Wished-for mentor? Hero? Creative and intellectual idol? Spiritual mother?
I just finished Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, her first collection of essays, mostly from the seventies. It struck me in so many ways that I can only begin to enumerate here, but I’ll try, because I think she deserves it, and so do I.
First, people have been telling me that I’m black (or that I’m half black) my whole life, and I did plenty of my own searching and researching and reading. I read and watched the requisite books and movies about slavery and Selma; I had the biographical sketches of women I was supposed to be inspired by; I never denied that black was part of what I was. But this book made me realize that I’ve never fully comprehended what the Civil Rights movement did or meant, and how it influenced creativity, politics, and culture in the years and decades after it. Of course I’m not an expert now, but many of the essays in this book dealt directly with the movement very soon after it happened, which I thought was interesting and enlightening. I think it will help me, as other experiences in the past four years have, find a way to incorporate a black or African American identity into my already complicated self, and to see where I fit in in that community. Just as spending Thanksgiving with my birthfamily (a matriarchal, all-female, close-knit group of well-read, educated, religious, musical; strong-willed group of black women) let new roots spring out from under me, this book has given me validation in the ways I like to be creative, and it has made me see again the value in searching for background and reflecting on the now.
I also appreciated that this collection was not so tight, at times academic, at times journalistic, at times diary-like, at times just good old creative non-fiction. Without knowing it, I think Alice Walker is who I have been trying to be all this time, who I can most closely tie my creative endeavors and aspirations to. Though I’ve only read her The Color Purple before this, I can tell I will be reading more of her, and I’m glad that I went through this collection of essays before reading more of her novels, if only because I feel now that I understand and appreciate her, and this makes me curious to read the things her mind has created. The essays in this collection make personal connections to literature and literary figures she has read, researched, and loved, just as in this blog and in much of my non-fiction writing I have found that the books I love most are those that allow me to make applications to my personal life. I appreciate many books for their literary quality, for their worthiness of being a part of a canon of American literature, for the potential they have for academic study and discussion. But those are books I respect more than love. This book, this Alice Walker, I loved.
To Zora Neale Hurston I gave her due: I studied her for a year in high school and revisited her last summer while I was studying at Rutgers. I read a biography of her this past year, and perhaps someday I will pick up her folktales or autobiography when I have time. To Toni Morrison I afford the utmost respect, but she is not someone I can hope to emulate or even delve deeply into as both a scholar and a human. She is too advanced for me to find connections, though I do greatly enjoy her work. Nikki Giovanni I always enjoy reading, but since I am not foremost a poet, we are not exactly kindred spirits. But in Walker’s collection, I (cliche, I know) found a garden–I found someone else who loves scholarship as much as creativity; who sometimes has a volatile temper; who struggles with which of her minority identities she should identify with; who loves to read; who loves to write; who loves to live. I think I’ve just found a fountain of inspiration.