Jean Toomer and Okot p'Bitek in Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"

By Fike, Matthew A. | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Jean Toomer and Okot p'Bitek in Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"


Fike, Matthew A., MELUS


By writing "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," Alice Walker hopes to fulfill a twofold purpose: to create a sense of literary continuity among black women by saving writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Phillis Wheatley from oblivion and, as Felipe Smith has written, to provide "the wisdom of the past both to ensure the continuity of the folk ethos and to serve as a blueprint for personal and communal survival for those who require artistic models" (438).(1) Less straightforward, however, is her handling of the work of two black male predecessors: the epigraph to the essay is taken from the "Avey" chapter of Jean Toomer's Cane, and later on Walker adapts a passage from Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino. Both Toomer in "Avey" and Walker in her paraphrase of p'Bitek comment on women's creative potential, but Toomer is not as positive, or the paraphrase of p'Bitek as negative, as the reader may at first assume. The paraphrase, for example, although a cry of unfulfilled potential, is in harmony with Walker's point that black women were creative in singing hymns, quilting, and growing flowers despite impediments that cut them off from the possibility of art on a grander scale. Exploring Walker's handling of the material from Toomer and p'Bitek, then, will take us deeper into "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" and provide a firmer grasp on the essay's intricacies.

Bloom's anxiety theory has sparked contrasting views on influence among black female writers. According to Barbara Christian, a contemporary woman writer of color "covers over more profoundly than does the white writer her ambivalence about matrilineage, her own misreading of precursors, and her link to an oral as well as a written tradition" ("Black Woman Artist" 116). What Bloom calls clinamen, or a "swerving" away from the parent work, may exist in masked form among black female writers (Anxiety 14). Deborah E. McDowell offers a contrasting view:

   Bloom's linear theory of the oedipal war between literary fathers and sons
   does not obtain among black woman writers, many of whom reverently
   acknowledge their debts to their foremothers. Unlike Bloom, I see literary
   influence, to borrow from Julia Kristeva, in the intertextual sense, each
   text in dialogue with all previous texts, transforming and retaining
   narrative patterns and strategies in endless possibility. (148)

Walker's own statement on literary influence in "Beyond the Peacock" is closer to reverent acknowledgement and transforming dialogue than to Christian's sense of ambivalent misreading: "I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm after" (Search 49). We could easily substitute the word "reader" for the word "writer," for both contribute "the missing parts" to previous works. Walker is to Hurston, Wheatley, Woolf, and other writers as the reader is to the essay and the allusions within it.

As Walker's own emphasis on completion suggests, her relationships with her literary foremothers cannot be properly characterized by "misprision proper" (Anxiety 14). Walker does not carve out a project for herself by misreading and thus defeating a literary foremother. Instead, as in McDowell's model, Walker engages in a wholistic act of completion by seeking connections with literary foremothers. This is the realm of Bloom's tessera, in which a writer "antithetically `completes' his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough" (14). As Diane Sadoff observes, "`In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens' transforms Woolf's model of the white female tradition by inserting in brackets the black equivalents for Woolf's exemplary writers and issues: instead of `Emily Bronte,' `Zora Hurston'; instead of `wise women,' `root workers'" (121). …

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