‘In Our Mothers’ Gardens’ Explores the Secret Lives of Black Women

A reflection on the one year anniversary of Shantrelle P. Lewis's poignant film on collective healing and self-love.

‘In Our Mothers’ Gardens’ Explores the Secret Lives of Black Women
Image:ARRAY Films

As Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, a professor of Black global literature, says in the film In Our Mothers’ Gardens: “You can’t have a short memory and be Black. Because that’s our greatest weapon.” Inspired by Alice Walker’s essay collection, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, director Shantrelle P. Lewis’s 2021 film with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY, In Our Mothers’ Gardens, offers a poignant meditation on the rich, complex interior lives of Black women in America.

This month marks the first anniversary of Lewis’s directorial debut for a full-length Netflix feature, which deeply moved and challenged me. The 82-minute feature includes interviews of a myriad of accomplished Black women with roots in Louisiana, Mississippi, Chicago, Kentucky, New York, Antigua, South Africa, and Puerto Rico. They include #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, tour manager for The Roots and Chris Rock Tina Farris, Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames of Princeton University, Brittney Cooper, author of Beyond Respectability and Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers, Head of Inclusive Talent Outreach at Netflix Erica Sewell; and NPR’s Senior Director for Programming Yolanda Sangweni. Regardless of where their roots started, the ties that bind in this film are that Black women are mirrors reflecting dynamics prisms. They are limbs that make up their matriarchal tree. Each ancestor is bound to spirit and earth, and, if we listen close enough, we can hear them speaking and guiding us.

Ordinarily, the candid stories we hear in In Our Mothers’ Garden are usually reserved for private conversations, kept only for family to know. The beauty of a film like In Our Mothers’ Garden is that allowance to peek behind the closed doors in the rooms of these women’s lives. In the beginning, we chart the course of their mother’s origins and see stories of migration, leaving home, and traveling unfazed by the limitations of the world. These women talk extensively about matriarchal sacrifice and what was done for them to have a better life for their family. Burke recalled the unforgettable moment when her grandmother threw a pipe through the supermarket window at man who slapped Burke across the face. Cooper recounts how her grandmother from Choudrant, Louisiana, kept a rifle in the door jam to ward off (mainly white) intruders. What resounds is the wisdom these women enshrine in their hearts. Those were the balms for me as I watched the film.

“The women in my family command [with that spirit]. They don’t command loud. They just show up and the command is issued,” says Desiree B. T. Gordon, Strategy and Programs Director at the Brooklyn Arts Council.

Other memorable moments, for me, were with Zauditu-Selassie—a priest of the Obatala in the Lukumi/Yoruba tradition, and a true screen-stealing character. Her jewelry-filled arms, quick wit, colorful phrases, and home covered in plants, shrines, and talismans captivates viewers. She teaches us about her Cajun Louisiana customs, how to cook proper fish and rice for the Egun (ancestors), and the importance of being spiritually in tune with the past.

Zauditu-Selassie highlighted a key aspect that was echoed throughout the other stories in the film: Black women are multi-dimensional and complex. She shares that the matriarchs in her own family were not just wealthy, sophisticated women, but also healers, priestesses, and fighters. “One [grandmother] bet horses and the other had eleven husbands,” she said.

Sewell echoed similar sentiments, sharing that she came from a church where women curse from the pulpit because “Jesus was a liberator” and “an activist.” I feel a fierce connection to these women, particularly those who shared that their ancestors may have faced intense racism or trauma, but were always dressed in the most fashionable regalia. You would never see them broken. Lewis showed the multiplicity of Black life and emotion across the diaspora.

In an exclusive interview with director Shantrelle Lewis she told Jezebel,

“ Black women are not monoliths, and also my entire career has been focused on showing our vast differences throughout the African diaspora by traveling to Havana, Porta Prince, Johannesburg, etc. I’ve always been very aware of the need for stories that are not just limited to the United States African American experience. Far too often we leave out Black Canadians, Black Dutch people, and Black European cultures. Often times we only get one view of what it is to be a Black woman, and that limited view of us silences others’ lived experiences— especially Afro Latino women. We represent such a vast range of beliefs, emotions, and traditions.”

Cooper, Farris, and Thames all spoke of how their mothers and grandmothers fought to protect deep interior lives and keep up appearances because of the pressure of respectability politics. Farris admitted she had never seen her grandmother cry, or utter the vulnerable words, “I love you,” but she could feel it through action. This is what Cooper, Lewis, and Thames consider the unhealthy side of Black womanhood: The pressure to be all and provide all for everyone while neglecting oneself.

Lewis told Jezebel that a major matriarchal lesson that sticks with her even today is, “Saving a little something for yourself.” She recalls that while looking through old VHS tapes of her mother and grandmother, she unlocked an important aspect of her mother’s story. “I finally understood why my mother was emotionally unavailable. Because she had to mother at an early age. She helped raise her brothers and sisters. So instead of self-sacrificing, I have learned to self-center. In order to survive sexual abuse, colorism, etc, I had to center joy, which is the antithesis of what we’re taught as Black women,” Lewis shared with us.

These stories of family, faith, and ferocity were lessons I needed on resilience and peace as the film revealed the journey of how each woman arrived where they stand today. Viewers are left with the important message of love and healing. Through memory, they find a path to radical self-love, resistance, and spirituality. I now have permission to be, as Zauditu-Selassie says, “a cussing woman with a proverb on her tongue”—fully myself and unashamed.

What’s most comforting is that In Our Mothers’ Garden is riddled with invaluable gems that we can harness during dark times. The proverbs Lewis’s film provides are not only timely but transformative meditations on joy and healing. Lewis reminds us that there is value in Black healing, and that we must not be private about our joy or rage—being out loud is the most beautiful way to break free.

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