from In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
In the late 1920s my mother ran away from home to marry my father. Marriage, if not running away, was expected of seventeen-year-old girls. By the time she was twenty, she had two children and was pregnant with a third. Five children later, I was born. And this is how I came to know my mother: She seemed a large, soft, loving-eyed woman who was rarely impatient in our home. Her quick, violent temper was on view only a few times a year, when she battled with the white landlord who had the misfortune to suggest to her that her children did not need to go to school.
She made all the clothes we wore, even my brothers’ overalls. She made all the towels and sheets we used. She spent the summers canning vegetables and fruits. She spent the winter evenings making quilts enough to cover all our beds.
During the “working” day, she labored beside—not behind—my father in the fields. Her day began before sunup, and did not end until late at night. There was never a moment for her to sit down, undisturbed, to unravel her own private thoughts; never a time free from interruption—by work or the noisy inquiries of her many children. And yet, it is to my mother—and all our mothers who were not famous—that 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.
But when, you will ask, did my overworked mother have time to know or care about feeding the creative spirit?
The answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high—and low.
For example: In the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures, it portrays the story of the Crucifixion. It is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling. Below this quilt I saw a note that says it was made by “an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago.” If we could locate this “anonymous” black woman from Alabama, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers—an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use.
As Virginia Woolf wrote further, in A Room of One’s Own:
Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working class. [Change this to “slaves” and “the wives and daughters of sharecroppers.”] Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns [change this to “a Zora Hurston or a Richard Wright”] blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils [or “Sainthood”], of a wise woman selling herbs [our root workers], or even a very re-markable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen. . . . Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. . . .
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.
And so it is, certainly, with my own mother. Unlike “Ma” Rainey’s songs, which retained their creator’s name even while blasting forth from Bessie Smith’s mouth, no song or poem will bear my mother’s name. Yet so many of the stories that I write, that we all write, are my mother’s stories. Only recently did I fully realize this: that through years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories—like her life—must be recorded. It is probably for this reason that so much of what I have written is about characters whose counterparts in real life are so much older than I am.
But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist. For stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion. Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains. The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years. This is what I finally noticed:
Like Mem, a character in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, my mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens—and still does—with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of bulbs, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses, or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees—until night came and it was too dark to see.
Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms—sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena . . . and on and on.
And I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cuttings from her flowers; I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia—perfect strangers and imperfect strangers—and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.
I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible—except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities—and the will to grasp them.
For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life. This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.
This poem is not enough, but it is something, for the woman who literally covered the holes in our walls with sunflowers:
They were women then
My mama’s generation
Husky of voice—Stout of
With fists as well as
How they battered down
How they led
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what we
Without knowing a page
Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength—in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.
And perhaps in Africa over two hundred years ago, there was just such a mother; perhaps she painted vivid and daring decorations in oranges and yellows and greens on the walls of her hut; perhaps she sang—in a voice like Roberta Flack’s—sweetly over the compounds of her village; perhaps she wove the most stunning mats or told the most ingenious stories of all the village storytellers. Perhaps she was herself a poet—though only her daughter’s name is signed to the poems that we know.
Perhaps Phillis Wheatley’s mother was also an artist.
Perhaps in more than Phillis Wheatley’s biological life is her mother’s signature made clear.
from In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
1. What do you find most admirable about Alice Walker’s mother? Do you know anyone who also excels anonymously at something—like gardening or painting, singing or storytelling?
2. As a writer, how does Walker feel she has been enriched by her mother’s storytelling?
3. On page 2 of the essay, in a key passage, Walker uses a metaphor and a simile to describe how African American women handed down this “creative spark” over the generations. What are these figures of speech? (Can you think of others that could be used?)
4. What do you think Walker the writer has learned from her mother the gardener?
5. In the last five lines of the poem Walker uses in the essay, she presents a paradox, or apparent contradiction. State the paradox in your own words, and tell what kinds of knowledge you think Walker is talking about.
6. What do you think Walker means when she says that she found her own “garden” in the process of searching for her mother’s?
7. Walker describes her mother’s life and feelings but never allows her mother to speak for herself. Would the essay be improved if it included quotations from Walker’s mother? Explain.
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