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Alice Walker, Creativity, and Her Mother’s Garden

In 1973, Alice Walker wrote the inspirational “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” for a Radcliffe Symposium on Black women and the myths that surrounded them. Recalling Jean Toomer’s visit to the south in the 20’s and her observations on the vacant, lost, and physically abused forms of black women, Walker focuses on the artistic value of these women. Whether they were saints or sinners, matriarchs or bitches, black women endured life’s atrocities and men’s violence against them with the resilience of artists.

According to Walker, the basis of art is dependent upon its “Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality” (354). Interestingly, when she considers the empty and decaying lives of these abused women who have been enslaved, beaten, raped, and surrendered to poverty and other ills of society’s disregard for their existence, Walker sees strong women who have learned to find power in silence, in spirituality, in waiting for the world to recognize them, and God to embrace them. She doesn’t see waste or surrender; she sees artists, pained and heroic, who find escape in their storytelling, their piety, and their songs.

She argues that if these women had been allowed to read and write, allowed to have access to education and the arts instead of loveless lives and homes filled with children and hardship, they would have made incredible poets, artists, and writers. Like so many artists exposed to life’s obstacles, they would have been able to use their creativity to express the fading light of their lives; they could have used that creativity with which to combat society and the men that mistreated them, abandoned them, and accosted their bodies and spirits; they would have found creative ways towards the activism that was necessary to make the world see them and deem them necessary embodiments of women, of life, of voice. But these veins of creativity were not accessible to them, and therefore, they were surrendered to the inner-workings of creativity and songs and spirituality that resided within their broken bodies and fragmented souls.

“In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” posits the question, “How was the creativity of Black women kept alive” when life oppressed her and crushed her to silence, to inferiority? To answer this, she addresses her mother’s garden of creativity. Her mother ran off to marry her father, had countless kids, and sewed everything the family wore and slept in, including sheets and blankets. She never showed anger or impatience. She had no time between taking care of the kids, the home, canning vegetables, and working beside her husband in the fields. It is to her mother, because of her mother, that she searches for the creativity of black women, attempting to find where her mother hid hers:

“I went in search of the secret of what has fed that muzzled and often mutilated, but vibrant , creative spirit that the Black woman has inherited, and that pops out in wild and unlikely places to this day.” (357)

Her mother was overworked, but she found places within her domestic life to allow creativity to thrive. She “fed her creativity” by telling stories—stories that Alice Walker focuses on in her own work. Stories that need telling and recording; verbal witnesses that burst from her lips with an urgency that Walker heard and understood, even as a child. Her mother’s stories became Walker’s stories, and through her, Walker’s mother lives—her creativity thrives and lives on in her own daughter.

What do you search for in your mother’s gardens? And what have you discovered about her?


Marina DelVecchio
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute's Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.
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  • Marina DelVecchio

    L. George, thank you for sharing such a powerful story. I agree with you on the men thing. We are placed beneath them in terms of power-relations –either economically — when we choose not to work, or emotionally — when we depend on them. It’s a hard call, and of course, it all depends on the man. I chose my husband because he was so unlike the brutes in my own mother’s life. I hope that you had the chance to understand your mother’s dreams and wishes — the ones she could live or utter because of her husband’s abuse.

  • L.George Alexander

    This was a hard one for me. My mother came to this country full of hope and optimism and found to her horror that the man she married was a brute and an alcoholic. She became very angry and took it out on her children. She was afraid to leave her husband as she did not have the skills to support us or the confidence that she could learn them. It made our lives miserable. There was another side to it all. I learned not to lean on men to take care of me but to do it on my own. This was a very valuable lesson for me. In latter years, we forged a relationship of sorts that worked because my father had finally died and left her in peace. When she died we had no issues between us. All and all, I don’t regret the anger because both of us lived long enough to get to know each other without the presence of my father who had his own issues. There are good men out there, but there are many men who with the power this culture gives them make their women folk and children’s lives a living Hell.

  • Marina DelVecchio

    Patricia, it’s worth the read. I love teaching Walker — she’s an inspiration to so many of my female students. You can find her article in any of her books of essays or in anthologies.

  • Marina DelVecchio

    Kate, I’m there with you. My husband is all about me writing and digging. And now working. It helps when you have a support system — someone telling you that you can do it and that you should do it. If I couldn’t work on my garden, I would suffocate. And I am not exaggerating.

  • Kate Robinson

    I love Alice Walker! This metaphor is timely right now for me, too. Thanks, Marina. I think some mothers do not get to harvest their gardens of creativity. I think what my mom concentrated on was making sure my soil was fertile and that I might reap the harvest, which I have. I also found a partner in life who has been all about me digging into the dirt of my own garden, and exploring his own. I’m glad to be of my generation when we now have more societal support in which to do this.

  • Patricia Anne McGoldrick

    So interesting to read this post on Alice Walker–would be great to read her essay.
    The links between being a Mom, creativity and the garden metaphor are so apt!

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