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Meriwether, Louise

Source:
Black Women in America
Author(s):

Janelle Collins

Meriwether, Louise 

(b. 8 May 1923), author.

Louise Jenkins Meriwether is a versatile writer of essays, juvenile fiction, short stories, and novels who has consistently used her talents as a writer to redress omissions in American history.

Meriwether was born in Haverstraw, New York. She was the third of five children born to Marion Lloyd Jenkins and Julia Jenkins and their only daughter. Originally migrants from South Carolina, the Jenkins family moved from Haverstraw to Brooklyn, and subsequently to Harlem, New York. Lloyd Jenkins, a bricklayer by trade, became a numbers runner during the Great Depression as a means of providing for his family. Meriwether attended P.S. 81 and later graduated from Central Commercial High School. She earned a BA in English from New York University and an MA in journalism from the University of California in Los Angeles in 1965. She married and divorced Angelo Meriwether; she later married and divorced Earl Howe.

As a journalist in the early 1960s, Meriwether contributed articles to the Los Angeles Sentinel on little-known but successful African Americans, such as the singers Grace Bumbry and Leontyne Price, the attorney Audrey Boswell, the judge Vaino Spencer, and the explorer Matthew Henson. In the early years of the next decade, Meriwether shifted from short articles to longer biographies, publishing three books for children on African American pioneers: The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls (1971), The Heart Man: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1972), and Don’t Ride the Bus on Monday: The Rosa Parks Story (1973). As a fiction writer, Meriwether revisited 1930s Harlem in her first novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970), and the Civil War in her second novel, Fragments of the Ark (1994). Both novels move the African American experience to the forefront of the historical moment.

In the late 1960s, Meriwether joined the Watts Writers’ Workshop and began making her name as a fiction writer. “Daddy Was a Number Runner” appeared as a short story in the fall 1967 issue of Antioch Review. “A Happening in Barbados” was published in the same journal the next year, and “The Thick End Is for Whipping” appeared in Negro Digest in 1969. In 1970, Prentice-Hall published Daddy Was a Number Runner, the first novel to come out of the Watts Writers’ Workshop. The Feminist Press reissued the novel in 1986, and it remains Meriwether’s best-known work.

Daddy Was a Number Runner is a masterful blend of autobiographical and historical elements. The novel recreates the Harlem of Meriwether’s childhood and is peopled by such historical figures as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Father Divine, as well as street speakers, prostitutes, and numbers runners. The coming-of-age story documents thirteen-year-old Francie Coffin’s maturation in a world of rent parties and relief applications. Through the eyes of a young black girl, readers witness the disintegration of a Harlem family in the face of insurmountable economic pressure. In its foreword, James Baldwin praised the novel’s veracity and affective power.

In her second and long-delayed novel, Meriwether reached further back into history to reimagine events during the Civil War. Fragments of the Ark (1994) revisited the story of Robert Smalls, the Sea Island slave who stole a Confederate transport vessel to sail his friends and family to Union headquarters and freedom. Meriwether retained historical accuracy in the extensively researched book while taking creative liberties with the characters and their personal histories. She changed Robert Smalls’s name to Peter Mango and developed an extensive cast of characters to form Mango’s network of family and friends. The novel illuminates a pivotal moment in black history and explores the relationships in a community of people who suffered enslavement, daringly seized their liberty, and struggled with the scars of their experiences.

Meriwether’s third novel, Shadow Dancing (2000), deals with much more recent history. The setting is the post-civil rights era, and the characters are well-educated black professionals. Although the setting and approach distinguish this novel from her earlier work, Meriwether’s exploration of the dynamics between black men and women is a consistent thread that runs through her novels. In Shadow Dancing, a successful writer, Glenda Jackson, becomes involved with a theater director, Mark Abbitt. Their personal histories create obstacles in a relationship that is set squarely in the black professional class. The novel illustrates Meriwether’s continued endeavor to offer honest and complex representations of black people in American culture.

Meriwether’s concern with issues of representation appears in her activism as well as her writing. This link is seen perhaps most directly in her campaign to block the film adaptation of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Styron’s distortions of both historical and psychological truths about the insurrectionist hero were denounced by the black intellectual community. When Hollywood director Norman Jewison and Twentieth Century-Fox producer David L. Wolper wanted to make a movie based on Styron’s novel, Meriwether and Vantile Whitfield, founder of Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA), formed the Black Anti-Defamation Association. The historian John Henrick Clark joined the fight and edited a volume of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). The protest was successful and the film project was abandoned. At the heart of the controversy was the black community’s demand for accurate and responsible representations of black historical figures. Meriwether was an active participant in these critical conversations of the 1960s and 1970s about black experience, cultural authority, and historical truths.

As a professional writer, Meriwether has earned awards, honors, and support for her work. After the publication of Daddy Was a Number Runner, Meriwether received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Arts Service Program, an auxiliary of the New York State Council on the Arts. While writing Fragments of the Ark, she received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to assist her historical research. In 2001, Meriwether received a Gold Pen Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Writers Alliance.

Meriwether’s life work—literary, political, and cultural—has been dominated by her concern with representations of African Americans and the material consequences of those representations. Her activism confronts injustice directly while her writing offers correctives to the omissions and distortions in American history. Meriwether continues to merge her interests in history, young people, and social justice.

In April 2003, Meriwether met with students at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem to talk with young women about the historic community. The Feminist Press cosponsored the event, distributing copies of Daddy Was a Number Runner to the participants. To their benefit and delight, a new generation of readers was introduced to both the novel and its remarkable author. As of 2004, Meriwether was living and writing in New York City.

Bibliography

Collins, Janelle. ‘Poor and Black and Apt to Stay that Way’: Gambling on a Sure Thing in Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner. Midwest Quarterly 45.1 (2003): 49-58. An analysis of numbers running as a metaphor for the economic instability and overwhelming odds against success that black families faced in Depression-era Harlem.Find this resource:

    Dandridge, Rita. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, edited by Thadious Davis and Trudier Harris, vol. 33. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Excellent and extensive discussion of Meriwether’s life and work through the early 1980s.Find this resource:

      Dandridge, Rita. From Economic Insecurity to Disintegration: A Study of Character in Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner. Negro American Literature Forum 9.3 (1975): 82-85. An early and still significant reading of the novel’s disintegration motif.Find this resource:

        Duboin, Corinne. Race, Gender, and Space: Louise Meriwether’s Harlem in Daddy Was a Number Runner. College Language Association Journal (2001): 26-40. Analyzes the public and private spaces in Francie’s Harlem community and their relation to gender restrictions.Find this resource:

          Walker, Melissa. Down from the Mountaintop: Black Women’s Novels in the Wake of the Civil Rights Movement, 1966-1989. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991. Places Daddy Was a Number Runner in the historical and cultural context of black women’s fiction post-civil rights movement. Walker suggests that the ending of the novel would be read as hopeful rather than despairing because it would be filtered through readers’ consciousness of the gains made by the movement.Find this resource:

            Janelle Collins

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