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, “For My People” became one of her most famous works and was even anthologized in 1941 in The Negro Caravan.
In 1936, Walker 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 was that with noted author Richard Wright whose texts Walker would later help to research and revise. In 1988, Walker wrote 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 inner-city African Americans who were products of the Great Migration, a northward 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 lovingly called him, an interior designer and decorator. In 1949, following the birth of their first three children (they had a total of four children), the couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi. 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 the author’s 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.
Although October Journey (1973) is more personal in tone, it still resonates with Walker's commitment to highlight the black race's struggle for freedom through art. The poems of the collection pay homage to many of Walker’s contemporaries, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, who also employed their art as tools of liberation.
Walker's influence on the younger Black Aesthetic poets of the 1960s and 1970s can be seen in her published 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.
ForFarish Street Green, Walker’s 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 revised and re-published How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, coauthored with scholar Maryemma Graham. In 1997, with Graham as editor again, 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 Walker’s 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 has claimed, as personal acquaintances and influences, the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Longevity was Walker’s friend, and, over the course of her career, she earned a place among the best (African) American poets, many of whom were her protégés.
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"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 participles unpunctuated with requisite commas, 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 Walker 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 the author’s words make this shared experience possible.
“For My People” 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, on whom she spies 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
"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
"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."
Walker’s 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 South, with its racist attitudes and practices, for being a place that 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. Walker rises to the challenge of reproducing in print 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. The author also makes the culture of conjuring accessible and understandable to readers. 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. Walker 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."
--By Tomeiko Ashford