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The Popular Front, the Rural Folk, and Neomodernism: The Case of Margaret Walker

By James Smethurst

In many respects, Margaret Walker is an anomalous figure among African-American poets in the 1940s. She is set apart from most of her contemporaries in her early upbringing in the Deep South--though this upbringing was urban for the most part, primarily in Birmingham and New Orleans, and her secondary education at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa Writers Program was northern. She is set apart also by her conscious identification in her essays and in her early poetry with the "socially conscious" writers of the 1930s, whom she contrasts with the more "formally" oriented African-American authors of the 1940s. Walker describes her literary and political development during the late 1930s and early 1940s as being significantly influenced by the literary milieu of the Popular Front in Chicago--the Federal Writers Project, the organization of the CIO industrial unions, the League of American Writers, and so on. But in many respects Walker's poetry in the late 1930s and in the 1940s is closer in spirit to the poetry of the early and middle 1930s, which valorized the southern rural folk as the "authentic" African-American culture. In this she differs considerably from her contemporaries, such as Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, with whom she claims a kinship as writers who published in the 1940s but who "belong to the 1930s." Rather, Walker's recreation of the folk and folk voice is more akin to the vernacular poetry of Sterling Brown and Waring Cuney in the 1930s and early 1940s. At the same time, Walker's narratorial stance resembles that of Langston Hughes in that the narratorial consciousness of the poems is, at least at first glance, a cultural insider who seems to see no serious division between the narratorial consciousness and the represented and recreated folk.

As Walker herself notes, she essentially writes three types of poems in For My People: long-lined and anaphoric biblical-Whitmanic-Sandburgian "prophetic" poems; narrative "folk" poems rooted largely in African-American "badman" songs; and documentary sonnets. Each type is more or less grouped together in the collection, forming three rough sections: prophetic poems, folk poems, sonnets. in all three types or sections, the collective folk or the individual folk subject is represented and the identification of the narratorial consciousness with the folk is affirmed. However, the location of the narratorial consciousness with respect to the represented folk varies. Typically, the speaker-narratorial consciousness of the long-lined prophetic poem emphatically asserts a commonalty with the southern folk, emphasizing a spiritual oneness with the folk while linguistically maintaining a certain distance from 1930s conventions of recreated folk speech. The drama for the speaker-narratorial consciousness is not the prodigal alienation of the intellectual-poet from the folk, and the subsequent return of intellectual-poet to the folk that marks the work of McKay, and even Brown to some extent. Rather, these poems are marked by the exodus of the folk, as embodied in the poet-intellectual-speaker, from the land and by a prophetic vision of a folk return to the land, as in the poem "Sorrow Home":

My roots are deep in southern life; deeper than John Brown
    or Nat Turner or Robert Lee. I was sired and weaned
    in a tropic world. The palm tree and banana leaf,
    mango and coconut, breadfruit and rubber trees know

Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood. I belong
    with the smell of fresh pine, with the trail of coon, and
    the spring growth of wild onion.

As in Brown’s poetry, here the home of African Americans is located in the Western Hemisphere, not in Africa--though Africa is often conflated with the South of the United States though a kinship of landscape, weather, blood, and music in Walker's prophetic poems. Walker's South, however, is more extensive than that of Brown, comprising the entire African diaspora in the Americas rather than simply the former slave states of the United States. Nonetheless, like Brown in Southern Road, Walker establishes a clear hierarchy of country and city, of South and North, of "folk" music (especially the spirituals) and "popular" music.

In the prophetic poems, there is a Whitmanic merging of the speaker-poet's body (which is also the body of the folk), music, and the southern rural landscape, a conflation or "fusion" that takes place most explicitly in "Southern Song":

I want my body bathed again by southern suns, my soul
    reclaimed again from southern land. I want to rest
    again in southern fields, in grass and hay and clover
    bloom; to lay my hand again upon the clay baked by a
    southern sun, to touch the rain-soaked earth and smell
    the smell of the soil.

Here, as elsewhere in the prophetic poems, music, particularly the spirituals, is a constant referent. Unlike nearly all her other African-American contemporaries who similarly connected the "folk" voice to music, Walker almost never attempts in For My People to draw directly on the formal resources of African-American vernacular music, except in her use of the folk ballad for her vernacular "folk" poems. Instead, particularly in the prophetic poems, music is invoked without any direct attempt to represent music on the printed page. The "popular" music of the urban centers, notably jazz, is not mentioned. Even the blues are mentioned only in passing, often obliquely--as in the speaker's admonition to herself in "Sorrow Song" "to strike no minor key."

Once again, notwithstanding Walker's well-known connections to Wright and Hughes (who, despite quite different narratorial stances, frequently recreated popular culture products in their works), Walker is closer to Brown in her valorization of rural "folk" music as the "authentic" vehicle of the militant folk voice at the expense of urban "Popular" music. In a move that recalls the Communist slogan "Promote Negro Culture in Its Original Form with Proletarian Content," Walker invokes existing "folk" music as the authentic expression of the "folk" spirit and then calls for a new and more highly conscious music to be developed from the old. Like the Communist position itself, Walker's model of African-American literary and artistic expression also draws on New Negro notions of folk culture, especially music, as the ore that needs to be refined into a new high culture. The creation of this new music out of the old, a concept most clearly expressed in "The Spirituals," serves, as it did for many of Walker's African-American predecessors from, at least, Du Bois, as an analogue to the process of developing a new, militant African-American self-consciousness:

Cotton pickers sing your song. Grumblers weed and
hoe the corn. Let the dirge of miners and
rebellious stirring road songs keep on ringing.

Here "Cotton pickers sing your song" recalls Sterling Brown’s "O Ma Rainey, / Sing yo' song" in "Ma Rainey." Again, like Brown she argues for a literary model in which the "literary" artist assumes the stance of the "folk" artist who speaks from, to, and for the folk, though Walker's work here lacks Brown's sense of how contradictory and difficult, but necessary, such a model is for the literary artist.

The poem ends literally on a militant, martial, and somewhat open-ended note ("And our sorrow / songs now rise to bolder measures"). This note typifies Walker's prophetic poems where the endings are revolutionary and sometimes apocalyptic calls after the manner associated with many Left works of the "Proletarian" era, such as Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty, Hughes's "Scottsboro Limited," and Meridel Le Sueur's "I Was Marching." And [. . . ], with respect to a similar apocalyptic optimism in the endings of many of Hughes's "revolutionary" works in the 1930s, Walker also tapped into a long tradition of African-American Christian millenarianism of which the spiritual was one of the most notable cultural vehicles.

The "prophetic" poems appear to be relatively straightforward in proposing a model where the author-narratorial consciousness is able to "authentically" speak for and to the "folk" as an insider without any serious difficulty. However, the group of "folk" poems that follows the "prophetic" poems complicates this model considerably, especially when also seen against the concluding group of poems that consists largely of documentary sonnets. The most obvious complication is the change between the "standard" diction of the "prophetic" poems and African-American colloquial diction of the "folk" poems. This change in diction undermines the authority of the narratorial consciousness with its claim to be one with the folk in both the "prophetic" poems and the "folk" poems; since the diction of the "folk" poems is clearly distinct from the "literary" diction of the "prophetic" poems, the reader is formally reminded that a gap might exist between the represented and the representer. Again, the high-low split of Dunbar is invoked indirectly.

The "folk" poems are most often in ballad form. They are essentially a series of "badman" stories (or, in the case of "Molly Means" and "Kissie Lee," "bad woman" stories) derived from similar stories, or in some instances (such as "John Henry" and "Bad-Man Stagolee") from actually existing "badman" stories, originating among African-Americans in the South. The one exception is "Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie," which is a narrative ballad of love gone wrong after the manner of the traditional folk ballad "Frankie and Johnnie"--albeit without the murder of the original song. As in the "prophetic" poems, there seems to be no distance between the narratorial consciousness of these "folk" poems and their speakers, who narrate the stories using a diction dearly marked as African-American and southern, as in "Bad-Man Stagolee":

That Stagolee was an all-right lad
Till he killed a cop and turned out bad,
Though some do say to this very day
He killed more'n one 'fore he killed that 'fay.
But anyhow the tale ain't new
How Stagolee just up and slew
A big policeman on 'leventh street

The clearest indication of a distinction between the narratorial consciousness of the poem and its speaker is the brief note appended to the poem explaining that "Stagolee" is "pronounced Stack’-a-lee." The note is a move toward establishing the poem's authenticity as folk re-creation and toward presenting the credentials of the author-narratorial consciousness as a cultural insider. An argument is made both implicitly and explicitly at various times in For My People that the author-narratorial consciousness is at home in a variety of discursive worlds as a sort of Gramscian organic intellectual who can simultaneously observe the folk, participate in the folk culture, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that culture and its members, and interpret the culture to outsiders without any conflict of identity. However, the note, like the distinction in diction between the "prophetic" poems and the "folk" poems cannot help but problematize the easy identification of the narratorial consciousness with the folk. In short, there is a self-consciousness about the role of the intellectual and a vanguardism common among the literary Left, and indeed the nonliterary Left, in the 1930s and early 1940s. [. . . .] [T]he peculiar self-consciousness and vanguardism of the Leninist Left produced a dualism in which the revolutionary party (e.g., the CPUSA) was both of the working class and yet ahead leading the working class. This dualism was fraught with tensions arising from fears of an "ultra-left" detachment from the working class at one extreme and a "right deviationist" or "spontaneous tailing" behind the natural "economist" demands of a working class lacking a revolutionary leadership at the other. Similarly, in the work of many artists of the literary Left, and the critical writings of many intellectuals associated with the Communist Left, the problematic relation of the Left intellectual-writer to the working class (and, during the Popular Front, to the people) is raised again and again. This is particularly true in the work of African-American writers, such as Brown and Wright in their different ways, where an identification with the folk is asserted along with a vanguard role for the African-American intellectual; then the two assertions are questioned both sharply and uneasily. In the case of Walker, the formal distinction between the "prophetic" poems and the "folk" poems calls into question the identification between the narratorial consciousness of the poems and the represented and/ or recreated folk, though this commonalty is never questioned by the denotative sense of Walker's poems.

This implicit structural questioning of the poet-speaker's easy identification with the folk subject is further heightened by the six sonnets that close For My People. The first four sonnets--"Childhood," "Whores," "Iowa Farmer," and "Memory"--are documentary poems of both "eye"--and "I"--witness in which a relatively "objective" poet-witness-speaker recounts his or her observations of a scene from the far or near past of the poet-speaker. This use of the sonnet form for such documentary purposes was unusual even in the 1930s, since the "factualness" of the speaker-witness's claims is undermined by the "literariness" of the sonnet. (There was some precedent for such a use of the sonnet in Claude McKay's more descriptive sonnets of the of the late 1910s and the 1920s [as opposed to his famous didactic sonnets of protest], such as the "The Harlem Dancer" [1917].)

In the testimonies of the first four of Walker's sonnets, the poet-speaker places herself in the foreground in a manner that locates her among that which she sees and describes while maintaining a considerable distance of identity from what she observes:

When I was a child I knew red miners
dressed raggedly and wearing their carbide lamps.
I saw them come down red hills to their camps
dyed with red dust from old Ishkooda mines.

Here, in "Childhood," as in all the sonnets, the diction is relatively plain and declarative, occasionally striking a colloquial note (as in the word "croppers" in the poem's second stanza). The plainness and "objectivity" of the diction is further heightened by the left margin of the lines where only the first-person pronoun and the beginning of sentences are upper-cased, suggesting a column of prose--perhaps a newspaper column. Unlike the lines of the "prophetic" poems and most of the "folk" poems, the lines of "Childhood" and the other sonnets are frequently end-stopped, again heightening the sense of declarative straightforwardness and accessibility to a mass audience already suggested by the diction. At the same time, the "high" literary nature of these poems is marked through the choice of the sonnet form. The use of the sonnet also signals Walker's engagement with literary modernism where the overt engagement with and evasion from the formal expectations of the sonnet was a common move of literary modernists both black and white--as we have seen with respect to Hughes's "Seven Moments of Love" sequence in Shakespeare in Harlem and in the final sonnets of Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville. In the case of Walker, the most obvious evasions or deformations of the formal expectations for the sonnet take place in the frequent absence of exact rhyme (or even consonance, assonance, or near-rhyme) except in the final couplet (and not always then) and her often idiosyncratic rhyme schemes that seem sometimes completely orthodox (as in "Childhood"), sometimes nearly orthodox (as in "Our Need"), and sometimes random (as in "Iowa Farmer"). This approach to rhyme compels the reader to carefully examine the formal construction of the poems in a way that belies the apparent straightforwardness and transparency of the poems' diction.

A conscious attempt is made to downplay the importance of racial distinction in the sonnets. In much the same way that the position of the poet-speaker with respect to the folk subject is blurred, and the formal design of the sonnets uneasily hybrid the preoccupation with racial identification (and racial self-identification) of the preceding poems in the collection is frustrated in the sonnets. It is impossible to tell who is what so far as categories of race are concerned. The miners from the hills are red; whether they are black, white, or a group of black and white is hidden by the byproduct of their shared labor. There is no certain way of telling into which racial category the prostitutes of "Whores" fall. The poor city-dwellers of "Memory" are similarly unmarked racially. The "croppers" of "Childhood" and the farmer and his son in "Iowa Farmer" remain racially indeterminate except through the reader's assumptions about southern sharecroppers (of whom a considerable number were white) and Iowa farmers. Differences of North and South, urban and rural, male and female, industrial worker, farmer, whore and farm laborer are more clearly noted and yet ultimately collapsed by their proximity in the series of sonnets or, as in the case of "Childhood," within the individual sonnet. What the reader is finally left with resembles the Popular Front sense of the "people" who are set in struggle against an enemy rather like the personified sins of medieval allegory--though in this case the sins are Hunger, Racism, Poverty, and Alienation rather than Pride, Sloth, Lust, and so on. Interestingly, the "people" to this point in the sonnet section does not include the poet-speaker who as an eye-witness goes among the miners, whores, sharecroppers, farmers, and slum-dwellers and yet remains an "I" apart who simply witnesses and never acts.

This distance between the speaker-poet and those whom she witnesses disappears in the final two sonnets that close the book, "Our Need" and "The Struggle Staggers Us." These final poems are not documentary or reportage, but a sort of lyric didacticism with echoes of Whitman’s "Song of Myself":

There is a journey from the me to you.
There is a journey from the you to me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.

Here a common condition between the observer and the observed is proposed. The division between the two remains, transformed from "I" and "they" (or "he") to you" and "me":

Out of this blackness we must struggle forth;
from want of bread, of pride, of dignity.
Struggle between the morning and the night.
This marks our years; this settles, too, our plight.

A need for the recognition of a common condition and a common program of action is proposed in the pronoun "we." The sonnet is in essence a plea for unity and action, but addressed to whom? What "union of two strange worlds" must take place? Is it an appeal for racial solidarity? For black-white unity? For a farmer-labor party? For a multiclass democratic front against fascism and/or the "economic royalists" (to take Franklin Roosevelt's phrase)? For the joining of "folk," "high," and "popular" art? And to what end? Socialism? Neo-Jeffersonian democracy.? The welfare state? Perhaps what is strangest about the poem is this call to arms that refuses to name who is calling, who is being called, and for what cause the call is being made.

That the collection ends on such a militant and indeterminate note is perhaps not so strange. In many respects, the early poetry of Walker, along with that of Owen Dodson, represents one of the last attempts in the late 1930s and early 1940s to fuse the folkloric model for recreating the folk voice associated with Sterling Brown (who after all begins Southern Road with a vernacular poem and ends with a section largely of sonnets) with the "popular" model associated with Hughes in the late 1930s, while incorporating newer neo-modernist influences. Though there is a certain progress in the book from the folk to the people and from the dichotomy of observer and observed to a common identity that (potentially) erases that dichotomy, ultimately the parts of the book never quite cohere. A "strange journey" is indeed proposed thematically and formally, from biblical prophecy to "badman" story to documentary sonnet to didactic exhortation in sonnet form, but never quite enacted. What is left is a diffuse text that sounds a note of rebellion that resists specific definition and addresses an audience that is similarly unclear. If the text as a whole seems less coherent than other later texts, such as A Street in Bronzeville and A Montage of a Dream Deferred, it is perhaps because Walker does not foreground consciously the uneasiness and uncertainty of such a formal and thematic hybridity in the way that Brooks and Hughes do. Ironically, then, Walker's text seems less coherent because it lacks the unifying theme of fragmentation that characterizes the other two texts.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Oxford University Press.

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