Past and Present – With an Introduction by Cheryl A. Wall
The Writer as Critic in the Emergence of Black Feminism
← 16 | 17 →Cheryl A. Wall
“What did it mean to be 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.”1 Alice Walker’s classic essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” pivots on this query. Structured as a search for her artistic precursors, the essay identifies the writers Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, whose work was just being discovered in 1974, and the poet Phillis Wheatley, whose name was well-known but whose work garnered little respect. The paucity of literary artists prompts Walker to search for artists in other genres, music for example, and she pays tribute to the great blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. However, she insists that women in her grandmother’s generation whose names are not recorded had the talent and motivation to be artists as well. Reflecting on the obstacles in their path, she asks the question above. In response, she considers the “crazy saints,” the female characters Jean Toomer draws in the first section of Cane, the amalgam of poetry and prose he published in 1923. Walker describes these characters drawn against the landscape of the rural South as “exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them except as “the mule of the world.”2 When she cannot find their real-life contemporaries, she decides she needs to look closer to home.
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