Margaret Walker: In Memoriam
[Margaret Walker died on November 30, 1998, at the age of 83. The Nation paid its respects by reprinting a speech that Amiri Baraka delivered at a program at New York University celebrating Walker in 1998.]
Excerpts from "Margaret Walker Alexander"
You cannot even spell here without her. First, Margaret Walker, Margaret Walker Alexander. She was one of the greatest writers of the language. She was the grandest expression of the American poetic voice and the ultimate paradigm of the Afro-American classic literary tradition. Margaret Walker Alexander was the living continuum of the great revolutionary democratic arts culture that has sustained and inspired the Afro-American people since the middle passage.
Hers is an American art, but an art deeply rooted in the actual life and history and feelings of the African chattel slaves, transformed by the obscene experience of slavery, from human to "real estate," as Du Bois shocks us into understanding in Black Reconstruction in America. Many were suffering throughout the world, the good doctor said, but "none of them was real estate."
It is from this basement of the human repository of recall and emotional registration that our lives in the Western torture chamber began, and it is out of this ugliness and oppression that we have, still, made our judgments and created our aesthetic. So it is, like [Frederick] Douglass, [Frances] Harper, [W. E. B.] Du Bois, [Langston] Hughes, the high-up near heaven thundermouth preachers, laboring in the darkness of our willed salvation, that Margaret Walker Alexander reaches us. Carrying our will and our history, our pain and our precise description of what it is, what is was and who was the great beast rose smoking from the Western sea, snatched us way from home and brought us here to be et [sic], what ghost and pirate.
. . . .
From the time she says in her first published work (published by Du Bois in The Crisis), "I want to write," at 19 years old, "I want to write/I want to write the songs of my people./I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark./I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob torn throats./I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into notes," through the great "For My People." The panoramic drama of her novel Jubilee, until her last book of poetry, This Is My Century, from the title poem to the bluntly revolutionary "I Hear a Rumbling," Margaret stayed on the case. She always stood up. From her earliest WPA days, even though, like many of us who are whipped and 'buked and scorned for telling the truth, still, Margaret always stood up. She always spoke with the open recognizable voice of the people, a tradition she carries as strongly as Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown.
Margaret's work is always an expression of creation from a deep knowledge of Afro-American, especially Southern Afro-American culture, as deep as Zora Neal Hurston's.
But Margaret never despaired or was turned, in her words or her vision, around. She remained clear and beautiful, moving and prophetic.
Margaret Walker remains part of our deepest and most glorious voice, dimensioned by history and musicked by vision. What she tells us in her books, with that voice of sun and sky, moon and stars, of lightening and thunder, is in that oldest voice of that first ancestor, who always be with us. That is what we people have, inside, to reach where Orpheus goes each night-end to raise day again. That voice to keep us live and sane and strong and ready to fight and even ready to love. Like our mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mother and our wives and sisters and our daughters and our comrades and our mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mother, Margaret Walker Alexander.
From Amiri Baraka, "Margaret Walker Alexander," The Nation 4 Jan. 1999: 32-33.
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