Celebrating Our Spiritual Academic Mothers

Muriel Rukeyser. Photo credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

Muriel Rukeyser. Photo credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

There’s no Mother’s Day for our academic mothers, those women who inspired us during our academic lives. Some may have been mentors we met as undergraduate students and, perhaps, we were lucky to have more when we pursued our graduate degrees. Some are women with whom we currently work – as staff, adjuncts, or fellow faculty – who know when to listen, when to push, and when to sit quietly by and let us fail (always there to pick us up when we need it).

But some of these mothers we have never met. They are our spiritual mothers, our book mothers, our theory mothers; those women whom we studied from afar and whose work we brought into our own. These are the inspirations we call on in times of academic malaise and uncertainty.

One such mother for me is poet Muriel Rukeyser, and a quotation from her poem “Käthe Kollwitz“ became a mantra for my own graduate work:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about

her life?

The world would split open

Perhaps the most famous example of a spiritual academic mother is exemplified by the relationship poet, writer, and activist Alice Walker has with Zora Neale Hurston, an American writer and anthropologist who died in 1960. By the time Walker wrote about Hurston in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Hurston had been all but forgotten. Walker says in a PBS video, “I realized that unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance that she would slip back into obscurity.”

Walker went to Florida on a quest to find Hurston’s gravesite and told the story in “Looking for Zora.” The entire visit was poignant yet filled with humor. After several interviews with locals that knew Hurston, one of them accompanied Walker as she tried to negotiate the overgrown cemetery where she was buried. It was difficult to find the exact spot, so Walker called out, “Zora! I’m here. Are you?” Her companion grumbled, in response, “If she is, I hope she’ll keep to herself.”

Walker eventually found where Hurston was buried and paid to have a headstone placed there. She said, as way of a conclusion to this essay:

There are times – and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them – when normal

responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no

real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me

to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is

because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a

teary sort of person herself; but partly, too, it is because there is a point at which

even grief feels absurd…(115).

Walker and Hurston’s relationship continued from that point, and in a 2003 video, Walker recites a poem she wrote that she believes Hurston would have liked. Her introduction in the video said, “I wrote this about myself, but I think it really applies to her.” It is titled “Be Nobody’s Darling,” and it begins:

Be nobody’s darling;

Be an outcast.

Take the contradictions

Of your life

And wrap around

You like a shawl,

To parry stones

To keep you warm.

The ongoing relationship between these two incredible writers who never met reminds me that we need to celebrate a different kind of Mother’s Day, one where we remember those women who spoke to us (and continue to do so) over time and beyond place. They are our spiritual academic mothers, and what we accomplish is dedicated to them.

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