Study Guide

Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker Essay - Critical Essays

Margaret Walker American Literature Analysis

Walker called herself a “visionary” and stated that she was committed to a life as an artist for the people, especially in “the public statement poem.” Her poetry was intuitive and brooding. She intended a realism, and she succeeded to the degree that realism can be commingled with didacticism and what she named “orphic” discourse. Her poetry, her fiction, and her essays were transformations of Walker’s lyric sensibility. The poetry prophesied, witnessed, celebrated, and grieved with personal immediacy. The fiction was a distillation of her maternal family history for four generations, an apostrophe to her own ancestry as an African American. The essays were by a teacher speaking determinedly in the first person. Above all, her writing was meant to be recited, to be oral; it was made for telling, saying, and declamation, combining the forms of folk sermon and the story of common people, a proletariat, with a great deal of inventory and repetition, which roll-calls the wealth and certainty in the goals of African Americans.

Walker saw on Earth a sublime beauty of nature and a utopian potential for humankind. The natural beauty, especially of rural or small-town settings, is the frame of the history of slavery in Jubilee. The utopian potential is the closing declamation of “For My People,” which chants into possibility the end of hate and injustice and the triumph of a once-enslaved and someday morally heroic humankind. She believed in the existence and efficacy of the culture hero—epiphanic, messianic, self-sacrificial persons: Frederick Douglass, Du Bois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr.—people who endured and were inspirational before they died, were killed, or exiled.

Walker also privileged history. Only historical fact dissolved the lies of a U.S. national mythology that denied culpability, denied inherited responsibility, refused retribution and reparation, and resisted the moral transformation that would grant justice to a race not yet fully delivered from the slavery that exploited it. In Jubilee, the tapestry of the interconnectedness of every American to every event of the past is inventoried.

Biblical signature is everywhere in Walker’s writings but not in support of institutional religion. The narratives of Jubilee and of “Prophets for a New Day” are biblical in selection of detail so that they become new parables. There is not much humor in Walker’s writing. Even “Poppa Chicken” is too sinister to allow much levity. Her writing is also biblical in appropriation of the tropes of banishment and national exile and the resultant enslavement, as well as the continuation of hope when reason predicted despair. Moreover, Walker’s writing methodically logs violence, yet she said could not take up the subjects of the Vietnam War and the African American culture of the 1970’s, which she saw filled with the discourses of violence, profanity, drugs, and racial nationalism. She narrated also the episodes of fickle deliverance, such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union in the Civil War and the civil rights acts of 1954 and 1964. Freedom as reality and as chimera is also a subtext in virtually all of Walker’s writing. For Walker, it is a precious legality. It is also a feeling.

As a poet of the people, Walker used the sonnet to acknowledge the formal events and occasions of their progress. She had deaths and victories and anniversaries to commemorate. “For Malcolm X” is illustrative. She used the ballad to distill the personalities and behavior of the folk characters in her people’s experience, such as in “Poppa Chicken,” the pimp. She used what she called “the long line of free verse punctuated with a short line” to make the oracular discourse of poems such as “For My People.” It gives multiplied detail a ritual coherence that reveals the integrity of the culture of Walker’s African American audience. With her fiction, she corrected the historical record. With her essays, she explained her fiction and the method of the authentication of her vision.

“For My People”

First published: 1937 (collected in For My People, 1942)

Type of work: Poem

A ten-stanza, free-verse apostrophe to the collective culture of African Americans announces an epic hope.

“For My People” was mostly written in a fifteen-minute burst of brilliant inspiration. Its principal tactics are inventory—a concretization of the feeling—and repetition, a concentration and intensification of the poem’s passion and political resolve, especially tuned for oral presentation.

Stanza I begins the chronology of African American history with the first of six incantations of “for my people,” recalling the songs of an enslaved race—of sadness, of verbal play, of grief, of the rare times of joy, and of supplication and submission to whatever God has willed.

Stanza II describes the tasks of slavery, performed in uncompensated and blind hope: “washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing, sewing, mending, hoeing, plowing, digging, planting, pruning, patching.”

Stanza III goes from the ancestral past to Walker’s childhood with a list of her places and acts of play in Alabama—baptizing, preaching, doctor, jail, soldier, school, mama, cooking, concert, store, hair, and “Miss Choomby and company,” Walker’s childhood code for African American grown-up women.

Stanza IV remembers the experience of going to a segregated school to learn the bitter truth of how being black in America was to be poor and politically ignored.

Stanza V celebrates the youth who bravely grew to maturity against these obstacles, had some fun and joy, married and had children, and then died of “consumption and anemia and lynching.”

Stanza VI cameos the African American neighborhoods of Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, where the lack of money and property form a backdrop for African Americans who dream their hope in spite of their disenfranchisement.

Stanza VII evokes the manic-depressive state of African Americans made crazy by the social forces and manipulation of a majority race “who tower over us omnisciently and laugh.”

Stanza VIII is a mini-chronicle of the sincere and unceasing attempts by African Americans to join American society, in churches, schools, clubs, societies, associations, councils, committees, and conventions—only to be cheated and deceived in money and religious association by the white ruling majority—the “facile force of state.”

Stanza IX declares admiration “for my people,” hoping to make a world of universal brotherhood to replace the fascist one that suppresses African Americans.

Finally, stanza X closes the litany of pain, endurance, grief, and relentless hope with the poem’s famous incantation, calling for a new world, born of a “bloody peace,” peopled by a courageous and freedom-loving new generation, a race of people—perhaps an alliance of Caucasians and African Americans—that will “rise and take control.”

“Poppa Chicken”

First published: 1942

Type of work: Poem

An African American subcultural folk-type—Poppa Chicken, the...

(The entire section is 3002 words.)