiences for their black and white characters, calling attention not only to their common interests and common humanity but also to other similarities that the South's preoccupation with racial differences overshadowed: gender and class. Walker and Godwin do not attempt to erase difference so much as to assure that difference is not misread or misnamed, to show that it is not biologically determined but culturally conditioned.
Copyright © 1993 University of Illinois Press.
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Jones, Suzanne W. "Dismantling Stereotypes: Interracial Friendships in Meridian and A Mother and Two Daughters." In The Female Traditions in Southern Literature: Essays on Southern Women Writers, edited by Carol Manning, 140-57. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.