Black Girl Lit: Still Searching for Our Mother’s Gardens

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.” – Alice Walker

I’m Evette Dionne [Brown] and I stan for extraordinary black women writers. There, I said it. I admire these women warriors who use their pens as swords, chopping off the heads of media inaccuracies and plaguing labels while also empowering their queendoms. Black women writers were my first sheros, long before I discovered the brilliance of Beyoncé Knowles or First Lady Michelle Obama; they inspired me to use words to inspire others.

One of the soldiers I venerate most is Alice Walker. Y’all ever read Possessing the Secret of Joy, “Beauty When the Other Dancer is the Self,” or “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” My stanning for Alice is well-deserved.

I’m so enthralled with her life and work that my college valedictory was built on her quotes and regard of gardening as an art form. Walker first addressed the art of gardening in her book of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose. The title essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South” focuses on our women ancestors, strong in their love for and dedication to their families. These phenomenal women, who exist in all of our families’ backgrounds, sacrificed their deepest desires and talents in the presence of oppression to nurture their families and survive the turmoil.

In the essay, Alice Walker poses the question:

“What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time?”

It hits me harder every time I read it. Prior to reading “In Search of Mother’s Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South,” I had never considered what the alternative would be to living out the dreams that I’ve been crafting since the early millennium. I’m 22. What would life be like if I couldn’t be a writer, journalist and womanist with free reign over my uterus and an autonomy that is encouraged in my culture? How could I survive if I couldn’t scale this wall and climb to the other side? What if I kept being pulled back down, like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises as he attempts to escape that prison where hope is death?

“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, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.”

I am the granddaughter of two amazing women who were never able to discover their passion because life didn’t provide them with those luxuries. My maternal Grandmother, who is still alive, is a cooking Goddess. The kitchen is her canvas and she prepares exquisite masterpieces that will calm the most troubled spirit and bring shattered families together to harmonize in peace. Instead of pursuing a career as a chef, she retired from a mental hospital where she spent decades providing support and care for those who could no longer provide for themselves. Though she thrived in this environment where she was needed and loved, I often think about how much happier she could have been had she followed her life’s passion. My deceased paternal Grandmother was miserable for most of her life. She was dissatisfied in her marriage and spent most of her life bearing children. I am unsure of what her passion was because she never disclosed it to me; but had she been afforded the chance to discover her purpose, what would it have been? Could my Grandmother have been another Josephine Baker or the first woman to land on the moon?

I am fortunate that I stand on their shoulders because it has allowed me to achieve new heights that both dreamed of, but were never able to attain. I see their resilient spirit within me and I treat each success as if it is theirs as well.

“Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, “the mule of the world,” because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else – everyone else – refused to carry. We have also been called “Matriarchs,” “Superwomen,” and “Mean and Evil Bitches.” Not to mention “Castraters” and “Sapphire’s Mama.” When we have pleaded for understanding, our character has been distorted; when we have asked for simple caring, we have been handed empty inspirational appellations, then stuck in a far corner. When we have asked for love, we have been given children. In short, even our plainer gifts, our labors of fidelity and love, have been knocked down our throats. To be an artist, and a Black woman, even today, lowers our status in many respects, rather than raises it: and yet, artists we will be.

Therefore we must fearlessly pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew, even without “knowing” it, the reality of their spirituality, even if they didn’t recognize it beyond what happened in the singing at church-and they never had any intention of giving it up.”

I am burdened with this: Who would I be if I weren’t able to be as expressive, creative, and successful as I am? As a writer who lives and breathes words, would I have been like Phillis Wheatley, whose work was published, but never regarded as brilliant, or would I have been like my own Grandmothers?

“But this is not the end of the story, for all the young women-our mothers and grandmothers, ourselves-have not perished in the wilderness. And if we ask ourselves why, and search for and find the answer, we will know beyond all efforts to erase it from our minds, just exactly who, and of what, we Black American women are.”

You’re right Alice. This is not the end of the story. I will keep dreaming and living for them. For me. What other choice do I have?

Click here Walker’s original essay for Ms. Magazine (where I will be interning next summer. Cheers!)

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