Black Women as Empty Churches

I really enjoyed reading through (what I assumed to be) the introduction to Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Walker’s conversation with Woolf really filled in some gaps for me; she really confronted Woolf’s racial and economic blind spots, while still affirming the core arguments that Woolf made. However, the thing that stuck in my head most was the in the beginning of the introduction. Walker begins by describing Jean Toomer’s understanding of the black woman, enslaved. To me, his view comes off as patronizing, and seems to cast these women in an impotent, animalistic light. The black women “stumbled blindly through their lives: creatures so abused and mutilated in body… that they considered themselves unworthy even of hope”; these black women are cast as blind creatures, led by fate or lack of will, forced to “desert their bodies” (232). Further, they become these fetishes, objects of religious fervor and sexual exploit. Based on this description, there is no way out for these abandoned bodies of suffering black women. It is difficult to judge these characterizations, since Walker is speaking on behalf of Toomer. But what seems easier to question is the right of Toomer to speak on behalf of the enslaved black woman. How does he come to understand the sexual exploitation of black women as worship? To what end?

Walker’s tone, especially towards the end of these paragraphs, does seem skeptical. I got the impression that Walker is searching for a different kind of black woman– the creator, the artist. The mothers and grandmothers that she knew, perhaps, were not these empty churches nor crazy women full of hopeless spirituality. But how should we understand them and place them in history? I don’t know that Walker really supplies an answer in this one section. To be fair, that may be the project of the book. These gardens, spaces of fertility and creation, may provide a healthy alternative to the barren space of the body-shrine. It seems that once again we have to ask questions of space! Maybe we need to look back to our discussion of the room of one’s own, of its attributes, and apply that thought to the spaces constructed by Walker. Does there need to be an internal space as well as an external one? Is the garden an external representation of an internal space?

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2 thoughts on “Black Women as Empty Churches

  1. I agree that Walker’s insights were refreshing when paired with Woolf’s, because the introduction of the cultural aspects made her argument more believable and understandable for me.

    Maybe the garden is an internal space insofar as it is a personal space? It is a space that the woman can control. It is a place of chaos that she can reorganize according to her own idea of beauty. Although there are many other aspects of her life that she is not in control of (slaves, for example, who are not in control of even their own bodies), the garden is one such sphere where she has total control.

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