Alice Walker, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"

Alice Walker (1944-present) is an acclaimed essayist, poet, and novelist; her novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Walker, who grew up as in a family of sharecroppers in Eatonton, Ga., has often written about the lives of African Americans in the South. In this excerpt from her often-anthologized essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," Walker reflects on the repression of genius suffered by African-American women through centuries as slaves and members of an oppressed cultural group. Throughout the essay, Walker emphasizes the outlets which African-American women found to express their genius; her mother, in the example which provides the essay's title, expresses her creativity in the artistry of her garden.

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.

Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer's lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands? or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)--eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children--when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?

How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? And the freedom to paint, to sculpt, to expand the mind with action did not exist. Consider, if you can bear to imagine it, what might have been the result if singing, too, had been forbidden by law. Listen to the voices of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and imagine those voices muzzled for life. Then you may begin to comprehend the lives of our "crazy," "Sainted" mothers and grandmothers. The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Short-Story Writers (over a period of centuries), who died with their real gifts stifled within them.

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