Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens’: a Study Into the Lives of Some Phenomenal Black Women

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Alice Walker. Photo courtesy: Bookriot.com

 

So happy to let you know that this essay/review has been published at ‘Learning and Creativity’, an online resource on literature, films and the arts. You can read it here:

http://learningandcreativity.com/lives-phenomenal-black-women/

 

Book review: In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Author: Alice Walker

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”

—– Alice Walker; in her essay ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’

Throughout her literary life, Alice Walker has spoken about her mothers and grandmothers; women who were not saints, but artists living a life of spiritual waste. In an era of darkness and deprivation, when it was quite a punishable crime for people of Black origin to even read and write, the agony of these women who might very well have been poets, short story writers, painters and musicians remained unspoken, while they kept on toiling as unheard slaves in households year after year, decade after decade in a White dominated America. This was the America where Walker was born, where she eventually grew up. As an observant child, insightful adolescent and creative adult, she has witnessed all of this; the deprivation of creativity, the emptiness, the savagery these women were subjected to in their lives as Black southerners in the United States. She had felt the ensuing conflict between the pain of enduring unused and unwanted talent, and the numb, bleeding madness provoked by the springs of creativity in those brave women. Later on, throughout the sixties and seventies, she writes a series of essays in which she reflects on the lives of these fiery African-American women of the past and how these women have had an impact on her literary pursuits. “In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens” consists of all of these works and even more, where she emphasizes on an identity, a spiritual connection she has discovered with these women, principally due to their exposure to the African culture. These women have searched for independence, creative and spiritual liberty and aesthetic fulfillment within their restrictive sociocultural milieu. Walker expresses the spark, the activities, the challenge found in the creative spirit of these women. It is amazing how she celebrates the lives of these phenomenal women, the Zora Neal Huston’s, the Rebecca Jackson’s, the Flannery O Connor’s as well as her own mother and grandmother; while she perceives their lives as unspoken inspirations in her own life.

In the exploration and analysis of Walker’s essays in the book “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens”, it is essential that we look deep into the multiple themes of identity, historical racism, independence, and inspiration and the unique way she has dealt with all of these. A striking aspect of the book is the unique resonance of ‘womanism’ (a coinage by the author herself) in the chapters replete with her relentless search for black women’s roots and role models. However much she addresses the themes of racism, civil rights movement, discrimination and the humiliation of the black southerners, what lingers in the mind after reading all the essays of “In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens” is her search for the root of spirituality in the Black Americans, especially the women writers. It is this search which makes her feel how these writers and phenomenal identities have been able to work and survive through many decades of abominable oppression and negligence. It is this search, which, critics have commented, has made her ‘refashion feminism into a new paradigm’, while addressing itself to the black American woman of all classes.

Looking for Zora Neal Hurston, the forgotten Black woman writer, folklorist and anthropologist and rediscovering Zora in her unmarked grave several years after her death makes for a landmark in the book, particularly the way she has narrated all her efforts to reach through the mists of time, blow the dust away from the covers and reintroduce Hurston’s works into the mainstream of American literature. Hurston, a pioneer in Black feminist writing, whose path has been followed by black woman writers throughout the 70’s and the 80’s, has been the writer of two phenomenal novels (‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and ‘The Color Purple’) that embody the attempt to define and express the totality and essence of the Afro-American woman. All her expressive, metaphoric speech, her ability to explore and celebrate black life in its own terms, her attempts to challenge racism and oppression while focusing on a woman’s identity and spiritual fullness went into oblivion in a white society; and Hurston was forced to choose a penniless death for herself in a Florida welfare home. However, the feeling of spiritual kinship asserts itself in the most unusual of ways. Little did Hurston know when she died that her bibliography or biography would be recovered years after her death, her legacy uncovered to the world and her grave located in the most unpredictable and dramatic turn of events. It is in the chapters ‘Looking for Zora’ and ‘Zora Neale Hurston’ that Walker, the unknown friend and successor to Hurston, enacts the most spiritual task after her death,the reclamation of a fore-mother and the exploration of that mother’s literary ‘garden’. For Walker, the lines of “Mules and Men”, and the minor classics of Hurston”four published novels, two books on folklore and an autobiography–open up doors of a voyage of transforming vision, a voyage that unfolds the wisdom in Hurston’s writings that has transformed communal relations and spiritual lives.

“This was my first indication of the quality I feel is most characteristic of Zora’s work: racial health, a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature…..”

Years and decades ago, when Zora Hurston used to write about fruit pickers and hoodoo workers in sawmills and turpentine camps, and create an intimate picture of southern black rural life in America, little did she know that her writings would be analyzed thus by an unknown friend in a relentless attempt to craft a voice for black culture. ForWalker, Hurston stands as the epitome for the oppressed black woman, providing the ‘cultural nourishment’ and ‘spiritual food’ for black women writers of all times. Moreover, it is the particular affinity between the author and Zora Hurston in terms of both the language of black folk culture and the experience of the rural southern black women that makes Hurston’s works true to the spiritual, creative consciousness of the author. If a blind, unquestioned slavery and an uninterrupted dependence on a white society’s oppressive class system remained a persistent reality in Hurston’s times and her works, the two essays by Walker, ‘Looking For Zora’ and ‘In Search of Zora Neal Hurston’ represent the horizon that explores the powerful dimensions in the life of this phenomenal woman the world hardly recognized or knew.

In ‘Gifts of Power’, the writings of Rebecca Jackson’, Walker recounts lots of personal details and stories of the life of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a phenomenal black woman from Philadelphia, a preacher and Shaker leader, who wrote about her dreams and spiritual visions related to Christ’s miracles as well as mundane realities of everyday life. A charismatic itinerant preacher, Rebecca Jackson, the religious visionary writer, has recorded some immensely powerful religious awakening experiences in her spiritual autobiography ‘Gifts of Power’, which Alice Walker reviews with extreme care and precision. It is the voice of a powerful essayist, who, with a comprehensive coverage, attempts to present the scholarship and wisdom of such phenomenal women in the context of African-American feminism.

On the other hand, it is this comprehensive coverage of the various aspects of scholarship in these phenomenal women that makes ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ a rich and diverse history of a quarter century of ‘womanist’ thought. Through the various chapters that delve into the subconscious and ever-present spirituality found in African-American women, particularly the chapters about Zora Neal Hurston, and ‘The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor’, ‘The Black Writer and the Southern Experience’, A Writer Because of, Not in Spite of, Her Children’, and the title-essay, she presents a bridge that hopes to connect the black women of the past and their quest to express their creativity and spirituality to the world. And what is more interesting is that in this voyage to discover the inherent spirituality in black Americans, Walker not only discovers the forgotten voice of Zora Hurston, but also returns to white American authors like Flannery O’ Connor whose writings, shunning white women as ridiculous and approaching black characters with unusual humility and restraint, had been discarded along the way. In the essay ‘Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor’, Walker presents a lucid, detailed account of her intimate visit to Andalusia Farm, home of Flannery O’Connor from her lupus diagnosis in 1951 until her death in 1964. While she undertakes a visit to the house along with her mother, her account of this visit in the essay presents a rich, intense spiritual journey of her own recognition that a segregated literature, such as she had been brought up since her days in Sarah Lawrence college, could no longer be tolerated, and both black and white writing had to be read alongside, intertwined with each other, as she describes in these lines:

“I would have to read Zora Hurston and Flannery O Connor, Nella Larsen and Carson McCullers, Jean Toomer and Willian Faulkner, before I could begin to feel well read at all”.

Flannery O Conner’s observations on race, class and time inspires Walker unknowingly over the years, and her visit to the home of O’Connor serves to lead the readers through time, forward or back, to eventually explore the Southern literary trail of O’ Connor, an exceptional writer whose works showed the courage to destroy the last vestiges of sentimentalism in White southern writing.

In the truest sense, all essays compiled within ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ encompass the legacy of Sarah Lawrence college, an institution where she was taught “How to Be Shocked and Dismayed but Not Lie Down and Die” (A Talk: Convocation 1972). While writing about the generations of black mothers who lived and survived in the darkest depths of oppression, and yet managed to maintain their deep rooted spirituality intact, she conjures the power of back women in fiction and literary tradition, emphasizing a lot on the themes of identity, independence and inspiration. As the reader reads through ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’, he witnesses Walker retrieving black women writers from oblivion, while at the same time spiritually growing with a unique power and humility, as she confronts the pieces of her own identity. It is the identity of the writer gifted with the spirit of self-indulgence and loneliness which sometimes turns out to be a radical vision of society.

“The writer-like the musician or painter”must be free to explore, otherwise she or he will never discover what is needed (by everyone) to be known. This means, very often, finding oneself considered “unacceptable” by masses of people who think that the writer’s obligation is not to explore or challenge, but to second the masses’ motions, whatever they are. Yet the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not been previously been taken into account.” (‘From an Interview’)

For Walker, being confronted with this gifted loneliness and writing about it is an enriching task which she undertakes by presenting writers of this ilk, including Jean Toomer and his work ‘Cane’, Zora Neal Hurston, and certainly, herself. Her work continues to bear testimony to the loveless marriages, the social discriminations, the slavery and the sexism of all times, while she continues with her faith in these phenomenal young black women of the past and present. She personally feels it is their rough, rocky road which she has traveled all her life and which she is still traveling, for which she writes: 

“Be nobody’s darling; / Be an outcast. /Take the contradictions/ Of your life/ And wrap around you like a shawl/ To parry stones/ To keep you warm.” (A Talk: Convocation 1972)

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2 thoughts on “Alice Walker’s ‘In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens’: a Study Into the Lives of Some Phenomenal Black Women

  1. Lopadi, as always this is a brave attempt and a brilliant piece. I have not read the book myself, so won’t comment on the aptness of your review. But you have inspired me to read this book, and I’ll do so as soon as I can. Keep the good work going.

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