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
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 6968 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 5233 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 5155 words.)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 5414 words.)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 1188 words.)
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...
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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 entire section is 15328 words.)