In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Sainthood
To use the name of a Saint generally evokes images of holy men and women of the Catholic church, dressed in flowing robes and surrounded by an oil-painted aura. There are patron saints-those with a sort of specialized divinity-of bakers and bellmakers, orphans and pawnbrokers, soldiers and snake bites, soldiers and writers. Each is a Catholic who lived a life deemed particularly holy and was named, postmortem, by the Pope to sainthood. This construct, I find, is something of an empty set of ideas. The process of canonization is one notorious for its pecuniary nature and tendencies toward corruption. What kind of hope, then, can one possibly be offered by a long-dead person so chosen? Perhaps the kind of sainthood I can accept is much more a secular one. This is, I think, the order of sainthood of author Alice Walker's invention.
In her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," Walker ponders the histories and legacies of black American women who found, somehow, even in the bondage of slavery, an inextinguishable need and ability to create. Walker refers to these women not as slaves, or Africans, or Americans, or even women-she calls them saints: "these crazy saints stared out on the world, wildly, like lunatics..." (Walker 695). I'd read the essay twice before I began to understand the resonance of Walker's choice of words. Walker's women are saints not because they were named by the pope after the documentation of two miracles of their performance and the paying of the appropriate bishops-but because of the way they looked at the world...perhaps with the special clarity of lunacy.
The dictionary says a saint is "a person officially recognized as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth." This, I believe, is exactly the condition to which Walker speaks. She tells of women like Phyllis Wheatley, a magnificent poet even with her handicap of "own[ing] not even herself" (697). She recalls women like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday who, though not enslaved, tore through the trappings of prejudice to save their art. Walker remembers her own mother, whose ability and determination to create visual beauty transcended not only the boundaries of bondage but also those of death, inspiring her daughter many years after she ceased to live. I would challenge the notion that these women were not "entitled to public veneration" and I believe Walker would emphatically agree that all of them, perhaps particularly her own mother, were "capable of interceding" in the lives of people on earth. I agree, then, that these women like Zora Hurston and Phyllis Wheatley can indeed be called saints, irreverently canonized by their knowledge of "the secret of what has fed that muzzled and often mutilated, but vibrant, creative spirit that the black woman has inherited" (699).
In addition, though she does not explicitly include her, I believe that Walker would agree...