There is nothing quite like reading Alice Walker for me. To read something she has written is akin to having a close friend who would never dream of hurting you but whose tenderly spoken honestly constantly breaks your heart. Walker’s prose is never vindictive or angry. Her writing may spring from anger and resentment, yet she somehow cleanses all her prose of any hint of malice or blame. She has the capacity that most people do not even realize they lack: she is able and willing to sympathize with everyone and anyone. The way that I feel after reading the dedication and two-page introduction to this collection most books couldn’t accomplish in hundreds of pages. This is the dedication:
To my daughter Rebecca / Who saw in me / what I considered / a scar / And redefined it / as / a world
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is a collection of essays and speeches written by Walker between 1967 and 1983. The subjects of the essays and speeches vary; some are on specific writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, while others are on the Civil Rights Movement or the Cuban Revolution. All of them share a very deep insight into the pain of oppression and the joy of living. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of reading such different pieces in one volume is how Walker brilliantly connects the personal to the political in all of her work. She comes through her own writing as a personality wedded to social change, constantly and often painfully working toward justice as she defines it. “In the end, freedom is a personal and lonely battle, and one faces down fears of today so that those of tomorrow might be engaged” (170).
One of the most amazing and monumental things Walker has done in her literary career is to reintroduce certain black writers into the literary conversation. Walker writes extensively of her education at Sarah Lawrence, and specifically of her course on “Southern Writers,” where no person of color appeared on the syllabus. After graduating, she took it upon herself, perceiving a painful lack in her education and literary knowledge, to research whether the writers she missed existed at all. Obviously, she discovered that they did indeed exist: “each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer’s story” (49). There are several essays in this collection about Walker’s discovery of and dedication to Zora Neal Hurston’s legacy. Walker’s devotion to Hurston’s memory leads her to wade through snake-ridden grasses to find Hurston’s grave and place a tomb stone where none existed. Hurston died in poverty, anonymity, and isolation, a tragedy that Walker finds reprehensible at best and culturally devastating at worst.
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. (92)
Maybe the inspirational quality of Walker’s work lies in how she says so much with so few words. Or rather, how in her telling of a story, there is so much theoretical and ideological meaning packed into every thought. Particularly when she writes about racial oppression, she has the keen ability to expose the hypocrisies in our widely-accepted national narrative.
Whenever I visit antebellum homes in the South, with their spacious rooms, their grand staircases, their shaded back windows that, without the thickly planted trees, would look out onto the now vanished slave quarters in the back, this is invariably my thought. I stand in the backyard gazing up at the windows, then stand at the windows inside looking down into the backyard, and between the me that is on the ground and the me that is at the windows, History is caught. (47)
I don’t say this about many writers. I want to read everything Alice Walker has ever written. I’ve read all of her novels, but there is a whole body of short stories and poetry–some of which was excerpted in this collection–that I have yet to explore. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens was proof that it is not just her fiction that moves me–it’s everything she creates.