In the essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker touches on a topic closely related to this blog. She, too, searches the past for a path, a way and an example. Looking backwards to find a mirror. “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” (316). Her ancestors could not create the kind of art that was deemed art, nor create the stories that would be called literature. How then could she find her creative lineage?
Walker uses the example of Phillis Wheatley, an exceptional exception, an eighteenth century black slave taught to read and write whose poetry is still extant, to draw in Virginia Woolf’s concept of contrary instincts - the desire to act contrary to societal norms. The consequences of Wheatley’s contrary instincts led her poetry to be ridiculed, but Walker takes the point not in the content of her words, but of the fact that she wrote them at all. “It is not so much what you sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song" (318). The continuity of women writers can draw a line through Wheatley, whatever they might think of the quality of her poetry.
But what of the women who were not exceptional exceptions with access to reading and writing? Walker's mother kept a garden. Not content simply to cultivate what flowers might grow, her mother "planted ambitious gardens-and still does-with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November" (321). This was art. This was creation in action, the output of a creative mind that had no outlet for what would be considered, traditionally (patriarchally?) art. When we look back for examples of creative expression from women, we should, as Walker suggests, look both high and low, and reconsidered the definitions that we have been given for what counts as art and what does not.