Margaret Walker American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3002

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...

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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 pimp-—progresses from his prime to his decline.

“Poppa Chicken” is a caricature of a pimp. He has style. He is a commodifier of sex. He is violent. He is an outlaw who has paid off the authorities to shorten the prison time he ultimately must serve. Then he gets old. He has sinister heroic status. The ballad has twelve four-line stanzas, rhymed abcb, with lines from five to eight syllables.

Poppa Chicken was a “sugar daddy” in his time, with a stable of many women. He made lots of money, and he harried his women “employees,” who said he was swell (probably out of well-grounded fear of reprisal for disrespect). Poppa Chicken’s face was “long and black” with a wide grin. When he went on show, his women heralded his progress with hysterical shouts. Inexorably, Poppa Chicken brutalized the women to command their obedience—the poem’s line “Treat ’em rough and make them say/ Poppa Chicken’s fine!” is a euphemism that might mask his viciousness. Poppa also carried guns and knives and inevitably killed a “guy”; jailed, he bought himself a short sentence, and released, his ambivalent folk-hero status grew, and he seemed unchanged by his experience. Poppa’s personality is one of conspicuous consumption, especially of custom cigars and large diamonds. In his post-jail life, he boldly carries no gun and swears at police officers (whom he has likely bribed). He eventually meets a woman with whom he actually falls in love, thereby acquiring a poignant and ominous vulnerability. However, soon “her man Joe”—perhaps her pimp of more youthful strength than Poppa—ends the affair, a poetically just denial of the experience of a love relationship for a person who forbade sentiment in the relationships between his employees and their customers. Poppa survives, but the reader now understands him to be the victim of his business as much as the women are and their “johns” who work for him in the soulless grapplings of prostitution.

Jubilee

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

Jubilee is the fictionalized history of Walker’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, and her daughter, Walker’s grandmother, Elvira Dozier, from 1837 to about 1890, framing the crucial years of the U.S. Civil War.

“Jubilee” is the biblical name for amnesty and forgiving of money debts every forty-nine years. The novel is organized in three parts. Chapter 1 (1837) is titled “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years.” The novel opens with the birth of Vyry in 1837, Hetta’s last child, on the John Morris Dutton plantation, in Dawson, Georgia. The thirty-five-year-old Dutton was her father. Vyry would be able to pass for white. Hetta then died in pregnancy when Vyry was two. Mothered by Mammy Sukey until she is old enough to work at the age of seven, Vyry looks like the twin of Miss Lillian, Dutton’s child with his wife, Salina. In this chapter, nearly all the important characters of the story are introduced.

Chapter 2 takes place in 1844. At age seven, Vyry becomes a house servant, to be brutalized by the jealous Dutton wife, Big Missy Salina. Grimes, the plantation overseer, is a poor, white man. Vyry breaks a dish and is punished by Big Missy by being hung by her wrists in a closet. The beautiful natural landscape of Georgia is described once again.

Chapter 3 (1847) describes ten-year-old Vyry’s world of work, often using the inventories of things such as food, work tasks, animals, sicknesses, and children’s games to go with the folk songs and slave songs that regularly punctuate the narrative and make Jubilee into a discourse for oral telling. The religion of the slaves has a biblical connection, but it is not the same as that of the Southern whites. The slave Brother Ezekiel can read and write. Near the Dutton plantation, white antislavery agitators appear in the late 1840’s.

Chapters 4 through 7, taking place around 1851, depict Ezekiel the minister, who is also an agent of the Underground Railroad. Vyry is more warmly dressed and better fed in winter than many poor whites. Randall Ware, a freeman blacksmith with his own smithy in Dawson, appears and begins to court Vyry. Among white people, watchfulness for possession of weapons and evidence of the ability to read by the slaves is increased. The cook, Aunt Sally, whom Vyry has come to love, is peremptorily sold. The signature lie of slave owners of how the plantation’s slaves are loved and well-treated enters the narrative as irony razored with anger.

Chapters 8 through 14, circa 1853, tell how the courtship of Randall Ware and Vyry progresses. A courtship and marriage of Miss Lillian and the rather sensitive Kevin MacDougall has as context the punishment of slave Lucy by branding an “R” on her face. The Fourth of July is celebrated with the hanging murders of women slaves who poisoned their master. Fall canning and the cotton harvest are described. Two old slaves are beaten to death by Grimes with a whip. The year ends with a description of a typical Christmas on the plantation: For one day of the year, the field hands get enough to eat and may rest. Dutton refuses to let Randall Ware buy Vyry’s freedom, and the reader learns that Vyry is pregnant.

Chapters 15 through 18, from 1854 to 1858, chronicle the growth of Vyry’s family. Her first child, James, is born. Minna is born in 1858. Vyry is threatened with being auctioned and is shown stripped to slavers but not sold. She tries to escape to freedom with Ware but is caught and given seventy-five lashes, which scar her grotesquely for life. In the narrative, the experience of the slaves, with Vyry as the central personality, is often reminiscent of the experience of Jesus in the New Testament.

Part 2 of the book, titled “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—The Civil War Years,” takes place from 1861 to 1866. John Dutton dies. The South believes it will win the war easily and quickly. Young John Dutton dies in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Early in 1864, Kevin MacDougall dies. The Union Army’s victories in Georgia are too much for Big Missy, who dies of a heart attack. Confederate soldiers arrive to trash the Dutton plantation in January, 1865. Innis Brown, an escaped slave, arrives at the Dutton plantation, where the slaves, led by Vyry, are now in charge. Vyry and Innis leave the plantation in January, 1866.

The final section of the book—“Forty Years in the Wilderness—Reconstruction and Reaction” follows Vyry and her family between 1866 and 1870. They reach Henry County, below Abbeville, but they must leave. After more attempts, they settle in Greenville, Alabama, in spring, 1870, where they finally are able to make a permanent home. Randall Ware finds them. Vyry displays the scars of her whipping to Innis and Ware, declaring that she would still feed the person who whipped her.

“For Malcolm X”

First published: 1965 (collected in Prophets for a New Day, 1970)

Type of work: Poem

Walker salutes all who mourned the assassination of Malcolm X, and includes a fervent address to Malcolm himself.

For Malcolm X joined the river of elegiac discourse elicited by Malcolm X’s bloody murder in 1965 by Nation of Islam congregation members. Walker’s sonnet expresses collective African American grief. Its loose Petrarchan form uses the first eight lines (octet) to describe the mourners, who gaze upon the dead Malcolm in the climactic six lines (sestet) that resolve the poem.

Line 1 to 8 address the “Violated ones,” the African Americans who may enact the internecine violence of brothers killing brothers. They are street people who hate the white oppressors and the middle-class black people economically sealed off from the African American underclass. The stanza’s final line summons the hearers to Malcolm’s coffin to feel the great loss of a beautiful surrogate for them—a “swan.”

Lines 9 to 14 frame the dead body of Malcolm as it lies in state. His message to his mourners was difficult. Christ-like blood and water of the mourners flow from them and from Malcolm’s wounds. In Walker’s earthy diction, Malcolm is credited with having entered the hearts and minds of his mourners—“cut open our breasts and dug scalpels in our/ brains.” Malcolm is irreplaceable, and there is a profound desire to see him incarnate in someone new.

“Prophets for a New Day”

First published: 1970 (collected in Prophets for a New Day, 1970)

Type of work: Poem

A formal voice announces another suffering-and-death experience in progress like that of Jesus Christ; however, this time, it is not for one person but for a number of people—for “us.”

Prophets for a New Day reprises the heroic sacrifice of the revolutionary 1960’s in the United States, a decade which featured the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, as well as the Watts riots and the American forces in Vietnam, where a disproportionate number of those who died were African American.

Stanza I appropriates the Old Testament personalities and narrative of the Hebrew captivity and ordeal in a modern discourse that is homiletic and exhortative. It announces the threshold of an apocalyptic time. The gravity of the proclamation is suggested by its association with the tropes of heroic Old Testament personalities—Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah’s lips purified with a hot coal, the portentous wheels of fire that accompanied Ezekiel’s dire prophesies, and Amos, who prophesied the fall of the Hebrew kingdom. Like the biblical audience, the modern African American one lives in poor places and jails, in the worthless lands and the roads between inns. A composite prophetic leader delivers a message to all who are tired and in pain because they are denied creature comforts and safety.

The second stanza connects the biblical and the modern population of believers who have no political power. They kneel by an iconic river and around the world. Prophecy is proclaimed, signaled by “flaming flags of stars,” “a blinding sun,” “the lamp of truth” that burns the “oil of devotion.” The prophet personalities—now no longer composite—chant the spell of an apocalyptic vision. Upon the prayerful throng of faces that are racially dark descends “the Word,” accompanied by an energy of freedom that is felt like the weather of a great storm coming.

However, in stanza III, the terrible means of deliverance is the biblical “beast,” reincarnated in modernity to destroy order and the rational as well as the creatures and landscape of the temporal world. The beast—a male, anthropomorphic personality of chaos, the sum of the extreme possibility of perversion of humankind—destroys everything, individually, genocidally, and ecologically. The beast is humanity run amok, a cannibal. War, Famine, Pestilence, Death, Destruction, and Trouble, unceasingly, day and night, eat humankind and its defenders. It is a coward whose genius is to know humanity’s cowardice, who slanders the possibility of freedom and virtue. Its lie is that the people who have died in the slavery that built modern civilization are not worth remembering, acknowledging, and repenting. Then the beast reenacts Calvary transmogrified and drives the people from the city to a new Golgatha, “to be stabbed” in a virtual forest of crucified people. Escape from the beast and deliverance will come with an apocalyptic ending of the world as it is.

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