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In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose

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In this, her first collection of nonfiction, Alice Walker speaks out as a black woman, writer, mother, and feminist in thirty-six pieces ranging from the personal to the political. Among the contents are essays about other writers, accounts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antinuclear movement of the 1980s, and a vivid memoir of a scarring childhood injury and her daughter's healing words.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1983

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About the author

Alice Walker

237 books5,910 followers
Alice Walker, one of the United States’ preeminent writers, is an award-winning author of novels, stories, essays, and poetry. In 1983, Walker became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her novel The Color Purple, which also won the National Book Award. Her other books include The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian, The Temple of My Familiar, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. In her public life, Walker has worked to address problems of injustice, inequality, and poverty as an activist, teacher, and public intellectual.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 241 reviews
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews584 followers
August 11, 2015
Alice Walker's life and writing legacy intrigues me. I stayed with this book longer than I normally would have, since some parts of me couldn't let it go. Walker always seems to speak to my experience, to my trajectory, and her words both console and exhort. Yet she's speaking to a larger audience, to America, to the world. For her career starts from Georgia to Mississippi, to California and Cuba, to sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Like Baldwin and Hughes, she was well-traveled, so when she spoke of race and gender issues, she did so from a global perspective. She, a writer who traversed the globe to study various cultures and their race and gender identities. In doing so, she found her ancestry and, she discovered the layered nuance of writers like Toomer:
Who were these Saints? These crazy, loony, pitiful women? Some of them, without a doubt, were our mothers and grandmothers. In the still heat of the post-Reconstruction South, this is how they seemed to Jean Toomer: exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them, except as "the mule of the world."

What we don't hear much of is Walker's research within academia and literature, how she worked to bring female voices to the forefront (which led to her search for Zora Neale Hurston's out-of-print works and unmarked grave). She loves African women writers as much as she loves Virginia Woolf. She worries about the works of women who made their mark in African and African-American literature, the pioneers so easily forgotten because they're not taught in our universities, and because they're not included in 'American Literature.' What will happen to them? When will egotistical and same-minded university heads get over themselves and allow diversity of thought within our schools by ensuring a diverse faculty and by allowing professors this thing supposedly called "academic freedom," a choice that is antithetical to the infamous and stale 'required anthologies' used in some schools?

(After the mini-rant, maybe I'll return for a better review of this…)

And back...

I won't go into the personal insults I, or my colleagues of color, have endured within academia; the kind we sit and discuss over coffee, or while at a conference, marveling at the similarity in wording and tone. I won't discuss the conversations I've had with professors of American Lit II, who do not include African American literature. When pressed, some argue that their literary studies did not include a concentration in African American literature. "I studied American Literature in my doctoral program, not African African American studies," one professor told me. I won't go into discussion about the professors who want to teach African American literature as a part of their literature course offerings, but who are told by their department chairs and deans that they cannot. I won't discuss the absence of African literature on most World Literature course offerings. However, I will say that what Walker writes about then (these essays ranging from the 1970s to 80s) are things that sound and feel familiar to me, things I've experienced as a college student and as a college professor, things that still trouble some of my friends who are senior faculty members ( I emphasize some because there are lucky ones who have found great university/communities). I will say that when I quietly offered an educator a solution like the one Walker offers in the following quote, it was seen as ludicrous, that a student should even consider these things:
I realized sometime, after graduation, that when I studied contemporary writers and the South at this college --taught by a warm, wonderful woman whom I much admired -- the writings of Richard Wright had not been studied and that instead I had studied the South from Faulkner's point of view, from Feibleman's, from Flannery O'Connor's. It was only after trying to conduct the same kind of course myself -- with black students-- that I realized that such a course simply cannot be taught if Black Boy is not assigned and read, or if "The Ethics of Jim Crow" is absent from the reading list.

In reading her works, like her I've had a newfound love for the strength of Camus' style, I've remembered why I love O'Connor's dark and layered prose, and I'm reminded that I need to explore Faulkner more. Yet I'm also mindful of Emecheta, she who sits on my bedside table, and of Petry, she who waits from my shelf. Walker admires the works of Chopin, the Brontes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Doris Lessing, yet unlike some writers of her generation, her admiration for women writers know no racial or cultural lines, for she also admires the works of Margaret Walker, Frances Ellen Harper, and Nella Larsen; as well as African women writers like Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Bessie Head. To her, the importance of exploring women writers was not about simply making a feministic point about male versus female, but at its core, it was about preserving the history and richness of our literary culture, about unearthing truths and humanity through literature. It was because they wrote "on the condition of humankind from the perspective of women."

She discusses colorism, an important aspect of race issues. In terse, non-accessorized prose, she writes of the Harlem Renaissance, the Women's Movement, and the conflict in Cuba. With imagery, she lets the reader enter her travel through the life and work of the woman who inspired her: Zora Neale Hurston. In lucid yet simple strokes, she paints the portrait of herself as a mother and daughter; her trajectory as a wife, writer, and activist. Most importantly, she speaks of what it means and feels like to be a woman, a black woman, in America and in the world.
The women of China "hold up half the sky." They, who once had feet the size of pickles. The women of Cuba, fighting the combined oppression of African and Spanish macho, know that their revolution will be "shit" if they are the ones to do the laundry, dishes, and floors after working all day, side by side in factory and field with their men, "making the revolution." The women of Angola, Mozambique, and Eritrea have picked up the gun and, propped against it, demand their right to fight the enemy within as well as the enemy...The enemy within is the patriarchal system that has kept women virtual slaves throughout memory.

Favorite Essays:

"In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"
"Writing The Color Purple"
"One Child of One's Own"
"Looking For Zora"
"A Writer Because of, Not in Spite of, Her Children"
"Saving The Life That is Your Own"
"Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor"
Profile Image for leynes.
1,083 reviews2,931 followers
October 4, 2022
4.5 stars /// This essay collection is fucking amazing! Published in 1983, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens is composed of 36 separate pieces (essays, articles, reviews, statements, and speeches) that were written by Alice Walker between 1966 and 1982. It is incredible how many different facets of Walker's life and thought are packed into this one collection. The pieces speak of (Black) womanhood and creativity, but there are also more "political" musings on anti-Semitism, Palestine, the Civil Rights Movement, as well as dissections of fellow and former Black literary artists such as Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston.

The collection is split into three parts. In the first part, she talks a lot about Black womanhood and creativity, going in search for lots of Black (womanist) writers such as Rebecca Jackson (whom I was formerly completely unfamiliar with). My favorite essays of this section were the two on Zora – "Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View" and "Looking for Zora" – in which Walker reflects on how she was first made aware of Zora (through her research of the practice of voodoo by rural Southern blacks in the thirties, which led to her discovery of Hurston's Mules and Men) and what she chose to do with that knowledge.
We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children and, if necessary, bone by bone.
In "Looking for Zora," Walker speaks about her trip to Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, FL to discover the life of her ancestral teacher. Despite Hurston's notoriety, when she passed in 1959, she was buried in an "unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery". Walker decides to search for the grave and have it marked by a tombstone. It is an incredibly powerful and inspirational essay because it shows us how important it is to uplift (under-appreciated) authors. In the bookish community, people are quick to shit on authors who are deemed problematic, whilst failing to realise that by focusing on these authors nonetheless, still only makes them all the more popular. Lesser known authors are drowned by that noise.

Walker consciously explored and sought out books that were underrepresented in the American mainstream: When Toni Morrison said she writes the kind of books she wants to read, she was acknowledging the fact that in a society in which 'accepted literature' is so often sexist and racist and otherwise irrelevant or offensive to so many lives, she must do the work of two. Walker joined her in that work, thereby becoming a model for a future generation of writers and readers herself.

For Walker, literature is a conversation, an exchange of ideas. The texts and their writers speak to us. Therefore, she saw it as her duty to find as many Black women who wrote but were forgotten, but who still had so much to say through the work they left behind. I felt very connected to her and her efforts, and shared her frustrations in regards to how many of the works of Black women have become out of print and are not accessible to a broader public.

In the second part of In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, Walker focuses on the Civil Rights Movement and the important leaders who made contributions to it. A stand-out piece of that section is "The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was it?", in which Walker reflects the notion that only a decade after later, the movement was pronounced "dead". A notion which Walker vehemently fought against. In the essay, she explains that it was just the white mainstream which turned away from the movement, because it didn't faze them, their privilege allowed them to turn their backs on it, whereas Black people were lastingly shaped and influenced by that enduring struggle which exploded in the 60s.
It gave us history and men far greater than presidents. It gave us heroes. Selfless men of courage and strength, for our little boys and girls to follow. It gave us hope for tomorrow. It called us to life. Because we live, it can never die.
In some of the other essays, she reflects on the very personal effects that Dr. King and his wife Coretta had on her life, how much they inspired her: "At the moment I saw his resistance I knew I would never be able to live in this country without resisting everything that sought to disinherit me, and I would never be forced away from the land of my birth without a fight." and "He gave us continuity of place, without which community is ephemeral. He gave us home." Of Coretta, Walker wrote that she reassured her that the South also belonged to her (and Black people as a whole), and thereby installed in her the strength that "when I arrive the very ground may tremble and convulse but I will walk upright, forever."
In Mississippi racism is like that local creeping kudzu vine that swallows whole forests and abandoned houses; if you don’t keep pulling up the roots it will grow back faster than you can destroy it.
The third part of this collection addresses how Black women cope with self-worth and self-respect. It is probably the most personal section of the three, and offers great encouragement to future generations of Black men and women. Again, she uses a lot of literary examples from the works of Black poets and authors to illustrate her point.

The titular essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" talks about how Black women throughout history have created masterpieces from the scraps they were afforded, often in a different manner than what was seen as respectable or usual, and therefore, haven't their work be delegitimized. Walker proceeds in showing how oppression has caused many talented Black women to go unnoticed or unheard of, citing the labours of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin. I also found it interesting how Walker compared Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own to the work of Phillis Wheatley, since all of Woolf's fears were Wheatley's reality, and yet the latter kept pouring out her creativity in her poetry.
And yet, it is to my mother-and all our mothers who were not famous-that I went in search of the secret if 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.
Furthermore, I like how she didn't just stress the achievements of published writers and artists, but also saw the beauty in the struggle and efforts of everyday women. For Walker, her mother's ability to continue gardening despite her poor living conditions is a confirmation of her strength and her ability to strive even in hardship.

One of the most interesting essays was "From An Interview". In it, we learn that Walker's eye was disfigured when she was a young girl and that she was teased and bullied because of it. Walker reflects on how that took a toll on her self-worth, reaching a point where she felt so worthless and miserable that she wanted to commit suicide. It is an incredibly personal piece which speaks a lot about the path of self-destruction and how girls and women are often reduced to their beauty, and therefore linking their worth to their looks.
Writing poems is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the night before.
In "If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?", Walker talks about the issue of colorism within the Black community and pleads with her sisters to reflect on their actions, "for colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us." Walker encourages the two groups to be sensitive towards one another, and start to truly listen to one another. I found it interesting that she stressed the fact that only Malcolm X, among the popular Black leaders of the time, had a dark-skinned wife and loved her openly. I never thought about that but it was very touching to hear how much that meant for Walker and reassured and reaffirmed her.

In "To the Black Scholar", Walker writes: “It will not do any good—and it is a waster of time—to attack Ntozake Stange and Michele Wallace, since they are not, in fact, attacking you. They are affirming themselves and remarking on the general condition of Black life as they know it, which they are entitled to do.” And here again, her words ring true and can teach us a lot for how we handle certain things in our community as well.

And one of the most relatable and touching moments comes from her essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”, where she writes of her mother: “I stand looking down on her, knowing that if she dies, I cannot live.” It’s such a simple sentiment, and yet so true.

So, overall, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens is an incredibly rich and multi-layered essay collection that I would recommend to everyone who wants to go on the journey of unburying some forgotten about souls and marvelling at the genius and craft of Alice Walker.
Profile Image for Ify.
165 reviews179 followers
January 24, 2018
It took me about a month to finish this incredibly powerful and convicting collection (it's dense and contains a lot of essays, speeches and statements), but I am so glad to have read it. Walker covers so much! From her search for Zora Neale Hurston's grave to reflections on female writers who walked before us and more.

One thing that is impossible to ignore in this wholesome collection is Walker's devotion to black female writers- a deep appreciation for them and a reverence for their work.
Profile Image for Meen.
539 reviews95 followers
May 5, 2010
Some of these feel a little dated now, but many of them are still so relevant, and that was actually kind of depressing. The ones from the '60s and '70s, talking about what were then still fairly new movements for racial and women's justice, in light of all the advances that the neo-cons and patriarchal and racist fundies made from Reagan one, and now with the ignorant racist teabaggers, ugh, just soooo depressing. The lesson I take from reading these now is that we can never, ever stop fighting for equal rights and social justice b/c the second we let our guard down and just try to relax, thinking, OK, now there are these legal rights, now we can just live life... Nope, the assholes are always waiting to take back whatever little amount of privilege they lost.
Profile Image for Latasha.
70 reviews3 followers
September 30, 2011
A book of essays by Ms. Walker, who is one of my favorite authors. My favorite ones are the ones with reference to Zora Neale Hurston. This if full of ideas that may usually be linked to feminism, but Walker instead coins the term "womanism" as she feels black women were left out of the feminist movement dominated by white women.
Profile Image for E. V.  Gross.
92 reviews22 followers
June 19, 2016
I felt like this was super necessary reading for me as a) a black woman, b) a writer, c) a woman-loving-woman & (burgeoning) womanist, and d) a woman actively seeking to defy categorization while also demanding adequate representation, visibility, and respect in her identity. So powerful. Walker's prose continues to be an inspiration to me and speak to me long after I've left it.
Profile Image for Jeanne.
934 reviews64 followers
December 26, 2017
I first read Alice Walker's collected essays, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, shortly after it was released in 1984. Thirty-some years ago, I heard (or remember her saying) that our foremothers were both blocked from realizing their abilities, and redirected their creative urges toward gardening and quilt making. That was a useful insight, one that I've held through the rest of my life.

I reread books with different eyes, though. While Walker did talk about redirected creativity, she also described the consequences of having few models, of how black women's work was ignored relative to that of white and black men, and even white women. Quoting/paraphrasing Virginia Woolf, Walker wrote,
“any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century [insert “eighteenth century,” insert “black woman,” insert “born or made a slave”] would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard [insert “Saint”], feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill and psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by contrary instincts [add “chains, guns, the lash, the ownership of one’s body by someone else, submission to an alien religion”], that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.” (p. 235)
The barriers that her foremothers and mine faced were quite different (and sometimes similar), something that I glossed over in my first read of Our Mothers' Gardens.

While Walker's anger practically walks off the page in some essays, it also includes beautiful and hopeful essays – sometimes the same ones, although I generally preferred the quieter essays (I would, wouldn't I?). While she worked a single theme here – how her race and gender influence art and how both are perceived and influenced by an unjust society – her thinking is like a diamond, taking different perspectives and tones by turns. She wrote,
“I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after” (p. 49).
I would like to say that Walker's essays read as dated and irrelevant now, but that would be untrue. Her descriptions of privilege and oppression in both their subtle and unsubtle forms, unfortunately, remains apropos:
Without money, an illness, even a simple one, can undermine the will. Without money, getting into a hospital is problematic and getting out without money to pay for the treatment is nearly impossible. Without money, one becomes dependent on other people, who are likely to be— even in their kindness— erratic in their support and despotic in their expectations of return. (p. 90)
About emotion's role in writing:
I’ve found, in my own writing, that a little hatred, keenly directed, is a useful thing. Once spread about, however, it becomes a web in which I would sit caught and paralyzed like the fly who stepped into the parlor. (p. 137)
About living in Truth:
On my desk there is a picture of me when I was six— dauntless eyes, springy hair, optimistic satin bow and all— and I look at it often; I realize I am always trying to keep faith with the child I was. (p. 314)

No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion the gifts you labor so to bring into the world. (p. 36)
And about self-acceptance, as learned from her young daughter, who saw a world in Walker's blinded eye:
Yes indeed, I realized, looking into the mirror. There was a world in my eye. And I saw that it was possible to love it: that in fact, for all it had taught me of shame and anger and inner vision, I did love it. Even to see it drifting out of orbit in boredom, or rolling up out of fatigue, not to mention floating back at attention in excitement (bearing witness, a friend has called it), deeply suitable to my personality, and even characteristic of me. (p. 370)
Fundamentally, though, Truth is not something that one puts on when one feels like it. Perhaps summing up all her essays, Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week (p. 351).
Profile Image for Torimac.
350 reviews8 followers
May 5, 2012
I do not remember anything about this book except one lesson I learned from it: Envisoning your future is the key to overcoming your obstacles. This one factor has been key to the nature of my existence changing from surviving to thriving. Thank you Ms. Alice Walker.
Profile Image for Cynda .
1,253 reviews142 followers
March 3, 2020
Alice Walker has gathered some of her best womanist short writing here: essays, articles, interviews, addresses, poetry. Here Walker writes of topics dear to her heart, including black social revolution, motherhood, selfhood, community.

Being a feminist woman of color, womanist writing has appealed to me most of my adulthood. As a young woman I read this collection, gathering information, finding voice. Throat Chakra.

Now I read In Search of Our Mother's Gardens as an aging woman, pondering in my heart what Alice Walker has to say here about improving the condition of humanity, particularly black people. Heart Chakra.

Whatever age I have been, whichever chakra I have operated from, this collection speaks to me, giving me strength.
Profile Image for B Sarv.
244 reviews13 followers
August 10, 2020
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens

Before reading this collection of essays by Prof. Alice Walker I had read two of her novels: “A Color Purple” and “The Temple of My Familiar” - both novels that I really loved. I had also read her collection of poetry entitled “Once” and I read “Revolutionary Petunias” contemporaneously with this book. Two things that I really enjoy about reading the non-fiction essays of a writer like Prof. Walker are: 1) the opportunity to have an insight into the life and mind that form the author and 2) the opportunity to get references to other books and authors for further pursuit. I will be sharing some excerpts from the collection and the thoughts those excerpts provoked.

In the essay “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life” Prof. Walker writes, “What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or at least attempted, where none existed before, the straining to encompass in one’s glance at the varied world, the common thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity, a fearlessness of the growth, of search, of looking, that enlarges the private and the public world. And yet, in our particular society, it is the narrowed and the narrowing view of life that often wins.” (p. 5) I was immediately struck by this passage to think of three writers of fiction whose work I discovered in the last two years and the appreciation they helped me develop for a different perspective. Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction and fantasy work with an African perspective which are abundant in their imaginativeness. Zorida Cordova’s Brooklyn Brujas series sparked my interest because she brings a South American and Latin American cultural connection to immigrant communities in the United States in a way I had never before encountered. The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty is fantasy fiction based in the Islamic world with a fantastic realm of djinn and magical creatures. What I love about these books and what makes me relate Prof. Walker’s words to them is that they break away from “the narrowed and narrowing view of life.” By reading these series I was able to share the authors’ “glance at the varied world” and try to see how they brought to me that “unifying theme through immense diversity.” Thanks to Prof. Walker I understand exactly what it was that appealed to me about their work.

Speaking about Black writers in her essay “The Black Writer and the Southern Experience” Prof. Walker addresses an aspect of life that I have seen in the works of W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin: “But this view of a strictly private and hidden existence, with its triumphs, failures, grotesqueries, is not nearly as valuable to the socially conscious black Southern writer as his double vision is. For not only is he in a position to see his own world, and its close community…..but he is also capable of knowing, with remarkably silent accuracy, the people who make up the larger world that surrounds and suppresses his own.” (p. 19) That is, the knowledge that the Black writer and Black people in general, have of white people, white supremacy and the systemic racism of the United States system. I think it is Prof. Walker’s perspective that these dual insights actually enable writers like Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall and Gayl Jones to write with a deeper insight into a wider variety of characters.

In her essay, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” the author makes a number of interesting observations. Interestingly, it was how she connected these observations to the inner spirit of people that struck me as a common thread that connected me to that era and its aftermath. She says, “If knowledge of my condition is all the freedom I get from a ‘freedom movement,’ it is better than unawareness, forgottenness, and hopelessness, the existence that is like the existence of a beast. Man only truly lives by knowing; otherwise he simply performs, copying the daily habits of others, but conceiving nothing of his creative possibilities as a man, and accepting someone else’s superiority and his own misery….When we are children, growing up in our parents’ care, we await the spark from the outside world. Sometimes our parents provide it - if we are lucky - sometimes it comes from another source far from home. We sit, paralyzed, surrounded by our anxiety and dread, hoping we will not have to grow up into the narrow world and ways we see about us. WE are hungry for a life that turns us on; we yearn for a knowledge of living that will save us from our innocuous lives that resemble death. We look for signs in every strange event; we search for heroes in every unknown face.” (p. 122) Two things in particular reached out to me from this. First, was the phrase, “copying the daily habits of others, but conceiving nothing of his creative possibilities.” I was moved by this because I wondered how many times I had followed this path of copying the daily habits of others and I wondered how I had restricted my own creativity - and by extension how many of my fellow travelers on this earth have done the same much to the detriment of ourselves and others. That creativity locked away that could be an inspiration, an aesthetic revelation or an epiphany for someone in search of the spiritual or intellectual experiences of the creative work of others. Second was “hoping we will not have to grow up into the narrow world.” That phrase struck the head of the nail that I think many put into their coffin of a living death - they lost that hope or never developed a desire not to live in that “narrow world”.

Perhaps the most poignant moment for me was in the essay “My Father’s Country is the Poor.” Here Prof. Walker writes, “My father stood outside the bus that day, his hat - an old grey fedora - in his hands; helpless as I left the only world he would ever know. Unlike Pablo Diaz, there was no metamorphosis possible for him. So we never spoke of this parting, or of the pain in his beautiful eyes as the bus left him there by the side of that lonely Georgia highway, and I moved - blinded by tears of guilt and relief - ever farther and farther away; until, by the time of his death, all I understood, truly, of my father’s life was how few of its possibilities he had realized, how relatively little of its probable grandeur I had known.” (p. 216) I reread this passage several times and I went back to it because I was moved - she says so much. It says a lot about her sorrow and his but also the pain that was to one day lead her to a fulfilling life. I was reminded of her poem, “For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties” (Revolutionary Petunias p. 16) because in that poem she also touches on how moving beyond the structures of family into new experience brought a separation between her older sister and her family. Then, in the same essay the author really made a connection that really struck me, “After all, it is but a short distance from understanding that, just as a life of mere survival is insufficient for the flourishing of the spirit, the spirit is an insufficient support for human life if it lacks a full expression of its essence.” (p. 222)

The essay which shares the title of the book, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” explores one of the deeper tragedies of the history of oppression of Black women. She writes, “How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist. Consider, if you can bear to imagine it, what might have been the result if singing too, had been forbidden by law. . . . Then you may begin to comprehend the lives of our “crazy,” “Sainted'' mothers and grandmothers. The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short-Story Writers (over a period of centuries), who died with their real gifts stifled within them.” (p. 234) Prof. Walker links this to the way her mother found her outlet for her creativity. “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. “ (p. 241). . . “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 the work black women have done for a very long time.” (p. 242) In my mind, as I read this passage, I also thought about Angela Davis’ work, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” because it was through the Blues that singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday were able to express their creativity - and I thought of them too as Prof. Walker opined, what if they had forbidden singing?

Right now I am reading “Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory” by Patricia Hill Collins and something Prof. Walker wrote in her letter, “To the Editors of Ms. Magazine”, made me think of the concept of Intersectionality. She writes, “But also because black people, to keep faith with their own ancestors, must struggle to resist all forms of oppression - and it is this necessity that so often brings them to the side of people like the Palestinians, as well as to the side of Jewish Israelis.” (p. 349) It is that resistance of oppression that even descendants of the oppressors must join with in order to help dismantle systems of oppression so that all people are free to explore their own creativity and live lives that are not narrow and that emulate an existence that defies living lives that are “innocuous lives that resemble death.”

To me her most interesting essay was, “Writing the Color Purple” and for any fan of that book, any student of that book, I really recommend reading that particular essay. I found it fascinating the way her mind worked, how she interacted with the characters in the novel, how aspects of her life interacted with the characters and what brought them to life. It was a small window into the genius behind her writing. This essay in particular awed me with respect to the dedication, brilliance and hard work that goes into being a writer of her caliber. Naturally my best recommendation for really getting a window into Prof. Walker is to read this entire collection. I strongly recommend it.
Profile Image for Emily  O.
99 reviews109 followers
June 8, 2011
If you read my recent review of Alice Walker's famous novel The Color Purple, then you'll know that I think she is an excellent novelist. Well, dear readers, the good news is that she is also an incredible essayist. I would encourage teachers everywhere to use her essays in their classrooms as an example of the perfect personal essay (especially Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self). If you know me or if you've read my blog, you know that I don't usually read non-fiction. It usually bores me, and takes me forever to read. I read this book in less than two days, and I actually stayed up late to read it because I could not put it down. It's that good. The writing is excellent, and I learned so much about the experiences of black women, especially in the South. It was eye-opening, engaging, and just generally awesome. I cannot recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Eliza.
Author 16 books145 followers
March 26, 2018
It took me a little over 2 years to complete this book. I savored it, treating every passage I read like a fine dessert I’d never have the pleasure of enjoying again in life.

This is required reading for anyone on the femme spectrum, who refers to themselves as a feminist, for anyone Black, or any combination of the three.

Every woman needs to read this book to truly understand the plight and politics of being a woman - especially a woman who doesn’t look like themselves.

Two years to finish and I’m already missing reading this treasure.
Profile Image for Lisa Sellers.
80 reviews1 follower
May 27, 2013
This was a huge book for me in my twenties - I love the short story about her looking for Zora Neale Hurston's grave and putting the tombstone on it herself - very inspiring and spoke to so much in my life - she lifts me up as a woman when I need a pick me up, cries with me when I am inconsolable and dance with joy as women do. Awesome book
Profile Image for Andrea.
10 reviews2 followers
June 2, 2009
I am starting to read more womanist literature and hope to get into some research eventually, so if anyone has any recommendations, I would gladly welcome them!
Profile Image for Jorie W.
14 reviews21 followers
November 17, 2019
Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Pt. 1
This month hasn’t really been a poetry month; I might even dare to say that this year hasn’t been a poetry year. Even though I love the art of poetry, I have more recently found it difficult to connect, especially when I’m not in the mood (by which I mean, I find it hard to write and read poetry when it feels like more important things are going on in the world and in myself. It distresses me that when I’m feeling too deeply, I seem to lose my voice, when it seems that others are actually fueled and are able to express what I want to say. I don’t know what this means for me as writer, that I can’t seem to write to express myself.)
In any case, a part of my journey to regain my poetic voice, has been reading more work by other writers like myself, the ones who seem to have the words I’m looking for. In the first pat of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker highlights the lives and work of women who have been artistic models for her and through whom she found encouragement and not just for art itself, but how to live as an artist. It chronicles her journey to identify the then-unmarked grave of Zora Neale Hurston in Ft. Pierce, Florida.
The first chapter of Part 3 hosts the titular essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” written by Walker in 1974. She examines the plight, the psychology, the circumstances of Black women enslaved and impoverished who would have been artists but had their avenues of expression completely torn away from them:
“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. They stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body, so dimmed and confused by pain, that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope(…) In the still heat of the post-Reconstruction South, this is how they seemed to Jean Toomer: exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them, except as “the mule of the world.” They dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand(…) What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood(…) When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspirational appellations, then stuck in the farthest corner. When we have asked for love, we have been given children. In short, even our plainer gifts, our labors of fidelity and love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist and a black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.” (emphasis added)

Femmeity is motherhood daughterhood, sisterhood, and the communion of femme creation. When I ask myself why this is so important, one of my favorite Bible passages comes to mind:
I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept! (Song of Solomon 1:5-6 ESV)

In Walker’s celebration of discovering her mother’s (and other generations of Black women’s) artistic soul in the clothes and quilts she made, the gardens she grew, in the way she beautified their home, despite how ramshackle as it happened to be, I see the same joy that exploded online and in person during the release of Beyoncé's visual album Lemonade. In both works the difficulty to express one’s pain is channeled through the lives of voices of our ancestors, creating a reverberation that, while not answering all of the questions about the pain that we continue to experience or relieving the ache of STILL being hindered from tending our own spiritual, mental, and creative vineyards, offers comfort and unveils a way forward and through to a new height of expression. It is through remembering ourselves our sisters, our mothers, and yes, our brothers and non-gendered siblings too, that we find freedom in a less than free world.
It’s through immersing myself in the works of other Black queer femmes that I’ve been able to complete this issue of my zine at all, even when my tongue felt too heavy to move and fingers on the keyboard were paralyzed by the depth of my own personal ache. When I wished I could sit down with my mom and just talk all of it out, while looking through her journals and the boxes of banner fabric she left, even though I know there are so many ways we would not agree (no, I don’t believe in a pre-tribulation rapture anymore; yes, I’m a progressive; no, Mom, I’m not straight; Yes, I go to an Anglican church…) (would it have even been productive, if I could speak to her beyond the grave?). Somehow it matters still, that I need to speak with her and it matters that she spoke her art at all.
Profile Image for Johanna.
286 reviews10 followers
March 1, 2018
every time i read this it is a different book. this time it was about a black woman in a very particular political/historical moment, between kennedy and reagan, exploring feminism, facing up to old ghosts, and maybe most importantly researching, hunting up hurston and grimke to feed a hunger for ancestors.
Profile Image for Andy.
682 reviews92 followers
May 1, 2020
This is great stuff, criticism, reminiscences, thoughts, anecdotes and history. Walker is at once friendly and comforting, and outraged and challenging. If you ever felt The Colour Purple was written by the ghost of Zora Neale Hurston you should read this. It explains a lot.
Profile Image for Allie Riley.
384 reviews131 followers
June 15, 2018
Will type up full review later. But suffice it to say, this is phenomenal.
Profile Image for Cara Byrne.
3,092 reviews18 followers
September 11, 2013
“I fear that many people, including many women, do not know, in fact, what Woman is” (152).

Walker's collection of essays, starting with her first published article from 1967 on the Civil Rights movement to work she wrote in the 1980s about her process as a writer and as a reader of forgotten/overlooked African American's works (including Jean Toomer, Rebecca Jackson, and, of course, her "aunt" Zora Neale Hurston), is a heavy collection that offers a great critical insight into gender, sexuality, and race. It is interesting how she positions the child throughout her essays: as a mother of a daughter and the former writer of history books for preschool children, she both considers the child within herself and the children growing up during and after the Civil Rights era. She is very frank about her fears of balancing motherhood and her creative work, as well as her own struggles with self-consciousness and her family ties, which adds even more to the richness of her thoughts. When visiting her mother in the South, Walker reflects upon her feelings in a way reminiscent to Du Bois’ 1903 discussion of doubleness. She states that she came home in search of “wholeness” for “everything around me is split up, deliberately split up. History split up, literature split up, and people are split up too” (48). It is clear that Walker is both an impassioned poet and an opinionated scholar, which is a beautiful combination.

In a speech she delivered at Sarah Lawrence, Walker leaves her student audience with a message that I am going to carry with me during the remaining years of my PhD: “Your job, when you leave here – as it was the job of educated women before you – is to change the world. Nothing less or easier than that” (37).
May 20, 2021
Canonical, a must-read for any scholar serious about Black women’s studies but written for the historian in us all. Alice Walker is a living archive. In easy-to-read prose, she, though not uncritically, points us back to our artists and literary foremothers, the “gardens” their lives produced, so that we might continue to carry their living into our own work. Writing, thinking, Walker’s essays in this collection (which span a period of incredible political and cultural change, 1966-1982) model the ways we might turn to Black Women artist’s/activists herstories, make loving sense of what was there, knowing we are too, the artists this world needs. They include lines such as:

“We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.”

“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.”

“I write all the things I should have been able to read.”
Profile Image for Li.
120 reviews39 followers
October 15, 2021
This book is a compilation of essays, book reviews, autobiographical recollections, and pieces of socio-biological history and personal philosophy from Ms. Walker's point of view. It took me quite awhile to read it because it is enlightening, educational, and important, every bit of it. I learned so much about black authors whose voices have been kept silent, like Zora Neale Hurston. There is a chapter about how Ms. Walker went to find Ms. Hurston's grave that I will never forget. There is a chapter about a curse that is also unforgettable.

What I admire most about Ms. Walker is her craving to know and her ability to synthesize pieces of her experiences into discoveries that help move womankind forward. I love reading her thoughts as a woman, but also as a black woman. I need to know these things to take myself forward as a white female and to also honor who black females are and how egregiously they have been maligned.

I recommend this book to everyone, regardless of skintone or gender orientation. I think the book should be a textbook for a course named the title of this book and who knows maybe is by now.
1,011 reviews2 followers
July 22, 2015
To future readers of this collection of essays -- first read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I was very happy that I'd read Hurston's book first because so much of Walker's discourse is about Hurston and her book. We read this book for book club and my basic response was the realization that I learned so much from it -- I almost felt as if I should be taking notes -- and for me, that is an enjoyable feeling. So much info about black writers, the Civil Rights movement, and the perception of color as it relates to white black women and black black women. And while covering such topics, the book still reads quite easily. Very well written.
Profile Image for Mahjong_kid.
64 reviews1 follower
April 14, 2014
This collection of essays made me wish that I knew Alice Walker. Her writing is not only inspiring, beautiful, and passionate, but also horizon-widening to those of us who know too little of the Civil Rights Movement, African-American writers, and the experience of being dark-skinned in a society that so highly prizes pale skin. I really respect the thoughtful way that she writes about the world and her personal experiences, tempering passion with the occasional acknowledgment that there may be motives and unperceived forces that will never be absolutely understood.
Profile Image for Grouchymax.
38 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2010
I need to re-read this to assign stars (how presumptuous that appears in the face of this sort of book). This collection helped shape the better part of my teenage self, though I wonder if I found validation for my habits (say, "Everyday Use") a bit too conveniently. Regardless of my possible shortcomings in using the works to identify myself, I still feel grateful to Walker for getting her writings into the public's hands.
Profile Image for Theresa.
10 reviews
August 22, 2012
Perhaps the best book of essays I've ever read, and one of the first. The title refers to one essay where the author visits the home of female white southern author Flannery O'Connor, now deceased, and discovers a familial connection. I still remember the peacocks on the property, though I've not read (and reread and reread) this book for years.
Profile Image for Madeleine Barnes.
Author 6 books40 followers
December 22, 2020
“Why did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.”

Nothing I can write here will do justice to this incredible book. My mother and grandmother are both artists, and I relate to Walker’s curiosity about her mother’s garden, which seems at first to her like an outlet for buried creativity. What gets in the way of women’s work? Walker speaks from the depths of oppression. Her essays address the civil rights movement, trauma, feminism, the suppressed creativity of Black women—and so much more. I love these quotes:

“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.”

“Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, ‘the mule of the world,’ because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else—everyone else—refused to carry…When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspirational appellations, then stuck in the farthest corner. When we have asked for love, we have been given children. In short, even our plainer gifts, our labor and fidelity of love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist and a Black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.”

“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.”
Profile Image for Hope Harrington.
39 reviews
August 21, 2020
This is my new favorite book. Alice Walker is such a radical, hardcore woman. Everyone read this immediately.

"The mountain of despair has dwindled, and the stone of hope has size and shape, and can be fondled by the eyes and by the hand. But freedom has always been an elusive tease and in the very act of grabbing for it one can become shackled.

"When I didn't write, I thought of making bombs and throwing them. Of shooting racists. Of doing away as painlessly and neatly as possible (except when I indulged in kamikaze tactics of rebellion in my daydreams) -- with myself."

"Writing poems is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before."

"The real revolution is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff. With raising a reading level from second grade to third. With simplifying history and writing it down for the old folks. With helping illiterates fill out food stamp forms -- for they must eat, revolution or not. The dull frustrating work with our people is the work of the black revolutionary artist. It means, most of all, staying close enough to them to be there whenever they need you."
Profile Image for Mark.
1,362 reviews103 followers
April 29, 2018
“I wonder if America will ever have a place for poor people. It appears they are doomed to be eternal transients.”

“If the Civil Rights Movement is “dead”, and if it gave us nothing else, it gave us each other forever. It gave some of us bread, some of us shelter, some of us knowledge and pride, all of us comfort...It gave us history and men far greater than Presidents. It gave us heroes, selfless men of courage and strength, for our little boys and girls to follow. It gave us hope for tomorrow. It called us to life.

Because we live, it can never die.”

In this essay collection, there are 36 pieces, dealing with, being a black woman, mother and an activist, but the bulk of it, deals with her fight for Civil Rights and feminist rights. There is also plenty on her love of reading, especially southern literature, including her infatuation with  Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O' Connor. Bold, brash and insightful. An excellent read.
February 22, 2023
This was a fantastically thought-provoking collection of short stories. With pieces mostly stretching from the '70s into the '80s, Walker keeps her finger on the pulse of critical historical events, from anti-nuclear protests to the Civil Rights movement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. She explores these happenings through the lens of Black womanhood in America. More than a diary of personal anecdotes or a chronicle of 20th century history or a tribute to writers who shaped her style, this book is a love letter to Black women around the world. Walker takes a deep psychological dive into her own past and the lives of women she admires, leaving the reader with a sense of the immense weight women such as herself have shouldered in the past century alone. Despite the heft of the subject matter, the sheer variety and approachable nature of the short stories keep the reader laughing, tearing up, and reflecting the whole while. "The Color Purple" is my favorite novel, and it was especially moving to read about Walker's writing process and unique submission to her lively cast of characters. I expect I'll return to this book from time to time; it's really a stunning anthology.
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