In Alice Walker's essay, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens", she investigates the creative spirit of African American women who have succeeded despite social obstacles that they may have faced. Walker explores this creative spirit through other texts, to prove the concept of "contrary instincts" of the idea that a person must stay true to ones roots, while also being able to survive in a world filled with societal hurdles. Walker also explores how the creative spirit is passed down from generation to generation. Yet another motive behind her essay is to. ".. know beyond all efforts to erase it from our minds, just exactly who, and what we black American women are" (741).
In other words, Alice Walker is in search of her roots. Walker refers to Phyllis Wheatley to communicate the idea of contrary instincts. Wheatley found it hard to utilize her creative spirit because she was being held back by the evils of slavery. Despite the fact that Wheatley's mistress treated her very well and gave her three meals a day, she would not set Wheatley free. Walker writes "Yet, because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was 'so thwarted and hindered by... contrary instincts, that she... lost her health... ' " (742).
Unfortunately Wheatley lost her life due to malnutrition, abandonment and mental instabilities. She experienced these contrary instincts because of a struggle to survive in a world that blocked her desire to be creative and expressive through poetry. Such a desire was nearly impossible to satisfy because as we all know, slaves were often not allowed to read or write. Walker sympathizes with Wheatley when she writes, "But at last Phyllis, we understand. No more snickering when your stiff, struggling, ambivalent lines are forced on us. We know now that you were not an idiot or a traitor; only a sickly little black girl, ...
It is not so much what you sang, as that you kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song" (743). Walker is arguing that thanks to writers like Wheatley who overcame the contrary instincts and be creative, others were inspired to do the same. Another writer whom Alice Walker explores is Virginia Woolf. Woolf was a white English woman whose contrary instincts were caused the failure of her writing to be published or recognized.
At the time, males were the dominant literary figures and were close-minded women's expressiveness and writing. In her book A Room of One's Own Woolf writes that for her creative spirit to come out, she must have two things: a room to herself with a key and a lock and enough money to support herself. Woolf continued to write even though her family members had faced death and she was abused. Although Woolf was not black, she was a woman who too had to conquer the overpowering male dominance of the times. Woolf also writes in A Room of One's Own "A genius sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working class... But certainly it never got itself on to paper.
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of woman possessed by devils... of a rise woman selling herbs... or even a very remarkable man who has a mother... Indeed I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman... ". (745) What Woolf is trying to say is women had to circumvent many barriers to express their creativity. She is also saying that women tend to be more creative than men. Woolf and Walker shared a connection because they were both women who felt they needed to express themselves.
Walker then speaks about how creative spirit can be passed down from generation to generation. Walker's mother ran away from home to be married when she was 17. While taking care of six children, Alice's mother also had to battle with a white landlord, make all the children's clothes, make towels and sheets, can fruits and vegetables, and make quits. Needless to say, Alice's mother barely had time to confront her own creative obstacles. Alice looked up to her mother because of all the suffering she endured while finding time for herself to be creative with her flower garden. Perhaps Alice's creativity came from her mother.
Walker also states "We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high- and low" (744). Walker is referring to the fact that maybe the things that hold people back are the things that make us creative. Sometimes people search for creativity in the most thoughtful of places, when it is usually right there in front of them. She continues to speak of a quilt that is hanging in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The quilt was made by an unknown black woman in Alabama from "bits and pieces" of insignificant rags; even so, the creativity shows right through the meaningless pieces of cloth. "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" is a very appropriate title for this essay. On a literal level, Alice was looking at her mother's garden as an example of contrary instincts and the creative spark that she was so curious about.
On a figurative level, the title is plural, showing that other people may be in search of creativity passed down from generation to generation, although it may not necessarily be in the form of a garden. Therefore, in some way, everyone is in search of their own garden..