What is Walker’s attitude toward the early American poet, Phyllis Wheatley

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The poetry and prose of women whose lives were replete with emotional distress and, occasionally, physical hardship was a mystery to Alice Walker.  Focusing on the observations of Virginia Woolf, whose suicide certainly illuminated the depths of her emotional distress, Walker examines the writings of women whose origins and lives were considerably less comfortable than that of Woolf.  Unsurprisingly given her own experiences and heritage, Walker applies and contrasts Woolf’s observations to the writings of black female slaves and their offspring.  Among those was Phillis Wheatley, named for the slave ship on which she was transported, after being kidnapped at the age of seven, and for the white family that bought her and, recognizing her gift for poetry, encouraged her writing.  While her own life, at least until “freedom” in a still repressive and racist society weakened her, was not as bad as that of other slaves, it was obviously characterized by the enduring emotional trauma associated with her kidnapping and treatment as an item to be exploited.  In examining Wheatley’s poetry, Walker emphasizes the influences of concepts alien to the latter’s native culture, including the notion of racial superiority.  In In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, Walker zeroes in on the following passage from one of Wheatley’s poems:

“The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds her golden hair.

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

 Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.”

Walker notes the reference to a “goddess” with “golden hair” bound by olive and laurel.  The significance of this passage to Walker is clear:  Wheatley had been inculcated from early childhood with the notion of white superiority.  Christianity, of course, was not native to Africa; it came with missionaries, colonizers and traders from Europe.  The suggestion that, by being transported from Africa to North America, she was being liberated from paganism and sin and blessed with Western/white spiritual indoctrination.  The following poem illuminates the depth of that indoctrination:

“Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too . . .”

What Virginia Woolf referred to as “contrary instincts,” are analyzed by Walker with respect to Wheatley.  The suffering Wheatley endured, especially after her husband’s imprisonment for debt, and the deaths of two infants, with the third one sickly (and who die soon after Wheatley’s death at the age of 31), stood in stark contrast to the material comfort that Woolf suggested was essential for the creative process to blossom – in effect, one’s own room with a locking door and the financial wherewithal to be left alone.  What, Walker asks, would Woolf have thought of Wheatley and other black women who endured deprivations Woolf could hardly imagine, yet created on a level equal to the Caucasian Woolf.  That answer, Walker suggests, is in the relationship between mothers and daughters, and in the enduring bonds that relationship forges.  In titling her work “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, Walker is implying that the answer lies in those bonds and in the heritage passed on from parent to child.  As she writes at the end of her essay,

“Perhaps Phillis Wheatley's mother was also an artist. Perhaps in more than Phillis Wheatley's biological life is her mother's signature made clear.”

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