Alice Walker, Autobiographical Contract, and Sciences of Memory

[By Jerry Ward, Jr.]

Definition is essential.  What does womanist mean and what is its
relation to feminist?  Does the assertion
that womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender explain saturation as a
major difference in historical experience? 
The various essays, bits of interviews, poetry (inside prose frames) and
reviews collected in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983)
suggest an answer. They suggest that Walker the novelist is of a
“revolutionary” mind like a furious flower, is as serious as was Zora Neale
Hurston, Audre Lorde, and Toni Cade Bambara. These women assumed the freedom to
create is an entitlement of nature not of man. And they have the backing of
words attributed to Sojourner Truth in 1851: “Whar did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do
wid Him.”

Walker’s attitude toward literature has a faint
echo of Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  Do not confuse attitude with heritage.
Mountains are gendered property, and in Walker’s case, Sojourner Truth holds
the mortgage! Interpretation can take the guise of paying interest, escrow, and

Walker’s trope of the garden has a great
deal to do with memory and with the fact that canonized writers have no
monopoly in cultivating ART. Context requires remembering that Walker first
broadcast ideas about mothers and gardens at the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Festival
in Jackson, Mississippi and remembering I had taught The Third Life of Grange
the previous year.  My memory of
that event and of my teaching has been reactivated by how the biologist Steven
Rose commented on the Rosetta Stone in The Making of Memory (1992):
Memory pervades ancient ballads and
modern novels alike.  Especially in the
present century, from James Joyce and Marcel Proust to the new writing of
Margaret Atwood, of J. G. Ballard, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Alice
Walker, the theme of personal memory, of the constant examination,
interpretation, and reinterpretation of lived experience, is central.

And Rose asked in the same
paragraph:  Or are we doomed to live
always in the divided worlds of subjectivity and objectivity, with no
translation possible between these languages? (7)
Mother transmits the seed of art and the
desire to grow it into ART to daughter.  We
are expected to read the fine print in the title essay “In Search of Our
Mother’s Gardens” as Walker’s autobiographical contract.

Walker’s recent thinking about her
autobiographical contract appears in the appended reader’s guide for Now Is the
Time to Open Your Heart
(2004).  Asked
what inspired her to write the novel, Walker replied:  “So in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart I
set out to chart such a journey, the adventures of Kate Nelson Talkingtree, who
is named partly for a grandmother, my father’s mother, who was murdered when he
was a boy.”  This novel incorporates
Walker’s quest for the culture of the Grandmother, her keeping the faith with
the autobiographical contract.  Through
fiction, Walker provisionally confirms Steven Rose’s idea that sciences of the
collective — “ecology and ethnology, sociology and economics” (7-8) —   are better instruments than the sciences of
“individual psychology or neuroscience” (7) for exploring the nature of memory.
The jury is still out, however, on any permanent conjoining of subjectivity and
objectivity, inside or outside of fictions.