Shantrelle P. Lewis’ timely documentary In Our Mother’s Garden brings front and center the Black diasporic relationships between daughters, mothers and grandmamas. Watching it, Lewis reminds us that Black motherhood is not a single story, that it embodies multiple languages and still its translation is universal. In conversation with a spectrum of mothers and daughters, we come to the realization that no matter which corner of the kitchen, the altar, the church or garden, Black mothering has core commonality. It is loaded with care, complexity, and candor that is specific to our shared experience.
As a storyteller, Lewis is a chef of sorts, following a gumbo recipe from her native home of New Orleans. Her ingredients are the material memories she gathers from her cast of daughters, many of whom we are familiar with—the Black feminist Brittney Cooper, #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, the multi-disciplinary visual artist Adama Delphine Fawundu, and professor and Obatala priestess Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, to name a few. She throws in pinches of her own flavor by including her personal mother-daughter experiences and tender moments with her grandma Gladys.
Lewis builds a robust stew by having each woman speak their grandmothers’ and mother’s government name. Saying their names trigger a wave of “re-memory,” the process of remembering a memory, which was coined by the late, great literary mama Toni Morrison. Through this process, which is often an emotional one, the daughters and granddaughters share stories of love, maternal survival (Cooper’s mother survived intimate partner violence), protection (Burke’s grandmother is a fearless defender), spirituality (the praying grandmamas), and, most importantly, the liberation of Willie Mae, Iris, Ruby, Antoinette, Mama Verna and so many others. These maternal narratives allow us to remember both the challenges and victories of Black mothers across space and time. We’re made aware of the strength they bring forward and the resilience their descendants and female offspring carry over.
The film effectively oscillates between the “gardens” of Black mothers and a necessity for them to receive their flowers—in life and in death. Lewis makes this plain; so much so, it should be understood that celebration and veneration of our mothers is a must. This, too, is a timely notion as Black mothers continue to be dragged for their particular brand of mothering: be it the way they discipline, the sacrifices they make, or their line of tough-loving.
A door is opened just a bit to share a glimpse of Lucumí and Yoruba’s sacred practice of offering—feeding and honoring our dead. We bear witness to the process as Zauditu-Selassie cooks up a creole feast laden with rice, okra, and fish head, and serves it at an illustrious altar dedicated to her matriarchal ancestors. While doing so, she explains the significance of these offerings and shares spiritual aspects and histories of women in her family.
All-in-all, Lewis gives us art and art clears a pathway for healing. In Our Mothers’ Garden wants us to heal, not by moving on but by remembering. It taps us on our shoulder and tugs at our hearts, reminding us to remember Black mothers for their commitment to mothering, to tilling the soil, sowing the seeds, nurturing the lot and growing us up in their garden.
In Our Mother’s Gardens is currently available for streaming on Netflix.