(1983) brings together a collection of essays, articles, reviews, and commentaries written by Alice Walker between 1966 and 1982. The collection defines and expresses a womanist worldview with all of the love, respect, spiritual commitment, and demands for change that the term “womanist” implies. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens offers hope, healing, and wholeness to a world that often forgets that these things are possible. At the same time, the book highlights a historical past that includes many of the pioneers who forged the road of female creative expression and freedom.
The opening essay comments upon the importance of role models. Citing the example of Vincent Van Gogh's suicide, Walker states that the absence of role models can be fatal. For an artist, Walker claims, finding role models is essential to appreciating one's own creative abilities and developing a vision for living. Throughout the book she suggests an array of models—many silent and unheralded (mothers whose gardens or hand-crafted quilts were their art) and many long-standing favorites. Walker discusses with fondness and admiration the works of Flannery O’Conner, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and of course, Zora Neale Hurston. Without a doubt Hurston emerges as “queen bee.” In a moving article titled “Looking for Zora,” Walker describes her 1973 journey to find and mark the grave of her ancestral mentor. In a second essay, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View”, she argues the importance of recovering and remembering Hurston as a major American writer, anthropologist, and folklorist.
Walker's major concern in each essay is for wholeness and continuity, not only for African American women but for all people. Because of this concern, the collection of nonfiction is simultaneously inspiring and difficult, even painful, to read. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens discusses several subjects important to positive change in our present society (from nuclear weapons and anti-Semitism to child bearing). Almost every essay, however, is accented with Walker's memories of her life—so much so that the book often reads like a memoir. One of the most powerful of these memories is presented in the final essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.” In prose that reads like poetry, Walker shares the story of how an accident that disfigured her right eye and left it blind affected both her self-confidence and her inner vision.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens speaks to every woman and offers a concept for achieving wisdom, hope, and change called womanism. During the years since the book's publication, womanism has become a way of life for many women (and men). Womanist theories and commentaries appear in many areas of academia and popular culture, including film, education, theology, and literature. Distinguishing between womanism and feminism, however, has often been a subject of debate. In Walker's own words: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.” The intensity and sensitive inclusiveness of the essays in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens exemplify and expand Walker's comparison.
Alma S. Freeman, “Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship,” SAGE 2 (Spring 1985): 37–40.Dorothy G. Grimes, “‘Womanist Prose’ and the Quest for Community in American Culture,” Journal of American Culture 15.2 (Summer 1992): 19–24.