In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens Analysis

Alice Walker

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose gathers nonfiction that Alice Walker, a novelist, short-story writer, and poet, wrote between 1966 and 1982. It includes book reviews published in scholarly journals and popular magazines, transcripts of addresses to groups and institutions, and articles for Ms. magazine. The earliest selection is the essay “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” which won Walker a prize in the annual American Scholar contest when she was twenty-three. Among the latest is “Writing The Color Purple,” which sketches how Walker wrote the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The title of the book is taken from the title of the major essay, a classic and groundbreaking discussion of the black woman writer’s struggle for freedom of self-expression and her search for the roots of her creativity. The front matter includes a definition of “womanist” as a black feminist that distinguishes “womanist” from “feminist” as purple is distinguished from lavender. The publication acknowledg-ments at the back of the book provide detailed information on the original publication and presentation of the articles and speeches.

The thirty-six selections, ranging from three to twenty-nine pages, are arranged in four parts, each of which is loosely organized around several themes. A principal theme of part 1 is the artist’s need for...

(The entire section is 517 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Alice Walker is one of the most prominent figures in the development of black women’s literature in the United States. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple, Walker came to popular attention with the film version of the novel in 1985. Recognizing her own debt to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist and novelist of the early part of the twentieth century, she played a major role in rescuing Hurston’s work from obscurity and expanding its audience. The essays, interviews, and book reviews in this collection reveal some of the persons, events, and experiences that Walker believes helped to create the person she is and the work she has done.

This collection demonstrates that Walker speaks out, often eloquently and passionately, against racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and despoliation of the environment. Finding the term “civil rights” colorless and limited, she openly supports the movement toward human liberation: the right and need for all individuals to express themselves freely within the context of the earth community. Some critics find fault, however, with Walker’s commitment to feminism and her portrayal of African American men.

This work is one of the first collections that emerged in the 1980’s to express the struggle of African American women to define themselves in a society often indifferent and hostile to them and to see their experience recognized for its value in understanding the world. The collection reveals the process of self-discovery and self-development in which Walker has been engaged, some of the origins and changes in her thought, and the ideas that kindle her energy. Her search for understanding the significance of her mother’s garden helps to unearth the tradition for contemporary black women writers that enables their efforts to claim their lives, assert their value, and articulate their meaning. It also contributes to an understanding of the nature of the artistry of black women writers. Among Walker’s other works are the collection of poetry Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), a collection of short stories about black women entitled In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), and the novels The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), Meridian (1976), and The Temple of My Familiar (1989).

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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...

(The entire section is 2567 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

America. CL, February 25, 1984, p. 137.

Blackburn, Regina. “In Search of the Black Female Self: African-American Women’s Autobiographies and Ethnicity.” In Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Blackburn explores the themes occurring in the writings of black women: identity, pride, self-hatred and doubt, and the “double jeopardy” of being both black and female.

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. A collection of a noted...

(The entire section is 438 words.)