“When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he discovered a curious thing: black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held.” – Alice Walker
We know what it’s like to have writers pull our heartstrings. When we read a book and get attached to its characters we cry when there is death and heartbreak, and we scowl when the ending doesn’t leave us satisfied.
This past semester, I took a women’s literature course that introduced me to an array of noteworthy, female writers. But of all the pieces that I read, it was Alice Walker’s essay, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, that was ultimately the most life-changing. Written in 1972, Walker’s essay is no current events piece and yet, its content is as relevant as ever. In a total of eight pages, Alice Walker lifted my spirit, caused me to weep tears of joy, and reaffirmed my sense of purpose in life.
Although this essay helped broaden my understanding of the opportunities that we, women, have today, it also left me with a couple questions. Will other women have the same, strong response to this essay as I did? Or will they see Walker’s demands as yet another burden placed on women? I hope that by the end of this article, you find that the very responsibility Walker binds us to also sets us free.
So I’m sure you’re dying to know- “What the heck is Walker’s essay about?” Here’s a quick summary: Walker shares stories about the forgotten, black women in history who possessed artistic talent yet did not have the ability to freely live it out. Throughout her exploration, Walker hones in on black women’s and need for creative outlets, arguing that the oppression black women endured could not inhibit their creativity and talent. She then wraps this up by binding all black women together, calling modern women to live out what their ancestors could not.
Below is a breakdown of three key points:
1. The Women Who Came Before Us Have Carved Out A Clear & Steady Path
“This is not the end of the story, for all the young women- our mothers and grandmothers, ourselves- have not perished in the wilderness.” – Alice Walker
Walker blends together women of the past and present in order to remind today’s women that they too share the same experience of spirituality and creativity. What I love about the quote above is that within a few words, Walker ever so slyly transitions from the women of the past to women of the present, as if they are the same. So what does that mean for us? The deep spirituality and creativity that women of the past possessed did not perish, because they passed it on to us. Can we please take a moment to soak that in? You and I have an opportunity to continue the story- to be part of the happy ending.
2. We Must Not Only Acknowledge Women Of The Past With Words, But Also With Action
“Therefore we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know.” - Alice Walker
In order to pay tribute to women of the past and break the pattern, Walker ultimately calls on the women of today to live out the creative talent that their ancestors were unable to. Walker refers to women’s creativity as “living creativity,” emphasizing the fact that women’s creativity is still lingering amongst us, waiting for us to live it out!
In a later book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, Walker reveals that her essay received a lot of criticism; she was ridiculed for attempting to carry her own mother’s burdens. Of course, Walker couldn’t allow this criticism to go unchallenged. In response to her opposers , she wrote:
“But who, I ask, will carry any of us if not we ourselves?…To watch my mother’s smile as she reads In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is to know true happiness. To know that she realizes I recognize and deeply value her worth…This moment when mother and child look into each other’s eyes and both can say: Yes, beloved, I understand.”
I found Walker’s actions so strong and admirable; even though society criticized Walker for carrying on her mother’s story, she still remained strong in her motivations. Now don’t get me wrong- to carry another person’s burdens is no easy feat. Yet, Walker assures us- while there may also be consequences tied to taking on other women’s unlived dreams, the bond that it creates between us, women past and present, is ultimately worth the effort.
3. It Is Absolutely Necessary That We Live Out the Best Version Of Ourselves
“In search of my mother’s gardens, I found my own.” – Alice Walker
There are countless factors that contribute to the careers we pursue, and as women, it can be especially hard to listen to our hearts’ callings. Somewhere along the road, I decided that it is writing that brings me joy and what I ultimately want to do. And yet, other underlying questions began to haunt me. Will my career bring me financial stability? Will it earn me a respectable title? And will those around me approve of the path I’ve chosen?
Walker’s words of insight and encouragement provided me with a way out; they whispered to me, “It is absolutely necessary that you live out your creativity and talent.” With this revelation, a weight was lifted and the tears began to flow. I finally believed with no doubt that I was choosing the right path.
Walker calls on the women of today to take on the dreams of their ancestors and make them a reality. While her essay particularly focused on the oppression of black women, it still explores topics that are relevant to all women.
There is something significant in knowing that we play part in a story bigger than our own; it creates a sense of responsibility to thrive. By remembering women who did not have the ability to pursue their talents, Walker’s message allows the women of today to find the courage to break the pattern of oppression and to acknowledge, “Yes, I have a sense of duty- not only to the women of the past, but also to myself- to live out the talents and desires that I have been gifted with.”