Margaret Walker, poet, novelist, essayist, orator, and critic, is known for her humanistic approach to issues of race and for the totality of her historical perspective. She began publishing poetry in the 1930’s in magazines such as Poetry, Opportunity, and Crisis, but is perhaps best known for her novel Jubilee.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Sigismund Walker, had emigrated from Buff Bay, Jamaica, to study for the ministry and received a degree in 1913 from Gramman Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. A Methodist minister, Sigismund bequeathed to his daughter a love of literature and an acute knowledge of the Bible. Likewise, Walker’s mother, Marian Dozier Walker, a music teacher, played ragtime music for Margaret and read a variety of poetry to her. Both of Walker’s parents encouraged her to pursue the highest academic goals possible.
Margaret Walker completed high school at age fourteen in New Orleans, where the family had moved when she was seven, and she enrolled at New Orleans University (now Dillard University). At the encouragement of Langston Hughes, Walker left the South after her sophomore year and eventually finished her bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University in 1935. She also published her first poem that year in Crisis. Upon graduating from Northwestern, Walker began working full time for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers’ Project. On her assignment as a junior writer, Walker came into contact with such writers as James Phelan, Katherine Dunbar, Frank Yerby, Fenton Johnson, and Richard Wright.
Her friendship with Wright was perhaps the most important and rewarding aspect of Walker’s time at the WPA. Their relationship was mutually supportive as Walker and Wright worked diligently to publish for the first time in national journals and books. Wright helped Walker improve the structure of her poetry, while Walker helped him revise some of his works. Wright encouraged Walker’s decision to delay work on her Civil War novel, which eventually became Jubilee, and Walker helped Wright research Native Son (1940). Walker’s...
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