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.