Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

George Moses Horton’s Recently Discovered Prose

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George Moses Horton was an African-American poet enslaved in Chatham County, North Carolina.  Jonathan Senchyne, a book historian at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered a previously unknown essay by Horton entitled “Individual Influence.”

Learn more about Horton and this new find in Jennifer Schuessler’s piece at The New York Times:

The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.

Today, while Horton is still far from a household literary name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its historical relationship with slavery.

Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”

“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.

Read the entire piece here.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

Wheatley

Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Author’s Corner with Eric Gardner

Eric Gardner is Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University.  This interview is based on his most recent book, Black Print Unbound:  The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Black Print Unbound?

EG: Most immediately, writing a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper for my last book—Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (UP of Mississippi, 2009)—confirmed my sense that there were several books that needed to be written about the Christian Recorder.  For a host of reasons, I’m convinced that it was the single most important Black periodical in the nineteenth century, and its amazing stories—stories that can aid students of literature, culture, history, faith, and activism—have barely begun to be told.  I wanted to focus on the years during and just after the Civil War because most histories of Civil War print culture (especially literature) are lily white, and much work on nineteenth-century African American literature deemphasizes or even skips over the War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of Black periodicals and/or Black church print.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Print Unbound?

EG: While filled with specific arguments on diverse texts, individuals, and events, Black Print Unbound’s larger argument is that the Christian Recorder in specific and both faith-centered structures and Black periodicals more generally represented critical modes for African Americans to insert themselves in an often-hostile American print culture.  Black Print Unbound is thus both a call to and an example of the ways in which we might rethink American literary history to make room for voices, genres, and print venues that have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, and willfully erased.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Print Unbound?

EG: As a study of a periodical of national reach among free African Americans, Black Print Unbound is at once a massive recovery effort of a publication by African Americans for African Americans, a consideration of the nexus of African Americanist inquiry and print culture studies, and an intervention in the study of literatures of the Civil War, faith communities, and periodicals.  At its most basic and as one of the fullest studies of an early Black periodical done to date, it shares information on a massive number of authors, texts, editors, and print processes that have much to say to our current moment and are ripe for further study.  The book also offers the most in-depth study of early Black periodicals subscribers (and likely readers) in existence—and does so in a way that attends to both broad demographic trends and the stories of several individuals.  The book pairs this kind of rich cultural and material history with close analysis of diverse and often unknown texts that were crucial to the development of African American literature and culture and that challenge our senses of genre, authorship, and community.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: This is a tough question, as my degrees, disciplinary home, and teaching are all in literary studies.  But, if pressed, I’d say gradually and partially in answer to the first part of the question and out of both love and necessity to the second.  I came to literary studies in large part because of a fascination with the past and with the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about our pasts.  The more I moved toward an emphasis on early Black print culture, the more I understood that careful historical work was and would be simply essential in helping correct the myriad misconceptions surrounding African Americans and print in the nineteenth century.  I spent a long time early in my career simply learning more, engaging with historians and cross-disciplinary scholars, immersing myself in archival work, learning to appreciate the craft of history more fully, and thinking about its intersections with literary scholarship.  When I call myself by the old-school term “literary historian,” I thus try to invoke the dance of disciplines and the necessity of dialogic approaches to our work.

 JF: What is your next project?

 EG: Another tough question, because there is so much work to do.  I’m currently engaged with three large projects: a study of the early Black press in San Francisco, further consideration of the Recorder during the editorial term of Benjamin Tucker Tanner (a kind of sequel to Black Print Unbound, if you will), and more in-depth study of women writers connected to church print (especially Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but also Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and a range of other folks).  You’ll also soon see publication of a special issue of the journal American Periodicalsfocused on Black periodical studies that I co-edited with Joycelyn Moody.

JF: Thanks, Eric!