Years ago, I read Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" and it made me think about legacies in a different light. Walker talks about our ancestors, our mothers who bore inside of them the need to create art that they were never taught, trained, or expected to create. These are black women who may have been driven with an intense need that could never be nourished and I began imagining how heartbreaking life must have been for them.
I can't recall a time in my life when I was not determined to write. I wrote as an elementary aged child and I continued to write through my secondary years. I would write poetry and stories and even novels that were painstakingly inked out by hand. I needed to write because there was some beast deep inside me that wanted to be fed. The earliest piece that I remember was a poem that I wrote when I was nine in response to my father's sudden death. I'm quite sure I wrote before then, but that poem was put on the cover of my father's obituary. That, in many ways, marked a beginning for me as a writer.
Most importantly--even more than my desire to write--was that I was given the tools to write. Not only was I given the chance to be educated, but my mother's choice in schools for my siblings and I offered me an excellent educational foundation. I, the budding writer, was given the tools that I would need for the craft of writing. And that knowledge helped me to understand the depth of Walker's peek into the lives of our ancestors.
I found myself imagining the number of slave women who, like me, had been gifted with the desire to write. They must have heard the voices of characters and seen places so vivid that they began to believe they had visited those places before. They must have felt the desire to write a story--to bring a body, a thought, a personality into being but know that they never could. How many slave women had dreamed of words or heard music in their sleep? How many had felt the urge to capture nature on canvas but knew that their artistry would never find a means of expression?
I have always known that laws robbed slave women (and men) of their chance at education but how many were driven to madness because they could never and would never be able to create? I had not thought of that at all until I read Alice Walker's essay and realized that denying slaves an education traveled well beyond denying them the chance to read or write.
Did my mother's parents, who did not finish high school, dream of artistry too? What did they lose to the systemic miseducation and lack of education that devastated black communities? I know that there were Charles Chesnutts, Anna Julia Coopers, Langston Hugheses and Zora Neale Hurstons but what of all the other writers who lacked the tools they needed to flourish. What of all the writers who could never pick up a pen to write because they had never learned how?
I think of all the artistic genius that was lost to slavery and segregation and I fully understand how important it is to write or draw or sing or create--not just because we want to--but because we can.