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In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and Poets In The Kitchen

Alice Walker, through her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, and Paule Marshall, in “Poets In The Kitchen”, both write about the African-American women of the past and how these women have had an impact on their writing. Walker and Marshall write about an identity they have found with these women because of their exposure to the African culture. These women were searching for independence and freedom. Walker expresses independence as found in the creative spirit, and Marshall finds it through the spoken word. Walker and Marshall celebrate these women’s lives and they see them as inspirations to become black women writers.

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” embodies some aspects that are found in Walker’s and Marshall’s essays. Delia, the main character, has an identity that is found through her hard work and spirituality. She also finds her freedom and independence in her home. It is essential to first analyze Walker’s and Marshall’s essays through each of the themes of identity, independence, and inspiration, respectively. Then these themes will be drawn out of Hurston’s work to show the similarity between each of these writers’ works. Walker and Marshall write about an identity that they have found with African-American women of the past.

They both refer to great writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Phillis Wheatley. But more importantly, they connect themselves to their ancestors. The see that their writings can be identified with what the unknown African-American women of the past longed to say but they did not have the freedom to do so. They both admire many literary greats such as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen, but they appreciate these authors’ works more than they can identify with them. Walker’s and Marshall’s identification is related to the African-American culture that they have been exposed to throughout their lives.

Walker states that: Therefore we must pull out of ourselves and look at and identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know. I stress some of them because it is well-known that the majority of our great-grandmothers knew without even “knowing” it, the reality of their spirituality, even if they didn’t recognize it beyond what happened in the singing at church (Walker, 1996: 2318-2319). Walker delves into the subconscious and ever-present spirituality that is found in African-American women and she believes that it is important to identify with this.

Some of these women had the potential to be great writers. Walker identifies with this potential and she expresses their creativity and culture through her own writing. Therefore, Walker’s writings become the bridge that connects the gap between African-American women of the past and their search to be able to express their creativity and spirituality. Walker breaks down the barriers that these women could not overcome: T]he subject of recovery has been the concern of many black women writers who seek various kinds of redemption for women who have been imprisoned in sexist fantasy or racist stereotype for too long (Dixon, 1987: 107).

Walker may have the freedom to write, but she can also identify with the historical racism that had haunted her ancestors. She feels connected to the toils and hardships that the black women had been subjected to, and this is a way that Walker identifies herself to her African-American ancestors. Marshall’s identification with her African-American ancestors is more explicitly involving her mother and her mother’s friends. What may be viewed on the surface as a typical black woman domestic labourer to most people, is what Marshall sees as the ultimate expression of art.

In her essay, Marshall identifies with her mother and the African-American tradition that her mother expressed. Marshall describes the kitchen setting she was exposed to as a child: They were women in whom the need for self-expression was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to them they made of it an art form that- in keeping with the African tradition in which art and life are one – was an integral part of their lives

The ancestry Marshall refers to had the same barriers as Walker expressed that her ancestors had: they had only their voice through which they chose to speak or sing, and to write as a form of self-expression was not an option. Marshall equates her being a writer to the oral heritage of her mother and explains how they both transcend the everyday. Through identifying with her mother, Marshall finds that they have things in common because they both express their creativity in an art form: one in the oral tradition and the other in the written tradition:

The role of art in this tradition unifies the seemingly disparate themes of motherhood and orality. Mother love physically and emotionally nurtures individuals; oral art analogously sustains the tribe. The written works of literate daughters incorporate the oral ancestral voices of tribal mothers Marshall ultimately identifies with her mother’s oral tradition and she records it into the written tradition. Hurston’s story embodies some of the aspects of identification that are seen in Walker’s and Marshall’s works.

Delia, the main character, is a black working woman and her art is expressed through her hard work. She makes a living for herself through her work and sweat. The money she makes has paid for her house and food. Her house is an expression of her hard work and Delia is proud of this: Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more times than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it (Hurston, 1996: 1492).

As in Marshall’s essay about her mother, Delia can be paralleled to her because she is a black woman domestic labourer who is viewed as such by the rest of her town. However, as in Marshall’s mother’s case, Delia’s work becomes something symbolic, something that is an artful expression of her being. Delia is also a woman who is faithful to the church. Every week, regardless of her busy life, she makes time to escape to a spiritual place. For Delia, being at church gets rid of all the misfortunes of her life and she finds some inner peace.

Through songs that are sung at church, Delia takes refuge in a more spiritual state of mind. It is as though all of her worries are gone and it is just her and the spirits: She stayed to the night service – “love feast” – hich was very warm and full of spirit. In the emotional winds her domestic trials were borne far and wide as she sang as she drove homeward Walker, in her essay, makes reference to her great-grandmothers and how, through their singing at church, they are unconsciously in touch with their spirituality.

In fact, Walker may have been referring to women who were living during the time when Hurston was writing: “Most writers of her time wanted to reject the South because of its racism; few wanted to celebrate its flourishing black culture” (Dixon, 1987: 85). Hurston, as a writer during her life, can be seen as being ahead of her time because she touches on issues that are sensitive to black women. It is only decades later that Walker identifies herself with Hurston and she sees Hurston as one of those great unknown women who deserve credit for her creativity, spirituality, and expression of work as art.

Walker and Marshall also write about their search for independence as black women. In Walker’s instance, women of the past have found independence and freedom through their creative spirits. Marshall sees her mother as finding freedom and independence through language. Walker defines the creative spirit as an expression of the black woman through everyday things. These everyday things are transcended and that is where we ultimately find the creative spirit.

These ancestors express themselves through songs and quilt-making because these are art forms that cannot be taken away from them. Hence, Walker has discovered that they find their freedom and independence here: And yet, it is to my mother – and all of our mothers who were not famous – that I went in search of the Secret of what has fed that muzzled and often utilated but vibrant, creative spirit that the black woman has inherited, and that pops out in wild and and unlikely places to this day (Walker, 1996: 2319).

In this statement, Walker embodies both hopelessness and hopefulness. These black women may have been treated like stray dogs and they may have felt that they have been abandoned and forgotten about, but Walker put a little gleam of hope into these lived lives. She forces the reader to recognize that these women set themselves free, even if it was only for small periods at a time, through a mysterious and vibrant creative spirit. Marshall’s notion of independence is through language and she defines it as the spoken word’.

In Marshall’s mother’s time, black women were viewed as powerless. Most of them did not work outside the home, and if they chose to do work, you would see them on the street corners begging white women to do their housework for them in exchange for a meager wage. This would have been a humiliating experience, so these women would retreat to their kitchens where they felt powerful. Marshall’s mother and her friends would spend hours talking. Their colloquial African-American language became raised to a higher art.

They created poetry through such phrases as: The sea ain’t got no back door’ and beautiful-ugly’. These such phrases are in no way eloquent, but they certainly were appealing to Marshall. Their use of African-American jargon gave them the freedom to express themselves in the only way they knew possible: Those late afternoon conversations on a wide range of topics were a way for them to feel they exercised some measure of control over their lives and the events that shaped them . . . They were in control if only for the two hours or so that they remained in the house

It was in the kitchen where these women felt they has the power to be themselves. The kitchen was their own little world where they had the ability to have an opinion on anything from a women they knew to the United States president. Through the spoken word, these women had no inhibitions. They had found their freedom and independence in the one safe place that they knew best: the kitchen. In Hurston’s story, Delia also found her independence and freedom inside her own home. Home was a place where Delia expressed herself through both her creative spirit and through the spoken word.

Although Delia was a working woman who did white people’s laundry, her creative spirit was brought out in the very way she faithfully and methodically completed all of her work each week. She knew that hard work paid off because she bought her house from the money earned through her sweat. She does not depend on anybody, not even her husband, and she is able to gain some sort of pride from her work or the results that her work has provided for her: “Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for old days and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely” (Hurston, 1996: 1492).

In a moment of truth and solitude, Delia finds solace in her home. She discards the burdens in her life and she takes refuge in the positive. If there is anything of value to Delia, it is her hard-earned home. She has acquired a sense of independence in knowing that she has a place that is nobody else’s but her own: “Hurston endows her fiction with a consciousness of space and place and their impact on personal growth” (Dixon, 1987: 85). Walker and Marshall celebrate the women who came before them, famous or unknown, because they see these women as inspirations for them to become writers.

They articulate and glorify the lives of their mothers because they find themselves through each of these women. Walker talks about her mother’s garden as an ultimate expression of art. The exotic flowers that were planted there represent her mother’s attempt to retain their African heritage. By diligently tending to the garden each day, Walker’s mother is attaching herself to the land. Walker admires the connection to nature because it is a symbol of her mother’s creative spirit. Walker is inspired by her mother’s successful attempt to be Creator and to create beauty.

It is through analyzing her mother’s simplistic and naturally-oriented life that Walker is able to find a similar place inside of her: Her face, as she prepared the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them (Walker, 1996: 2321). Walker describes her mother as giving her a sense of hope for the great potential she can be capable of. Her mother took great pride in the creation of her gardens, and Walker takes pride in her mother’s strength and dedication.

Therefore, Walker can be seen as writing her mother because her mother could not write for herself. Walker finds her mother inside of herself, and this is what inspires her to write. So, her mother becomes not only a role model, but also a hero. Marshall writes about her mother’s spoken word as the ultimate expression of her art. Her mother’s African-American colloquialisms are raised to a higher level by Marshall. It is through these slang-oriented conversations that Marshall’s mother holds on to her African heritage and Marshall admires this.

This freedom of speech gave her mother the ability to express herself in the best possible way she knew. Marshall’s mother’s unconventional poetic conversations with her friends are what inspire Marshall: They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. That is why my best work must be attributed to them; it stands as a testimony, to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen Above any literary great, Marshall feels most indebted to her mother for her inspiration as a writer.

She has looked to the oral culture that her mother passed on to her as a means through which she can express herself as a black woman writer. Like Walker, Marshall also sees her mother as a great role model and hero in her life. Marshall’s African heritage is lived through her ability to write about it. And for this, she thanks her mother. One can now see how great of an impact the African-American women of the past have had on Walker, Marshall, and Hurston. Each of these black woman writers explains in her work the importance of identity, independence, and inspiration.

Both Walker and Marshall have found their common identity with their ancestors. In Hurston’s work, Delia is a representation of this identity. As for independence, each of these women writes about independence as being tied to freedom; they then connect this idea with the home. For Walker, independence can be found in the ever-present, but commonly neglected, creative spirit. For Marshall, independence is found in the power of the spoken word. Finally, Hurston depicts Delia’s independence through her strong attachment to her home, work, and church.

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