Margaret Walker 1915–
American poet, novelist, essayist, and biographer.
Walker's contribution to African-American literature spans six decades, from the publication of her first book of poetry, For My People (1942), to the most recent collection of her essays, On Being Female, Black, and Free (1997). Her work has shown a responsiveness to the black experience, a historical perspective and a humanism that have kept it consistently pertinent to contemporary American society. Though she has been immersed in an academic environment throughout her career as a writer, her poetry has maintained its power to reach a wide audience. Walker appropriates a broad range of styles from folk ballad to sonnet, but always remains bright and clear in meaning, and thus avoids entanglements within overly-literary characteristics that could otherwise obscure an academic poet's style.
Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 7, 1915, the oldest of four children. Her father, a scholarly Methodist minister, bequeathed his love of literature to her. From her mother, a music teacher, Walker developed the rhythm intrinsic to her poetry. Her parents provided a supportive and stable home environment that emphasized the values of education, religion, and the rich heritage of black culture. Walker began writing poetry at the age of eleven. At fifteen, she attended a segregated college in New Orleans where her father and mother taught. As a college sophomore, she met the famous poet Langston Hughes who, along with her composition teacher, encouraged her to continue writing and to go North to study at a more prestigious college. She transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, finishing her bachelor's degree just after her twentieth birthday.
Her first professional position was as a social worker for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and then as a writer for the WPA Writer's Project in Chicago. Through her work there, she associated with Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Arna Bontemps, Katherine Dunham, and James Farrell. In 1940, Walker received her master's degree from the University of Iowa where she completed For My People as her master's thesis. She began teaching at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina in 1941. For My People was published by Yale University Press in 1942 and won the Yale University Younger Poet's Award. In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander with whom
she had two sons and two daughters. Since 1949 she has been a professor of English (now Emeritus Professor) at Jackson State College in Mississippi where, in 1968, she became the director of the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black Peoples. She earned her doctorate, in 1965, from the University of Iowa with submission of her novel, Jubilee, as her dissertation. She has been the recipient of several fellowships including the Fulbright in 1971 and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972. Her productive writing and teaching career has included many public readings of her poetry at literary conventions and in colleges across the country.
Beginning with For My People, Walker has implored her black readers to spring forth and infuse the modern world with a sustaining faith: "We / have been believers, silent and stolid and stubborn and strong." The poems invest readers with a fresh vision of spiritual independence and a challenge to refashion a world in their own image, the image of the true egalitarian whose faith and values were forged in the crucible of oppression. This theme of For My People echoes Walker's literary career in all her major works: Jubilee, Prophets for a New Day, and This is My Century. Her novel, Jubilee, which tells the fictional history of Walker's great-grandmother, is primarily known for its realistic depiction of the daily life and folklore of the black slave community. Walker's second volume of poetry, Prophets for a New Day, contains her civil rights poems, written in response to the violence of the 1960s, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989) presents all the poems in her previous volumes: For My People, Prophets for a New Day, and October Journey. It also includes eighteen previously unpublished poems in a section entitled This is My Century.
For My People won the Yale University Younger Poet's Award in 1942, making Walker the first American black woman to be honored in such a prestigious national literary competition. The reviews of that first volume praised her ability to awaken her readers to the plight of her race, and reviews of her subsequent publications have continued in that vein. Among her strengths as a poet, critics have noted her effective use of folk myths and Biblical allusions, her skillful use of meter, and her humanitarian themes. Her style has been called Whitmanesque in response to its rhythmic flow and its focus on common people. The occasional negative criticism that her work received has mainly focused on her sonnets, suggesting that they lack the immediacy of her other poetic forms.
For My People 1942
Ballad of the Free 1966
Prophets for a New Day 1970
October Journey 1973
This is My Century: New and Collected Poems 1989
Other Major Works
Come Down from Yonder Mountain (novel) 1962
Jubilee (novel) 1966
How I Wrote Jubilee (essays) 1972
A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni [with Nikki Giovanni] (interviews) 1974
Black Women and Liberation Movements (essays) 1981
The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright (biography) 1982; revised edition, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius 1988
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (essays) 1989
On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker (essays) 1997
SOURCE: "Foreword," in For My People, Yale University Press, 1942, pp. 5-7.
[In this excerpt from the Foreword to For My People, Benét introduces Walker as a promising new poet whose sincerity and talent make her work successful.]
Straightforwardness, directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry. And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people older voices are mixed with hers—the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices—I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving poetry because it was written by a Negro. It is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage—and poetry must exist in its own right. These poems keep on talking to you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and passionate speech.
"We Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
SOURCE: "A Social Poet," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. LXI, February, 1943, pp. 634-36.
[In this review of Walker's first volume of poems, Algren compliments her on her ability to communicate as a social poet but faults her for some stylistic weaknesses.]
In this volume the Yale Series has effected a wholesome deviation from previous presentations by giving us a poet who is not, for one, a poet's poet. Miss Walker is intense and forthright without being oratorical; she is terse and demanding without loss of rhythm. She depends upon meanings more than upon metaphysics.
The piece called "Delta" is not Miss Walker's so much as it is her people's....
(The entire section is 498 words.)
SOURCE: "The 'Etched Flame' of Margaret Walker: Biblical and Literary Re-Creation in Southern History," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. XXVI, 1981, pp. 158-72.
[Below, Miller explores Walker's use of Biblical allusions in poems from For my People and Prophets for a New Day.]
The reader [of For My People] experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity, trickery, and deceit of men and women alike; finally, the significance of physical and spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the visionary poem,...
(The entire section is 5940 words.)
SOURCE: "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 499-510.
[Collier discusses Walker's use of Black myth and ritual in the poems of For my People and Prophets for a New Day.]
"For my people everywhere…," the reader began, and the audience of Black folk listened, a profound and waiting silence. We knew the poem. It was ours. The reader continued, his deep voice speaking not only to us but for us, "… singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees…." And as the poem moved on,...
(The entire section is 5193 words.)
SOURCE: "Preface," in This Is My Century, New and Collected Poems, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. xiii-xvii.
[Walker summarizes her poetic career, acknowledging sources of literary inspiration and personal assistance from family members, friends and other writers throughout her life.]
At Northwestern I first heard of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, and the Yale University Younger Poets competition. I heard Harriet Monroe read her poetry at North western, and I must have seen an ad in the Poets of America magazine announcing the Yale competition. I vowed then to publish in Poetry and to enter the competition at Yale.
(The entire section is 1509 words.)
SOURCE: "Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker's Poetry," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, March 1990, pp. 367-77.
[In the following excerpt, Buckner defines folklore and explores the manner in which Walker uses it in her ballads.]
Since, quite often, there are misconceptions about the definition of folklore or "fakelore" (a term coined by Richard Dorson [in American Folklore] in 1950, which means the falsifying of the raw data for capitalistic gain rather than totalitarian conquest), it is necessary to establish some ground rules for exploring folklore in literature. Three tests that can be used to see if an author has used folklore follow:...
(The entire section is 2901 words.)
SOURCE: "Poet of history, poet of vision," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1990, pp. 41-2.
[In the following review of Walker's poetry, Howe discusses "Epitaph for My Father" from the "October Journey" section and "Fanfare, Coda, and Finale" from the "Farish Street" section of This Is My Century.]
Last November, at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, Margaret Walker accepted The Feminist Press literary award of 1989 in honor of her "achievement as poet, novelist, critic and essayist; as teacher and fighter for human rights; and as a spirit of great empathy, compassion and understanding." The citation continued: "You came...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)