A Quite Contrary Alphabet Book Asks, How Did Our Gardens Grow?

AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GARDENING FOR COLORED CHILDREN: An Alphabetary of the Colonized World, by Jamaica Kincaid. Illustrated by Kara Walker.

It bears considering that had anything resembling “An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children” actually existed in the days of antebellum plantation culture, it would have been forbidden fruit: Few enslaved people, young or old, were allowed to learn to read or write.

With its mordantly anachronistic title and schoolroom-green cover, the book also serves as a reminder that the segregationist term “colored,” brought to you by the Jim Crow era, which extended well into the 20th century, drew lines almost as stark, limiting opportunities for many Black children to experience gardening as an activity of pure enjoyment. Jamaica Kincaid, now as well known for gardening writing as for fiction, once put it this way (about her garden in Vermont): “I have joined the conquering class: Who else could afford this garden — a garden in which I grow things that it would be much cheaper to buy at the store?”

In collaborating with the fiercely imaginative visual artist Kara Walker, Kincaid has transposed this mode of thinking into an amalgam of erudition, discourse, storytelling and picture book art. A simple child’s garden of ABCs their “encyclopedia” is not.

Kincaid’s adult base, too, will gravitate toward it, and occasionally want to elucidate for younger readers some of its references and allusions — the H.M.S. Bounty sailing in jauntily under “B Is for Breadfruit”; the oblique treatment of Thomas Jefferson; the classification of Carl “L Is for” Linnaeus, the proud papa of taxonomy, as “notorious.” Art collectors will pounce on the book for the rich contribution it makes to the continuum of Walker’s work.

Playfulness, in its world, never comes without a price. Walker’s opening illustration, a lacy ball of greenery and graphics, is not a toy; it’s a declaration of intent, spelling out the book’s subtitle. As an “Alphabetary of the Colonized World,” the book sets about peeling back botany to display the history behind it — to reveal conquest as arrogant and destructive, economics as exploitation, the brutal privileges of slaveholding, the propagation of racial injustice. Plants are the pawns of trade routes and of encounters that don’t end well for Indigenous peoples.

“K Is for Kitchen Garden,” from “An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children.”Credit…Kara Walker

Back to top button