Margaret Walker: Biographical Note
Dr. Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander's contributions to American letters--four volumes of poetry, a novel, a biography, and numerous critical essays--mark her as one of this country's most gifted Black intellectuals. These accomplishments, as well as fellowships and awards that she has earned, garner her much deserved praise, but they are even more remarkable given that she achieved most of them after 1943 when she was a college professor and a wife and mother of four children. Although the cumulative demands of these pursuits would have broken the spirit of others, Walker prevailed, and in so doing reached beyond her advantaged middle class background to strengthen her race by leaving them (and all of us) a nurturing literary legacy.
Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, a well educated minister, and mother, a music teacher, provided an environment in which their daughter thrived. Walker completed her B.A. at Northwestern University (Illinois) when she was only nineteen, and while living in Chicago, she was affiliated with several important writing groups. During the depression, she worked for the Federal Writers' Project and contributed a dialect piece, "Yalluh Hammuh," whose folk hero would later appear in For My People (1942). As a member of the South Side Writers Group, Walker was a close colleague of Richard Wright. Walker completed her M.A. at the University of Iowa by writing For My People, a work for which she later became the first African American to win the Yale Younger Poets award.
For My People also establishes Walker as a key player in the tradition of American female activist poets who used their work to champion marginal groups. Like Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Joy Davidman, and Muriel Rukeyser, Walker challenges a socio-economic hierarchy by advocating a more equitable system for disadvantaged people. Walker, however, gives her poetry a different twist by showcasing African Americans as emblems of the working class. She also broaches the controversial issue of using revolution or non-violence to effect change and in the last analysis opts for the latter. For My People consists of three parts, each of which is written in a different verse form: free verse, folk narratives in the ballad tradition, and sonnets. Part I is the beginning of a middle class female's bildungsroman that collapses class distinctions as the speaker aligns herself with different groups of common Blacks and discovers her vocation as a political poet. As she imaginatively interacts with these people, they provide the impetus for her development, and as her vision matures, they become more powerful. Thus, the speaker and the groups reciprocate and augment each other's growth, a dynamic illustrated by the following sequence of poems.
In "Southern Song" and "Sorrow Home," the speaker expresses her longing for the South which she re-visions as a place of freedom and beauty for African Americans. Because she has freed up emotionally, she has the capacity to imagine herself and Black field hands as courageous, self-sufficient people taking back the land that they believe is theirs ("Delta"). Although this vision initially exhilarates the speaker, it also causes her to take stock of her actual character. In "Lineage," she realizes that she lacks the strength of her grandmothers who, even though they stoop and follow plows, are robust women who bring the land to fruition. Moreover, the emotional strength of their singing complements that of their bodies, and their uttering "clean words" implies a wisdom consisting of moral truth and its practical application in daily affairs. By admitting that she lacks her grandmothers' strength, the speaker acknowledges these women as role models, and in "Since 1619," she begins emulating them within the parameters of her own experience. She scrutinizes her life by admitting her complicity in her people's oppression and then poses questions about wisdom that aggressively reshape her grandmothers' practical and moral virtues:
When will I see my brother's face wearing another color?
When will I be ready to die in an honest fight?
When will I be conscious of the struggle--now to do or die?
When will these scales fall away from my eyes?
What will I say when days of wrath descend:
When the money-gods take all my life away:
When the death knell sounds
And peace is a flag of far-flung blood and filth? (5-12)
The speaker not only emphasizes her need for practical knowledge that will enable her to assess people and events, but she also questions if she has the courage to remain faithful to her own group when she is tested. If her mettle is sufficient, she will emulate the Black defenders in "Delta" and like her grandmothers "utter clean words." When the speaker resolves to challenge tyrants, she claims both kinds of virtues. Because the speaker's imagined perceptions progressively empower herself and poorer Blacks, she gradually closes the gap between different classes of African Americans and vows to become a political poet who will defend all marginal people regardless of their race.
In Part II, Walker also ensures that the Black community does not replicate a socio-economic hierarchy that privileges status or wealth by interrupting her speaker's journey with a series of folk narratives that give voice to less educated Blacks. These tales are related by speakers whose speech patterns range from virtually replicating standard English to a vernacular that B. Dilla Buckner describes as subject-verb disagreement, dropping auxiliary verbs, and using double subjects and folk pronunciation ("Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker's Poetry" 375). These tales have further political repercussions because Walker encodes revolutionary actions in the behavior of people who are physically small, but who exert immense energy or strength. However, Walker emphasizes that human beings are still vulnerable because character flaws can thwart them or because they cannot completely control any situation. Although Walker lauds the folk for their bravery, martial abilities, and quick wits, her caveats are important because they imply that the revolution lauded in "For My People" and "Delta" must yield to non-violent behavior.
For example, the speaker who relates how Stagolee killed a policeman augments the hero's prowess by referring to his facility with knives and his escaping a lynch mob. By emphasizing that "nobody knows how Stagolee dies," he suggests that Stagolee defied the dominant culture by avoiding all attempts at apprehension and punishment, and then he makes him a supernatural figure whose ghost haunts "Old Man River" around New Orleans. Other forceful characters such as Kissie Lee and Trigger Slim confront the power structure, or tricksters such as May and Poppa Chicken outwit others or beat the system at its own game. However, Walker tempers their potency with defeated figures who fail to channel their energy in constructive ways or who are overcome by life which just is more powerful than any human being: Gus, a lineman who handles live wires and survives electrocutions, dies of drunkenness when he falls into a river and drowns, and Big John Henry, who has immense physical strength and conjuring powers, is killed in a freak accident when a ten pound hammer falls on him and splits him in two. These real world limitations suggest that unlike the mythological Stagolee, human beings--including revolutionaries--are not invincible and can be killed. Because violence would exact too high a price on African Americans and by extension all working class people, the middle class speaker reappears in Part III and embraces peaceful means to change the status quo. Especially in "Our Need" and "The Struggle Staggers Us," she advocates a community of people who accept each other and actualize the moral and practical virtues of her grandmothers: Courageous, honest and reflective people who devise ways that ensure a better life for others are her alternative to revolutionaries.
Although For My People is a first book, the well crafted poems and carefully thought out politics establish the work in its own right and also signal the productive career that Walker would create. She married Firnist James Alexander in 1943 and remained professionally active until her death on November 30, 1998. After teaching at various Black colleges, Walker accepted a position at Jackson State College (now University) in 1949 where she taught until her retirement. At Jackson, she also founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People which has been renamed in her honor. During the 1940s and 1950s, Walker researched and drafted a Civil War novel that she completed as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa (1962-65) and which was published as Jubilee in 1966. Walker then returned to poetry. Prophets for a New Day (1970) was her contribution to the civil rights movement, and it was followed by a small volume, October Journey (1973) and an anthology of verse, This Is My Country: New and Collected Poems (1988). In A Poetic Equation (1974) Walker and Nikki Giovanni collaborated in discussions of literary and political issues. Walker continued mastering different genres, this time with the biography The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Works (1987). To date Maryemma Graham has edited several volumes of critical essays that Walker wrote throughout her career: How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990) and On Being Female, Black, and Free (1997).
For My People is available from Ayer Company Publishers.
By Donna Allego
The analysis of For My People is excerpted from Donna M. Allego. The Construction and Role of Community in Political Long Poems by Twentieth-Century American Women Poets: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Joy Davidman, Margaret Walker, and Muriel Rukeyser. Diss. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1997. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born on 7 July 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents, the Reverend Sigismund C. Walker, a Methodist minister and an educator, and Marion Dozier Walker, a music teacher, encouraged her to read poetry and philosophy from an early age.
Walker completed her high school education at Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, Louisiana, where her family had moved in 1925. She went on to attend New Orleans University (now Dillard University) for two years. Then, after acclaimed poet Langston Hughes recognized her talent and urged her to seek training in the North, she transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, where she received a B.A. in English in 1935, at the age of nineteen. In 1937, she published "For My People" in Poetry magazine. Her first poem to appear in print, it became one of her most famous and was even anthologized in 1941 in The Negro Caravan before becoming the opening poem of her first volume of verse in 1942.
In 1936, she took on full-time work with the Federal
Writers' Project in Chicago under Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Administration,
befriending and collaborating with such noted artists as Gwendolyn Brooks, Katherine
Dunham, and Frank Yerby. Perhaps the most memorable of these friendships with fellow
artists was that with noted author Richard Wright,
whose texts Walker would later help research and revise. In 1988, Walker would also write a book recalling that friendship, entitled Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work. Involvement in the Writers' Project offered Walker a firsthand glimpse of the struggles of her inner-city brothers and sisters who were products of the Great Migration, a movement that had resulted in hard times and broken dreams for many southern black immigrants.
During this time, Walker authored an urban novel, "Goose Island," which was never published.
After completing her tenure with the WPA in 1939, Walker returned to school, entering the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, where she earned a master of arts degree in 1940 and, later, a Ph.D. in 1965. In 1941, Walker began teaching at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina; in 1942 she left for one year to teach at West Virginia State College. In that year, she also published her first volume of poems, For My People, with the title poem quickly becoming her signature piece and helping elevate her toward success. For this volume, which served as her master's thesis at Iowa, she won the Yale Younger Poets Award.
In 1943, Walker married Firnist James Alexander, or "Alex," as she loving called him, an interior designer and decorator. Following the birth of their first three children (they raised a total of four during their years of marriage), the couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1949. Walker began a prosperous teaching career at Jackson State College in the same year, retiring from its English department thirty years later in 1979. In 1968 she founded the Institute for the Study of History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center); she directed the center until her retirement. During her tenure at Jackson State, Walker also organized and chaired the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival. Following retirement, she remained active as professor emerita until her death in the fall of 1998.
Jubilee, a neo-slave narrative based on the collected memories of her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, was published in 1966, only a year after Walker completed the first version of it for her dissertation. Many scholars view the novel as an African American response to America's fascination with Gone With the Wind (1936). Others recognize the work as an example of the historic presence that the author commands as a prophet of sorts for her people. The novel has enjoyed tremendous popularity, winning the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award (1968), having been translated into seven languages, and having never gone out of print. It has also led the author into controversy: in 1988, Walker found herself in conflict with the famed author of Roots, Alex Haley, whom she accused of infringing on her copyright of Jubilee. However, her lawsuit against him was dismissed. Walker provides further detail regarding the production of the novel in her 1972 essay, "How I Wrote Jubilee."
Walker followed Jubilee with Prophets for a New Day (1970), a poetic treatment of the historic civil rights struggle of blacks in America. It also celebrates the tradition of African American folktales and expression.
October Journey (1973), more personal in tone, still resonates with Walker's commitment to uplift the black race's struggle for freedom through art. In the collection's poems, she pays homage to many of her contemporaries, like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, who also employed their art as a tool of liberation.
Walker's influence on the younger Black Aesthetic poets of the 1960s and 1970s can be seen in her printed talks with Nikki Giovanni. Appearing in 1974, A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker exemplifies the common concern for justice that linked the two artists and bridged their generations.
For Farish Street Green, her fourth poetry volume, appeared in 1986. Pieces in this collection reflect life in the Farish Street community in Jackson, Mississippi. Walker begins her portrait of the people in the neighborhood by making their lives testaments to those of their African ancestors.
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989) chronicles Walker's auspicious literary career while proving that she has unrivaled tenacity and endurance as a poet. In 1990, she published How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, coauthored with scholar Maryemma Graham. In 1997, with Graham as editor, Walker released another collection of previously written essays entitled On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932-1992. Several other projects remained incomplete at the time of her death, including "God Touched My Life," a biography of Sister Thea Bowman, a black nun in Mississippi; "Black-Eyed Susans," an account of the murders of two students at Jackson State College; a book on Jesse Jackson's relationship to black politics; and an autobiography.
Among Walker's numerous accolades are six honorary degrees, a Rosenwald Fellowship (1944), a Ford Fellowship (1953), a Fulbright Fellowship to Norway (1971), a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1972), the Living Legacy Award, given by the Carter administration, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the College Language Association (1992), and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts, presented by William Winter, then governor of Mississippi (1992).
Walker has been compared to many great writers and claimed as both personal acquaintances and influences the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Longevity was her friend, and over the course of her career she earned a place among the best African American poets, many of whom were her protégés.
* * * *
"For My People," the title poem in the author's first volume, is a timeless piece. The poem poignantly describes the joys, heartaches, and triumphs of African Americans in the United States. Written in free verse, the poem chronicles the everyday and often mundane aspects of hard labor and the simple pleasures of a dispossessed people. Yet it also makes blacks complicit in their own misery and calls for a new day, a revolution of the masses.
The opening stanzas of Walker's poem ring with a particularly lyrical note. She establishes from the beginning a pattern of overflowing gerunds and participles unpunctuated with the requisite comma, leaving the reader almost breathless. Perhaps that is the sense the author wishes to convey: a ceaseless and tiring existence that has come to wear down even the most resilient of black folk, inviting readers to feel the utter futility of "her people" who are "praying their prayers nightly to an / unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an / unseen power." Likewise, we feel the ambivalence of their lives, alternately manifesting burden and exultation, as she describes them singing "their dirges and their ditties and their blues / and jubilees." Not only do we hear the songs being sung, but we also toil literally with those who are constantly "plowing digging planting pruning patching / dragging along never gaining never reaping never / knowing and never understanding." The cadence and the rhythm of her words make this shared experience possible.
Walker's work also celebrates ordinary black life. She
recalls the pleasures of "Alabama backyards" where children played "store
and hair and Miss / Choomby and company." She highlights the joys of urban blacks,
too, whom she spies on as they throng streets like "Lennox Avenue in New York and
Rampart Street in New / Orleans." Yet the author also chastises blacks
for their complacency and for hiding themselves, as she states, "in the dark of churches and schools . . . and councils and committees," allowing themselves to be "preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty."
But, finally, Walker envisions the creation of a more egalitarian society--a society that she hopes will "hold all the people, / all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless / generations." She calls for a new order and offers a fantastic vision of freedom:
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be
written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
"We Have Been Believers," another poem from Walker's first collection, follows the free verse form of the title poem, as do many pieces in the book. It is a poem about the sustaining power of African American belief, whether it be in "the black gods of an old / land," "the white gods of a new land," or the "conjure of the humble / and the faithful and the pure." Walker recognizes that such faith fosters the race's survival. She says, "Neither the slavers' whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the / bayonet could kill our black belief." Yet she also criticizes how belief in "greedy grinning gods" has taxed "our wills" and encouraged "our spirits of pain."
Her final call, however, is not a plea for tolerance and forgiveness; rather it is an exhortation for protest. She admits a need for answers and "molten truths" but also enjoins her people to seize the power needed for spiritual, emotional, and political transformation:
We have been believers believing in our burdens and our
demigods too long. Now the needy no longer weep and
pray; the long-suffering arise, and our fists bleed
against the bars with a strange insistency.
"Sorrow Home," found also in For My People, is probably Walker's own response to an earlier piece in the collection called "Dark Blood" (the first poem included in this archive). While "Dark Blood" chronicles the ancestral homelands of African diasporal peoples, "Sorrow Home" establishes the southern United States as the native residence of African Americans.
Initially assuming a proud and celebratory tone, the author boasts that her "roots are deep" in southern culture, "deeper than John Brown / or Nat Turner or Robert Lee." "Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood," she proclaims. She denounces the North, scoffing at "steam-heated flats" and "the music of El and subway," refusing to be "walled in / by steel and wood and brick far from the sky."
Her pride in the South proves tongue-in-cheek, however. The "restless music" of the Southland, a "melody beating in [her] bone and / blood," prevents her from revisiting or reuniting with her birthplace. The irony of her beloved "sorrow home," is that the "Klan of hate, the hounds and / the chain gangs keep [her] from [her] own." Walker indicts the racist attitudes and practices of the South, a place which rejects even its native daughter.
"I Want to Write," from October Journey, expresses the deepest desire of the author to record the experiences of African Americans. A true lyricist, she seeks to capture their dreams, emotions, and very being through her poetry. "I want to write the songs of my people," she says. "I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into / notes." Here, Walker intends to articulate that which is culturally universal--both apparent and clandestine qualities of which her readers may or may not be otherwise aware. What translates is a specific, unparalleled beauty and vibrancy: "a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn."
"Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad," included in Prophets
for a New Day, signifies upon the folk and conjure tales that were integral to
African American oral expression and that served as the cornerstones for subsequent
literary expression. Such tales served as art forms, as entertainment, and as tools for
inverting the oppressive and racist powers of majority rule. In Walker's ballad,
"Sally Jones" running down the road "with a razor at her throat" and "Deacon's daughter lurching / Like a drunken alley goat" are merely background characters for the real drama of the poem. When the goopher man (a conjurer or root worker) "[throws] dust around [the narrator's] door," she seeks the help of Sis Avery. Sis Avery advises, "Now honey go on back / I knows just what will hex him / And that old goopher sack." When the goopher man sends a horse to run down the speaker, Sis Avery grabs the horse, which turns into a toad. The goopher man hollers to her, "Don't kill that hoppy-toad." Says Sis Avery, "Honey, / You bout to lose your load." As the toad dies, so does the goopher man.
The ballad is an enjoyable read in itself, yet it also
shows Walker's versatility as a writer and her deep connection with the culture. She rises
to the challenge of reproducing on paper the wit and vibrancy of African American oral
storytelling, without the benefit of facial expression, vocal intonation and inflection,
and gestures--skills hard enough to master for an oral performance, but even more
difficult to render on paper. Clearly, Walker has demonstrated considerable prowess
in reproducing these forms.
"Love Song for Alex, 1979" is a tribute to the author's husband. The new poems in This Is My Century, where this poem debuted, recall and comment on events occurring over the decades of the twentieth century. In this poem, as in countless others, Walker maintains beautiful control over the language, molding it to serve her purpose. She describes Alex in the first line as her "monkey-wrench man," her "sweet patootie." Her dedication to him rings clear as she asserts, "My heart belongs to him and to him only." She expresses a lifetime of joy, claiming that "all [her] days of Happiness and wonder / are cradled in his arms and eyes entire." She leaves her readers with a sense of her life's fullness and completeness, reassuring us that the days spent with her husband have formed a "yarn of memories," weaving a tapestry of love.
During Walker's final public appearance on October 17,
1998, at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers' Conference at Chicago State University, she was
inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame. On November 30, 1998, after
suffering for some time with breast cancer, Margaret Abigail Walker died at the age of 83,
in the Chicago home of her daughter, Mrs.
Marion Elizabeth Alexander Coleman. She is survived by four children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Walker continued to write, tour, lecture, and give readings until her death. Among the most formidable literary voices to emerge in the twentieth century, she will be remembered as one of the foremost transcribers of African American heritage. Indeed, she enjoyed a long and fruitful career--one that spanned almost an entire century. As a result, she became a historian for a race. Through her work, she "[sang] a song for [her] people," capturing their symbolic quest for liberation. When asked how she viewed her work, she responded, "The body of my work . . . springs from my interest in a historical point of view that is central to the development of black people as we approach the twenty-first century."
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