In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by Alice Walker

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What's a repeated word suggests the essays main idea

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Alice Walker repeats the word “artist” nine times in her essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” This word takes over from, and is used in partial opposition to, the word “saint,” which she uses several times at the beginning of the essay to describe the male view of “crazy, loony, pitiful” black women.

Walker asks:

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.

This cruel answer is that the woman’s artistry would have been entirely wasted in slavery or child-bearing, or in some pointless hobby, or in being beholden and subordinate to some man in addition to being marginalized and unappreciated by the entire culture. These women of her mother's and grandmother's generations, and for a long time before them, wasted their lives in being “saints” when they might have been artists.

This essay is, among other things, a reply to and continuation of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Walker replies to Woolf’s observation that a woman needs money and a room of her own to be a writer with the caustic observation that Phillis Wheatley did not even own herself, but still managed to be a poet. Perhaps, Walker suggests, Wheatley’s mother was an artist, for black women have found ways to pass on their creativity to their children in the most unpropitious circumstances. Though Wheatley's mother could not have known it when her child was kidnapped, the artistry she passed on to her triumphed in the end.