Two weeks ago, I analyzed the back end of Virginia Woolf’s opus, A Room of One’s Own, only for her thesis to appear in Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden.” Indeed, one of the few criticisms one can lob Woolf’s way is that her thesis may bear a certain racial bias, an accusation that at first appears more substantial when Walker presents Phillis Wheatley, a much-needed counter argument. But as so often the case when analyzing feminist works, one finds little to be solely black or white.
Walker frames her essay by lamenting the lost generations of black women’s “strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talented,” under which they were “[driven]…insane.” (233) From there, one may draw a connection to Toni Morrison’s Sula, a novel which chronicled one such frustrated “artist” and left an ominous message: “Any artist without an art form…[becomes] dangerous” (Sula, 121) Instead of fearing them, Walker would prefer we mourn “the agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists and Short-Story Writers…who died with their real gifts stifled within them.” (234)
Before Walker, as Woolf sometimes did, falls into the trap of writing as if this was the fate of all potentially creative women, she reminds us: “for all the young women…have not perished in the wilderness.” (235) If women need to own a room and money, what does Woolf make, Walker asks, of “Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself?” (235) Wheatley was fortunate for a black woman of her time to be sold to a comparatively progressive Boston family, who taught her to read and write and allowed her to live as a West African Mozart and cultivate her immense literary talent. “Had she been white,” Walker believes, “[she] would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in society of her day.” (235)
When Woolf writes of woman’s hindrance “by contrary instincts,” Walker immediately draws a connection to Wheatley, whose “loyalties were completely divided, as was, without question, her mind.” (235-236) Walker questions the assumed honorable intentions of the “wealthy doting whites who instilled in her the ‘savagery’ of the Africa they ‘rescued’ her from.” Wheatley may have blossomed under captivity, but Walker reminds the reader that, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, a caged bird may sing, but that does not make her any less trapped.
Walker views this singing as her undoing; she sees a woman “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.” (236) Her fate parallels the choice, according to Woolf, all women must make: “If Mrs. Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been–that was the snag in the argument–no Mary.” (A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 1) The white Mrs. Seton lived a long, if creatively unfulfilled life in a manner not to dissimilar to Walker’s image of the black woman who also had “her body broken and forced to bear children…eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children…” (233)
Was, then, Phillis Wheatley’s creativity ultimately stifled as a result of being a black woman or simply being a woman?