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?