What is Alice Walker's thesis in her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Alice Walker argues that though black women were kept from pursuing their artistry and spirituality, they found ways to pass it on to future generations. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens details the spirituality and artistry passed down between generations of black women, how the lack of an outlet affected the older generations, and what the lack of an outlet means for their descendants. Walker says that she was guided by her mother's strength in continuing to follow her passions—even when it was difficult to do so.

Walker begins by discussing how generations of black women were kept from expressing their talents. She discusses the case of a woman, a great-great grandmother, who was a genius but died at the hands of an overseer. The same woman could have been a skilled painter but had to spend her days working for slaveowners. She could have been a skilled sculptor; instead, she had to bear children "who were more often than not sold away from her." 

She asks how it is possible that women continued to create and pass down such a rich set of talents and spirituality to their daughters and granddaughters. It was a crime for a black person to read or write. How many writers or poets were lost in generations of people who were forced to be illiterate? 

Walker tells the story of her mother, who ran away at seventeen to marry her father. She had many children and spent her days running the household; she made clothes, canned food, and worked in the fields with her husband. She asks the reader, "But when, you will ask, did my overworked mother have time to know or care about feeding the creative spirit?" 

In response, Walker discusses a quilt hanging in the Smithsonian. It is not made with any kind of known pattern, and it tells the story of the Crucifixion. The note under it credits it to an unknown black woman from Alabama in the 1800s. Walker says the quilt "is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling." The woman worked in the mediums she had, with the time and tools she was allowed, to express something spiritual and artistic inside of her.

In the same way, Walker argues, the mothers and grandmothers of black women have handed down their passions and creativity. Walker's mother, too, shared this with her in different ways. One way was her way of telling stories; she spoke with an urgency to pass those stories on. Another way she shared that creative spark was through her gardening. She gardened and decorated their house with flowers. She says:

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.

People came to her mother for flowers; people praised her ability to make beautiful things grow. Walker says her mother was radiant and absorbed in the work she was doing when she was gardening. Through her mother's passionate creativity, Walker was able to find her own. In the same way, she says, other women have passed down that spirituality and artistry to their descendants. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" Alice Walker's thesis is that the creative spirit of the African-American woman finds itself embedded in the history of her mother and other women (their "gardens") who, although oppressed, expressed themselves in outlets that they were allowed.

Alice Walker's essay examines the black woman writer’s search for self-expression and the origins of her creativity through the connection to mothers and grandmothers. With this creativity that lay dormant in her ancestors, the woman artist can find meaning and richer, more meaningful expression. 

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. 

Walker contends that grandmothers and mothers, although inhibited by the world of which they were part, nevertheless imparted to their daughters the "creative spark," the "seed of the flower" that flourishes in the modern artist. Art became what Walker's and others' ancestors were allowed to make: gardens and quilts. Stories were told and handed down: "So many of the stories that I write are my mother's stories."

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.

Alice Walker uses the beautiful flower garden that her mother created that was always praised for its beauty and her perseverance as a metaphor for the black female's inherited creative soul and strength.