Walker, Margaret (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Margaret Walker 1915-1998
(Full name Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander; also wrote under the name Margaret Walker Alexander) American novelist, poet, teacher, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Walker's career from 1986 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1986, see CLC, Volumes 1 and 6.
Walker was an important voice in the African-American literary community for seven decades. Her poetry and fiction, especially her novel, Jubilee (1966), helped to capture the essence of the struggles and triumphs of African Americans from the pre-Civil War period to the present.
Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her Jamaican-born father was a pastor, and her mother, a music teacher. Walker's parents respected learning and expected her to excel in school. During her youth, she was exposed to well-known African-American literary and cultural figures who appeared on various black campuses where her parents taught. The poet Langston Hughes became her mentor. At fourteen Walker completed high school in New Orleans and enrolled in New Orleans University, now Dillard University. Two years later, with the encouragement of Hughes, she left the South, finishing her bachelor's degree at Northwestern University in 1935 only a few months after her twentieth birthday. Soon after graduation she joined the Federal Writers Project in Chicago, where she met Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Willard Motley, and other promising young writers. In 1939 she left the project, and by 1940 she had received her M.A. from the University of Iowa. In 1942 she married Firnist James Alexander, with whom she had four children. Walker's first collection of poetry, For My People (1942), was selected by Stephen Vincent Benét for the Yale Younger Poets Series; the first such award given to a black woman. Also in 1942, at about the same time she married Alexander, she began her career as an English professor, first at West Virginia State College, then at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, where she stayed until 1946. From 1949 to 1979 she taught at Jackson State University, also directing the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. While raising four children and supporting the family (her husband was disabled) she managed to do extensive research and to compose Jubilee's early drafts. During this same period she also wrote poems, speeches, and essays; received the Rosenwald Fellowship for Creative Writing in 1944 and a Ford Fellowship at Yale University in 1954; and, in 1965, completed her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, with Jubilee serving as her dissertation. In 1977 Walker became embroiled in a lawsuit against Alex Haley, author of Roots, over copyright infringement. Despite this incident, an earlier feud with novelist Wright, and a copyright lawsuit brought by the Wright estate in the 1980s over the biography The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright (1982), she forged ahead, continuing to work on novels and poetry almost to the end of her life. Walker died in Chicago on November 30, 1998.
Walker first came to prominence with the publication of her award-winning For My People, whose title poem became a rallying cry for several generations of African Americans. Aside from a minor novel published in 1962, Walker did not publish another book until 1966, when her most important novel, Jubilee, appeared. In this work, an early example of black historical fiction, she follows the life of a black woman from the slave years, through the Civil War, to Reconstruction, realistically portraying the violence and upheaval affecting African Americans during this period. Walker chronicled the laborious process of researching and writing the book in How I Wrote Jubilee (1972). Her poetry collections, Prophets for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973) identified Walker more closely with young African-American writers such as Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni—the latter of whom Walker joined in published “conversations” in 1974. Walker's poetry is noted for its mastery of poetic forms and its use of the folklore and speech patterns of the black experience. Her responses to growing social change in the late 1960s and the 1970s were compiled in a book of essays, Black Women and Liberation Movements (1981). The publication of This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems in 1989 further solidified Walker's literary legacy. A final collection of essays, On Being Female, Black, and Free, was published in 1997.
Walker first gained critical attention in the 1940s with the publication of For My People. She became identified as a strong voice for African-American sensibilities; however, she all but disappeared from reviewers' attention for a number of years until Jubilee appeared. Although not always included in the canon of African-American novels of the 1960s and 1970s, Jubilee received a number of positive reviews. Some critics, however, faulted Walker for the too-obvious message of Christian forgiveness which her protagonist displayed. Others took a more laudatory tone, pointing out Walker's skillful incorporation of the history, mythology, and linguistic patterns of black Americans in the novel. Walker's poetry, especially For My People, has been singled out as representative of the voice of a people, especially as it reflects the rhetorical power of generations of African Americans. Her biography of Wright was more controversial, with some critics calling it a useful addition to Wright scholarship and others finding it biased and somewhat puzzling in its psychological approach. In general, Walker has retained her position as an important voice in African-American literature: a transitional figure between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the social protest writers of the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, she herself admitted that she found no affinity with postmodernists but rather saw herself as a more traditional figure who insisted on embracing humanistic values and did not worry about pleasing the literary establishment of the day. After Walker's death, a significant number of critics began to re-evaluate her work for its artistic merit, its important place in the spectrum of African-American literature, and its evidence of a woman's creative perseverance.
For My People (poetry) 1942
Come Down from Yonder Mountain (novel) 1962
Jubilee (novel) 1966
Prophets for a New Day (poetry) 1970
How I Wrote Jubilee (nonfiction) 1972
October Journey (poetry) 1973
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 as Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, 1987
My Farish Street Green [For Farish Street] (poetry) 1986
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1989
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (essays) 1990
God Touched My Life: The Inspiring Autobiography of the Nun Who Brought Song, Celebration, and Soul to the World [with Thea Bowman] (biography) 1992
Setting the Record Straight (lecture) 1996
On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker (essays) 1997
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SOURCE: Barksdale, Richard K. “Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy.” In Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 104-17. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
[In the following essay from his book on post-World War II African-America poets, Barksdale emphasizes Walker's attachment to African-American folk traditions in her use of language and subject matter.]
Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa—the master's degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966—were granted because of her achievements in creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master's degree; her prize-winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But Margaret Walker's poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of Hayden's poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker's poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and sonnets. It is now clear...
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SOURCE: Walker, Margaret, and Lucy M. Freibert. “Southern Song: An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 9, no. 3 (1987): 50-6.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1986 and published in 1987, Walker discusses her personal life and her working methods and compares herself with other Southern women writers.]
[Freibert]: You have been a writer, teacher, activist, homemaker, and cultural analyst. What is the unifying role in your life?
[Walker]: Well, I think that the feminine principle of being a daughter, a sister, a mother, and now a grandmother has been the motivating and inspiring agency. I think I said that first in a piece I wrote called “On Being Female, Black, and Free”—that being a woman is first, that when the doctor says “It's a she,” that's the first thing.
Would you talk about some of the people who have influenced you the most?
Well, my parents had the first influence on me. They were teachers. My mother taught music, and my father taught religion and philosophy. My father had taught in high schools before he taught in college; he had taught many different subjects. He was a fine English scholar, but he was first and foremost a theologian. Hearing my father give his sermons, watching him prepare them, and seeing him exemplify in his daily life what he preached had...
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SOURCE: Walker Alexander, Margaret, and Kay Bonetti. “An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander.” The Missouri Review 15, no. 1 (1992): 112-31.
[In the following interview, Walker touches on the differences between writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the protest writers of the 1930s, her relationship with Richard Wright and her copyright disputes with the Wright estate, writer Alex Haley, and the origins of Jubilee.]
Of special note: In what is being called a landmark decision on “fair use,” the U.S. Court of Appeals in November, 1991, ruled against the Richard Wright estate, who had sued Margaret Walker and Warner Books over her use in the biography of letters, journal entries, and an earlier essay she had written about Wright.
This interview was conducted by Kay Bonetti, Director of the American Audio Prose Library.
[Bonetti]: Ms. Walker, when you were a teenager, after you'd finished two years of college in New Orleans, Langston Hughes told your parents that their daughter had talent and that they should get you out of the South. Why?
[Walker]: Langston was saying that I couldn't get the kind of education I needed there. The summer before I went to Northwestern, some Jewish friends of my mother and father took my poetry to a professor of English at Tulane University, Richard Kirk. I dared not walk on that campus. At that...
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SOURCE: Walker, Margaret, and Joanne V. Gabbin. “Conversation: Margaret Walker Alexander and Joanne V. Gabbin.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, pp. 239-51. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1996 and published in 1999, Walker discusses such subjects as influences on her writing, social protest poetry, the postmodernists, and her own humanistic viewpoint.]
[Gabbin]: Fifty-four years ago, you won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for your first volume of poetry, For My People, making it the first collection by an African American writer to win a national award. Now you are the dean of African American writers and respected and revered for your work. When did you begin writing and who were the people who most influenced your burgeoning literary interests?
[Walker]: I started writing poetry when I was eleven years old. My father told my mother, “Pay her no attention, don't get excited; it's just a puberty urge,” which made me very angry. By the time I had filled the date book that he gave me I was at Northwestern; I think I'd written in those three hundred and sixty five pages by the time I was eighteen. I told him, “Do you still think this is a puberty urge?” He said, “I guess you're going to write as long as you live.” When someone asked me the other...
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SOURCE: Berke, Nancy. “Anything That Burns: The Social Poetry of Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, and Margaret Walker.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 37 (November 1998): 39-53.
[In the following essay, Berke calls attention to the often-neglected socially conscious poetry of three writers, including Walker's For My People.]
Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not … I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?
(Lola Ridge in an interview, 1920s)1
What's in the men nowadays—the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth.
(Genevieve Taggard in a letter to Josephine Herbst, early 1920s)2
As the Twentieth Century closes out, it may appear odd to epigrammatically draw upon the angry passions that two obscure names express as they vent their attitudes about literary practice in the 1920s. Yet it is the angry passion of a now rather forgotten group of American women poets that allows us to remember the social and political crises of an early part of the century, which the literary historical practices of the latter half of the century have, until very recently, deliberately worked to bury. To have a full...
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SOURCE: Boyd, Melba Joyce. “‘Prophets for a New Day’: The Cultural Activism of Margaret Danner, Margaret Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker during the Black Arts Movement.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 37 (November 1998): 55-67.
[In the following essay, Boyd examines the contributions of Walker and three black female writers to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and places them in relationship to one another and to their times.]
The Black Arts Movement (1965-1977) was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, and the impetus of this cultural revolution was the consequence of an artist/activist consciousness that embraced the notion of race pride, self determination and the need to engage in institution building. In the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit were key cities during this era because they contained large and industrious African American populations and housed major cultural institutions. The Du Sable Museum of African American History and Art, The Kuumba Workshop, the Organization of Black Art and Culture and The Negro Digest operated in Chicago; while the Broadside Press, Rappa House, Concept East and the Shrine of the Black Madonna were the loci of much activity in Detroit. Sustained through collective interests and burgeoning activities, interaction between the two cultural communities was largely the result of proximity and personal histories....
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SOURCE: Carmichael, Jacqueline Miller. “The Struggles and Journeys of the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ Woman.” In Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker's Jubilee, pp. 37-48. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
[In the following chapter from her full-length study of Jubilee, Carmichael discusses recent critical re-evaluation of the novel and a brief history of critical trends in relation to Walker's work.]
Our birth and death are easy hours, like sleep and food and drink. The struggle staggers us for bread, for pride, for simple dignity. And this is more than fighting to exist; more than revolt and war and human odds. 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.
Ours is a struggle from a too-warm bed; too cluttered with a patience full of sleep. 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.
—Margaret Walker, “The Struggle Staggers Us”
Whether Margaret Walker is writing poetry or prose, she evokes the bitterness and despair of her people and calls for a “union of the two worlds,” black and white. Within this ethos, she writes specifically of black women in America, a story of subjugation and...
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SOURCE: Baraka, Amiri. “Margaret Walker Alexander.” Nation 26, no. 1 (4 January 1999): 32-3.
[In the following essay, delivered at New York University following Walker's death, Baraka emphasizes her unique contributions to American literature.]
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 DuBois 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 Douglass,...
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SOURCE: Graham, Maryemma. “Margaret Walker: Fully a Poet, Fully a Woman (1915-1998).” Black Scholar 29, nos. 2/3 (summer 1999): 37-46.
[In the following essay written after Walker's death, Graham offers an overview of her life and work, placing Walker in the context of her literary times.]
Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915, into a family of storytellers and musicians, ministers and teachers. The Walker family—three sisters and a brother, parents and maternal grandmother—lived as a closely knit group during her early years in Alabama and Mississippi, and finally Louisiana, the place that Walker always called home, the South of her memory before and after leaving it for the first time. Strong advocates of education as a means toward racial progress and individual development, her parents nurtured and encouraged each child's individual talents. The first-born in the family, she was her father's favorite child. He gave her a daybook at age twelve; it was her first writer's journal, giving her a way to record her thoughts and the images that formed the basis for her poetry. The daybook quickly filled with numerous “ditties” and the details of the stories of slavery that were her grandmother's forte. While her father pastored churches and taught school and her mother finished college and taught music in New Orleans, Walker completed her elementary and high school...
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SOURCE: Berke, Nancy. “The Girl Who Went to Chicago: Political Culture and Migration in Margaret Walker's For My People.” In Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker, pp. 123-56. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2001.
[In the following chapter from her book on three poets, Berke deconstructs the text of For My People, suggesting that the themes of black northward migration and the economic and social conditions of the 1930s are important to an understanding of Walker's work.]
This is my century— Black synthesis of time: The freudian slip The Marxian mind Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith and DuBois prophecy: the color line. These are the comrades of Einstein, the dawning of another Age, new symphony of Time.
—Margaret Walker, “This Is My Century,” 1983
Looking back over fifty years of writing poetry from the vantage point of a black woman, Margaret Walker paradoxically names her “black synthesis of time” through conflicting, totalizing ideologies of the white male thinkers: Freud, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Einstein. While crossing DuBois's prophetic “color line,” Walker, a celebrated novelist, poet, essayist, and teacher, engages the discourses of class, psychology, religion, and science. Yet an important feature missing in her synthesis is gender. The gender consciousness that is absent from the...
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Bell, Bernice L., and Robert A. Harris. “Selected Bibliography of Works by and about Margaret Walker.” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker, edited by Maryemma Graham, pp. 319-40. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Complete list of primary and secondary works.
Brookhart, Mary Hughes. “Bibliography for Margaret Walker.” In Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora, pp. 511-14. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Extensive list of primary and secondary works.
Debo, Annette. “Margaret Walker.” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 469-74. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Overview of Walker's biography, major works and themes, as well as the critical reception to her works.
Freeman, Roland L. Margaret Walker's “For My People”: A Tribute. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, 36 p.
Photographic tribute to Walker on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of For My People.
Miller, R. Baxter. “‘To a Place...
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