In this classic womanist essay, Alice Walker puts forth the idea that Black women writers need models to thrive. To begin her argument, she cites a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to Emile Bernard. Van Gogh has just cut off his ear after a fight with Gauguin, and had voluntarily institutionalized himself to improve his mental state. Although the letter is hopeful, he tells Bernard he is suffering without models and painting olive trees instead.
Although Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime, he was committed to creating art his own way. Walker says that the whole world lacks good models, and all artists suffer when criticism harms unique work. When we look at the problem from a lager perspective, we need models not just for art but also for life.
There is only one large story, and Black and White authors all write from it. The only difference Walker can see is that they write from different perspectives. When a White author ends a story, the characters are left without hope for a better life. Black authors, on the other hand, end their novels with the sense of a greater struggle for bettering the lives of everyone. Perhaps the difference comes from the tradition of slave narratives in Black literature.
To illustrate this point, Walker uses the characters from The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Both Edna Pontellier and Janie Crawford have dull husbands and live in lackluster towns, and both find a renewal through their lovers. Their reactions are quite different, however. At the end of The Awakening, Mme Pontellier can’t handle the societal restrictions placed upon her and kills herself. Janie Crawford defies convention, runs away with her lover, and comes back to tell her amazing story.
Although Walker loves both these novels and considers them important in her own development, she chooses Janie as a better model for herself. Women, especially Black women, need such models to become brave in their own lives and work.
Not only is it important to have models, but also to create them to fill a void. Toni Morrison and Charlotte Bronte write the kind of stories that they want to read, if they were available. By doing so, they created models for others. Authors of color can do this by pointing us all toward greater wisdom in how to live our lives because they tap into the larger story. While creating these stories, these authors have to serve as their own models, because White models aren’t as easy to identify with.
Alice Walker seeks out unheard of and forgotten Black women writers of the past to be her personal models and give her confidence in her own writing. When she began to write a story about voodoo traditions, she read many inaccurate and racist anthropological studies made by White men. She needed a Black source to lend her story credibility, and she finally found one in Zora Neale Hurston, mentioned only in a footnote of someone else’s work. Zora Neale Hurston was a Black anthropologist (among other things), and she studied Black southern culture and voodoo extensively. Walker used Hurston as her story’s model, and it ended up being chosen one of the best short stories of the year.
Now, Walker writes books she feels that she should have been able to read herself. In doing research, she unearthed other authors that serve as models for her work. She cites Jean Toomer, Anais Nin, Colette, Tillie Olsen, and Virginia Woolf as creating literature that put her on the right path. When writing, she realizes, not only do we save lives by serving as models, but we also save ourselves.