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Despite oppression, African-American women of the past were able to overcome obstacles by taking on the role of artists. They relied on their creative spirits to carry them through their wretched existence. In Alice Walker's essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, " she explains how the mothers and grandmothers of her generation held on to their dignity and strength through their expression of creativity. The boldness represented by this creativity shows the dynamic depth of their souls and the courage they found within it.
Walker gives examples of some of these women in her essay and uses this method to effectively express her point. Women such as Mahalia Jackson, Elizabeth Catlett, and Frances Harper were able to rise above negative circumstances from their past by allowing their natural creativity to shine. Alice Walker wrote, "Our mothers and grandmothers, some of them: moving to music not yet written. And they waited. They waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known... " (Walker 695). Although they were unable to openly express their creativity, they were able to pass it on to their daughters who would have deserving opportunities to be artists.
As the granddaughter of a slave on a Louisiana plantation, Mahalia Jackson had the opportunity to allow her grandmother to be known as an artist. Mahalia started her singing career at the age of sixteen as a member of the Johnson Gospel Singers and later became the official soloist of the National Baptist Convention. Speaking of her great success, she stated, "I don't work for money. I sing because I love to sing" (Broughton 56).
It is clear that women of this time were truly deep and passionate about their creativity because of their love for it. It is evident that their grandmothers live on through their lives. Although Mahalia Jackson is not mentioned in Walker's essay, I believe she is a principal example of being a positive voice for her heritage. Through her poetry, Frances Harper also found a voice that her grandmother never had a chance to obtain.
By age fourteen, she wrote her first essay and composed several poems as a result of time spent reading to advance her education. She was so moved by the horrors of slavery that she became a permanent lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and later she became the first black American woman to publish a short story. (Smith 282) Frances Harper was able to use her productive creativity in ways her ancestors never could. Walker wrote, For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release. (Walker 695) They were not able to use their valuable gifts because society would not allow it. Although this left them feeling empty, they rose above the situation with inner strength and because of this, artists like Frances Harper are able to bring culture and deep insight to society. Another woman of great insight into culture was Elizabeth Catlett. As an artist, cultural nationalist, and civil rights activist, she believed that black American women were underestimated in their richness and creativity.
She wrote, I'm interested in women's liberation for the fulfillment of women, not just for jobs and equality with men and so on, but for what they can contribute to enrich the world, humanity. Their contributions have been denied them. (Lewis 102) This interest is exactly what she passed on through her creative talent as an artist. She wanted her art to be realistic. "I have always wanted my art to service Black people -- to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential... " (Lewis 125). Elizabeth Catlett showed strength in her art just as her grandmother showed strength despite oppression which hindered her creativity. Each of these three women are positive examples of the creative spirits of their mothers and grandmothers. They were able to "identify with our lives the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers were not allowed to know" (Walker 698).
Through their role as artists, they found the strength of their mothers and grandmothers and the courage and hope held deep within their souls, the same courage and hope about which Frances Harper wrote. There is light beyond the darkness, There is hope in God's great justice And the negro's rising brain. Though the morning seems to linger O'er the hilltops far away, Of a brighter coming day. (Harper 282) Bibliography:
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Research essay sample on Alice Walker American Women