In what is considered the defining essay of womanism, Alice Walker rediscovers the roots of Black women’s creativity, buried under oppression for hundreds of years. While Virginia Woolf claims that to write fiction, a woman needs money of her own and a room with a lock and key, Walker says that isn’t enough. She asserts that Woolf’s claim might be valid for White women, but Black women also need to own their own bodies and be free from slavery. Black women have long been considered the mules of the world. Because Black women have shouldered so many other people’s burdens, countless artists’ voices must have been crushed by the circumstances of their everyday lives.
To illustrate her point, she uses Phyllis Wheatley’s life as an example. Had she not been a slave, she would have been a famous poet. Instead, she is remembered for writing that the goddess of liberty has golden hair, when Wheatley was born in Africa. Walker says that although she has been ridiculed, her choice of the word golden makes perfect sense, as the woman she served probably had golden hair that Phyllis was made to brush.
Our mothers, grandparents, and great-grandparents all had similar experiences, whether we are aware of it or not. Walker’s mother raised a houseful of children, made all the clothes and linens, and tended the fields with her husband. She worked and worked and didn’t seem to have time for even the smallest private thought, but she kept a beautiful flower garden wherever they lived. That was the only form of expression Walker’s mother could put her voice into.
Although slavery and then oppressive poverty kept Black women from becoming professional artists, their creative sparks manifested themselves in other ways. Black women and men who write, create art, or lead others have to thank their mothers and grandmothers for keeping their creativity intact and passing it along.