Making a garden requires many gifts: courage, discipline, patience, energy. A garden expresses respect for the land and its history, implies faith in a future the gardener herself may never see. The beauty of a garden depends on its maker’s appreciation of detail and variety, on the play between the whole and each of its parts, on a trust in the intuitive creativity of hand and eye. “Your garden at dusk/ Is the soul of love,” wrote Anne Spencer, a black poet whose work belongs to the tradition celebrated in Alice Walker’s fine collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. In this collection, Walker extends the work begun by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929): She brings forth and nurtures a tradition in which black women, and especially black women who are writers, can take root and flourish.
Walker’s collection includes reviews, articles, essays, and statements, all of them having previously appeared in such periodicals as The Black Scholar and Ms., to which Walker has been for several years a contributing editor. Covering the period from 1966 to 1982, the pieces vary in length, voice, and power. Walker’s vantage point on the issues she takes up is unique: She is a prizewinning writer (three novels, three volumes of poetry, two collections of stories) and scholar (a biography of Langston Hughes, a Zora Neale Hurston reader); she is an activist in both the civil rights and feminist movements; she is a daughter and a mother. Speaking of herself in the third person, Walker writes, “She rather enjoyed being more difficult things in one lifetime than anybody else.” Her experiences authenticate the search that gives her collection its title and governing metaphor and help the reader see Walker’s “garden” as a complex and intricate whole, the parts of which must be fiercely and lovingly cultivated.
What is most remarkable and most exciting about these essays is the unity that encompasses their diversity. In her experience and in her writing, Walker must continually confront the fact that, as she recalls telling her mother, “everything around me is split up, deliberately split up. History split up, literature split up, and people are split up too. . . . 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.” To create this new meaning, Walker has divided her collection into four sections. The first, which includes several book reviews as well as essays on Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Flannery O’Connor, deals primarily with literature. The essays in the second part grow out of Walker’s involvement in the civil rights movement. The third part examines the relations of black women to one another and to black men. The strong fourth section concludes with one of the most significant pieces in the collection—”One Child of One’s Own: A Meaningful Digression Within the Work(s)”—and one of the most touching—“Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.” Taken together, these four parts express the rich and complicated relations among literature, politics, and the frustrations and rewards of community and family life, as experienced by the black woman.
Walker’s search for a fertile literary tradition takes two different routes. Stressing the importance of models in an artist’s life, she scrutinizes a tradition of black literature, and especially black women’s literature, which has largely been ignored by the white male critical establishment. Phillis Wheatley, Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry, Margaret Walker, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and many others come in for Walker’s sensitive and appreciative consideration. She is at her most enthusiastic when discussing Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston’s work as a novelist and folklorist had long been out of print, her grave unmarked in an overgrown Florida cemetery, when Walker began the search chronicled in “Looking for Zora.” Walker states unequivocally that there is no book more important to her than Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Hurston is surely a model for the character of Shug A very in The Color Purple (1982). Hurston’s importance, aside from the fact that she was “a great gardener,” is that she showed blacks “to be descendants of an inventive, joyous, courageous, and outrageous people” who are “complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” This emphasis on “racial health,” on the integrity and positive value of black experience, is significant because, as Walker points out, so many black writers have focused on the antagonism of whites. Certainly, Walker herself must contend with the dominant culture, and specifically with those white writers whose works constitute the literary tradition as education perpetuates it. In “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” Walker tackles a painful subject: the portrayal of blacks in the writing of Southern whites. This essay, like so many of Walker’s pieces, is structured as a narrative; it is the story of a visit to Andalusia, O’Connor’s home near Milledgeville, Georgia. Struggling with the contrast between well-maintained Andalusia and the ruin, nearby, of the Walker family’s tenant house still surrounded by the daffodils her mother planted in the yard decades before, Walker manages to appreciate O’Connor’s handling of her black characters. “By deliberately limiting her treatment of them to cover their observable demeanor and actions,” Walker writes, “she leaves them free, in the reader’s imagination, to inhabit another landscape, another life, than the one she creates for them.”
These discussions of Hurston, O’Connor, and other writers help to delineate the black woman’s literary tradition. Walker considers another means to the same end in the essay which gives her collection its title. “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” develops an explicit and persuasive parallel between Woolf’s comments in A Room of One’s Own about the fate of William Shakespeare’s sister and the spirituality and creativity of the American black woman. “What did it mean,” Walker asks, “for a black woman to be an artist in our...