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Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (New York: Harcourt, 2003, $15.00, 397 pages, ISBN 0-15-602864-6)—Susan Ballyn, Universitat de Barcelona


To re-read and review Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is still a privilege even so many years after its first publication. When first published decades ago, this collection of essays marked a watershed in black American women’s writing. For the first time, a black American woman offered a different vision of what it was/is to be black and a woman in America, and while searching for a role model herself, she, in turn became a powerful referent for other black women to follow. Her work has resonated across the world, a sign of the universality of this essay collection in which much of the ideology regarding black “womanism” (a term Alice Walker coined herself) becomes a referent for an alternative to white feminism which had imposed itself by the 1970s as a model for all women, regardless of colour. Asking Charles DeCarlo what she should talk about at a graduation ceremony he replied “just speak from the heart” [33]. That is what Alice Walker has spent her life doing, speaking courageously from the heart, engaging with the search for black women’s roots and role models, early black women’s writing, politics, racism, the civil rights movement, discrimination, and finally refashioning feminism into a new paradigm which addresses itself to the black American woman of all classes. Speaking from the heart indeed. This particular talk is gathered into the essay “A Talk: Convocation 1972” [33] in which Walker expresses her dismay at the academic reaction to the notion of running courses on black American writing:

I am discouraged when a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence says there is not enough literature by black women and men to make a year’s course. Or that the quantity of genuine black literature is too meagre to warrant a full year’s investigation. This is incredible. I am disturbed when Eldridge Cleaver is considered the successor to Ralph Ellison, on campuses like this one—this is like saying Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics makes her a new Jane Austen. It is shocking to hear that the only black woman writer white and black academics have heard of is Gwendolyn Brooks. [36]

Walker then continues: “Fortunately, what Sarah Lawrence teaches is a lesson called “How to Be Shocked and Dismayed but Not Lie Down and Die” [37]. Never to lie down and be silenced has become the leitmotif, the hallmark of all of Walker’s work.

In searching for the root of the spirituality that has enabled black Americans to survive through decades of abominable oppression, Walker not only recovers black American women’s voices who had, until then, never or rarely been heard, among them Zora Neale Hurston whom she writes about with intense passion, but she has also returned to authors discarded along the way, such as Flannery O’Connor. As a reader it is difficult to choose among so many eloquent and moving essays in the collection, but one that remains in my mind is “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor” [42-59]. In 1974, Walker “thought that it might be worthwhile […] to visit the two houses, Flannery O’Connor’s’ and mine, to see what could be learned twenty-two years after we moved away and ten years after her death” [43]. The essay is driven by Walker’s recognition that a segregated literature, such as she had been brought up on could no longer be tolerated, and both black and white writing had to be read alongside, intertwined with each other if she were to “begin to feel well read at all” [43]. Walker undertakes the visit accompanied by her mother, a powerful figure in many of the essays, and latent behind the whole collection as the representative of generations of black mothers who lived and survived in the darkest depths of oppression, maintaining their deep rooted spirituality intact.

Now turned sixty-one, she accompanies her daughter on this personal and intellectual excursion, which also turns out to be a revealing and enriching personal encounter between mother and daughter. Asked by her mother exactly what it is she is looking for on her trips back to the south, Walker replies “A wholeness” [48]. For Walker the world is “split up” across the board resulting in ignorance and prejudice. This desire for wholeness is the crux of all Walkers essays. Her mother, with her innate wisdom, observes, “Well, I doubt if you can ever get the true missing parts of anything away from white folks […] they’ve sat on the truth so long by now they’ve mashed the life out of it” [49]. This observation will become one of the driving forces in Alice Walker’s life: truth must be constantly strived for and defended. True knowledge of the self is not given; it has to be sought, and with it the wider truths needed to change society. In order to be whole, one has to know who one is, recognise oneself, and live oneself as a physical and spiritual whole. Discrimination, racial and sexual, must be confronted full-on and fought against, hence the author’s passionate involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. For Walker, it is women like her mother and those that preceded her who represent the historic black women who must be celebrated for their art, humanity and spirituality. As one critic puts it, their “art may or may not be manifested in areas that may not be easily recognized as art or by others who attribute value to art. African American women of our mothers' generation were not given the opportunities or the arenas in which to nurture or develop their artistic abilities.” As one reads through In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, one witnesses Walker retrieving black women writers from oblivion, while at the same time spiritually growing as she pieces together the pieces of her own identity—a task which, she seems to acknowledge, becomes an unending lifetime process.

In the essay “From an Interview” [244-272], Alice Walker delves into her own approach to writing and writing practice. As a trampoline into discussing her own writing she tells her readers how, because of an accident which “blinded and scarred one eye” [244], which led her to become a solitary individual but which also led her to observe people, and care for them and their relationships and how they turned out. After undergoing an abortion during college, she began to write poetry, writing ceaselessly, and shoving her manuscripts under her teacher’s door. It was this teacher, Muriel Rukeyser, who passed the poems on to her agent at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. These were the poems would later become the volume entitled Once, published when Alice Walker was twenty-one and in her last three months of college. An essay which could have become a fairly humdrum one of a writer and her art in fact becomes a profound introspection on her career, principles and beliefs. Everything that is a hallmark of her work comes through in this essay. She is far from being a self-indulgent, self-conscious writer; rather, her work is instilled with both power and humility, an openness to learning from others, and a willingness to observe and listen and above all a deeply rooted spirituality:

One thing I try to have in my life and fiction is an awareness of and openness to mystery, which, to me, is deeper than any politics, race, or geographical location. In the poems I read, a sense of mystery, a deepening of it, is what I look for—because that is what I respond to. I have been influenced—especially in the poems in Once—be Zen epigrams and Japanese haiku. I think my respect for short forms comes from this. I was delighted to learn that in three or four lines a poet can express mystery, evoke beauty, paint a picture – and not dissect or analyze in any way. The insects, the fish, the birds and the apple blossom in haiku are still whole. They have not been turned into something else. They are allowed their own majesty, instead of being used to emphasize the majesty of people, usually the majesty of the poets writing. [252]

Such comments reveal Walker’s deep-seated belief that both African-Americans and Native Americans have retained a spirituality which sees the entire world as inhabited by the spirit, a world in which everything has its own beauty and feelings which can be violated by the actions of others. Such thinking is closely linked to her own personal philosophy and testified to in her own life and behaviour; “I believe in change: change personal, and change in society” [252]. The world Walker was born into and the one she now inhabits has changed beyond recognition, but there can be no complacency as there is still so much to be done. For Walker an artist has a particular mission for:

The writer—like the musician or painter—must be free to explore, otherwise he or she 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 the writer’s obligation is not to explore or to 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 previously been taken into account. [264]

For Walker, writers of this ilk include Toomer and his work Cane or Zora Neale Hurston and, one should add, Alice Walker herself, as she believes “in listening—to a person, the sea, the wind, the trees, but especially to young black women whose rocky road I am still travelling” [272].

To come back to this collection of essays is as refreshing as it was when I first read them in their first edition. Today, I firmly believe that while they speak principally to the African-American woman, they also offer lessons in humanity and vision to all readers. While no course on African-American writing can leave this work out of its bibliography, it has also, over the years, acquired a universality that demands that all students and readers interested in the humanities should have it on their bookshelves with the pages well-thumbed.

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