Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 95
For My People 1942
Ballad of the Free 1966
Prophets for a New Day 1970
October Journey 1973
This is My Century: New and Collected Poems 1989
Other Major Works
Come Down from Yonder Mountain (novel) 1962
Jubilee (novel) 1966
How I Wrote Jubilee (essays) 1972
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 edition, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius 1988
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (essays) 1989
On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker (essays) 1997
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565
SOURCE: "Foreword," in For My People, Yale University Press, 1942, pp. 5-7.
[In this excerpt from the Foreword to For My People, Benét introduces Walker as a promising new poet whose sincerity and talent make her work successful.]
Straightforwardness, directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry. And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people older voices are mixed with hers—the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices—I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving poetry because it was written by a Negro. It is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage—and poetry must exist in its own right. These poems keep on talking to you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and passionate speech.
"We Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My People"—they are full of the rain and the sun that fall upon the faces and shoulders of her people, full of the bitter questioning and the answers not yet found, the pride and the disillusion and the reality. It is difficult for me to read these poems unmoved—I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her "playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker—she is interested in people wherever they are. In the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits—figures of legend, like John Henry and Stagolee and the uncanny Molly Means—figures of realism like Poppa Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn't die—figures "of Old Man River, round New Orleans, with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans." They are set for voice and the blues, they could be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and last, they are a part of our earth.
Miss Walker can write formal verse as well; she can write her own kind of sonnet. But, in whatever medium she is working, the note is true and unforced. There is a deep sincerity in all these poems—a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and seen—this is the song ofher people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its candor. And this is not far away or long ago—this is part of our nation, speaking.
I do not know what work Miss Walker will do in the future, though I should be very much surprised if this book were all she had to give. But I do know that, in this book, she has spoken of her people so that all may listen. I think that is something for any poet to have done.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
SOURCE: "A Social Poet," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. LXI, February, 1943, pp. 634-36.
[In this review of Walker's first volume of poems, Algren compliments her on her ability to communicate as a social poet but faults her for some stylistic weaknesses.]
In this volume the Yale Series has effected a wholesome deviation from previous presentations by giving us a poet who is not, for one, a poet's poet. Miss Walker is intense and forthright without being oratorical; she is terse and demanding without loss of rhythm. She depends upon meanings more than upon metaphysics.
The piece called "Delta" is not Miss Walker's so much as it is her people's. It is one of those songs which derive music and message from sheer weight of social pressure. It possesses the restless music that oppression makes in the human heart, and recreates the mood of the human mind under the lash. By its total mood this reader was strongly reminded of Chaim Bialik's Night.
Miss Walker's fondness for alliteration, however, as in "We Have Been Believers," sometimes compromises her depth and originality. When she resists this tendency, as in "Delta," her verse is considerably deepened. And occasionally, as in "Dark Blood," she lapses into conventional romanticism:
The point being that the American Negro doesn't go to Mobile by way of Bocas del Toro any more. That is a romanticized trek to which young Negro poets are greatly given. But it is a false journey and has led not one of them home as yet.
In the second section Miss Walker goes directly to Mobile and returns with a bagful of ballads. All of them make good stories, and some of them make good poems. Although "Two Gun Buster and Trigger Slim" is slight, and "Yalluh Hammuh" finishes feebly, "Poppa Chicken" and "Teacher" are satisfying both as stories and as poems:
When unhampered by the requirements of formal verse, Miss Walker's poetry is fuller than when, as in the final section, she commits herself to a definite form. Here she is just another poet writing sonnets. Although none are bad—since she does not write bad poetry—several do smell of the midnight oil. Fortunately, the final piece rounds out the entire volume, carrying the dignity of the title-poem's message to a well-rounded close:
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5940
SOURCE: "The 'Etched Flame' of Margaret Walker: Biblical and Literary Re-Creation in Southern History," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. XXVI, 1981, pp. 158-72.
[Below, Miller explores Walker's use of Biblical allusions in poems from For my People and Prophets for a New Day.]
The reader [of For My People] experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity, trickery, and deceit of men and women alike; finally, the significance of physical and spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the visionary poem, the folk secular and the Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets. She opposes quest to denial, historical circumstances to imaginative will, and earthly suffering to heavenly bliss. Her poetry purges the southern ground of animosity and injustice which separate Black misery from Southern song. Her themes are time, infinite human potential, racial equality, vision, blindness, love and escape, as well as worldly death, drunkenness, gambling, rottenness, and freedom. She pictures the motifs within the frames of toughness and abuse, fright and gothic terror. Wild arrogance, for her speakers, often underlies heroism, but the latter is more imagined than real.
The myth of human immortality expressed in oral tale and in literary artifact transcends death. The imagination evokes atemporal memory, asserts the humanistic self against the fatalistic past, and illustrates, through physical love, the promise of both personal and racial reunification. The achievement is syntactic. Parallelism, elevated rhetoric, simile, and figure of speech abound, but more deeply the serenity of nature creates solemnity. Walker depicts sun, splashing brook, pond, duck, frog and stream, as well as flock, seed, wood, bark, cotton field, and cane. Still, the knife and gun threaten the pastoral world as, by African conjure, the moral "we" attempts to reconcile the two. As both the participant and observer, Walker creates an ironic distance between history and eternity. The Southern experience in the first section and the reclamation in the second part frame the humanity of folk personae Stagolee, John Henry, Kissie Lee, Yallah Hammer, and Gus. The book becomes a literary artifact, a "clean house" which imaginatively restructures the southland.
But if Dudley Randall has written "The Ballad of Birmingham" and Gwendolyn Brooks "The Children of the Poor," Walker succeeds with the visionary poem. She does not portray the gray-haired old women who nod and sing out of despair and hope on Sunday morning, but she captures the depths of their suffering. She recreates their belief that someday Black Americans will triumph over fire hoses and biting dogs, once the brutal signs of White oppression in the South. The prophecy contributes to Walker's rhythmical balance and vision, but she controls the emotions. How does one change brutality into social equality? Through sitting down at a lunch counter in the sixties, Black students illustrated some divinity and confronted death, just as Christ faced His cross. Walker deepens the portraits by using biblical typology, by discovering historical antitypes, and by creating an apocalyptic fusion. Through the suffering in the Old and New Testaments, the title poem of For My People expresses Black American victory over deprivation and hatred. The ten stanzas celebrate the endurance of tribulations such as dark murders in Virginia and Mississippi as well as Jim Crowism, ignorance, and poverty. The free form includes the parallelism of verbs and the juxtaposition of the present with the past. Black Americans are "never gaining, never reaping, never knowing and never understanding." When religion faces reality, the contrast creates powerful reversal:
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and play and drink their wine and religion and success, to marry their playmates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia and lynching.
Through biblical balance, "For My People" sets the White oppressor against the Black narrator. Social circumstance opposes racial and imaginative will, and disillusion opposes happiness. Blacks fashion a new world that encompasses many faces and people, "all the adams and eves and their countless generations." From the opening dedication (Stanza 1) to the final evocation (Stanza 10) the prophet-narrator speaks both as Christ and God. Ages ago, the Lord put His rainbow in the clouds. To the descendants of Noah it signified His promise that the world would never again end in flood. Human violence undermines biblical calm, as the first word repeats itself: "Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody-peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth…."
"We Have Been Believers," a visionary poem, juxtaposes Christianity with African conjure, and the Old Testament with the New, exemplified by St. John, St. Mark, and Revelation. The narrator ("we") represents the Black builders and singers in the past, for Walker seeks to interpret cultural signs. The theme is Black faith, first in Africa and then in America. As the verse shows movement from the past to the present, the ending combines Christianity and humanism. With extensive enjambment, the controlled rhapsody has a long first sentence, followed by indented ones that complete the meaning. The form literally typifies Black American struggle. The long line is jolted because an ending is illusory, and the reader renews his perusal just as the Black American continues the search for freedom. The narrator suggests the biblical scene in which death breaks the fifth seal (Revelation 6:11). There the prophet sees all the people who, slain in the service of God, wear garments as the narrator describes them.
The authenticating "we" is more focused than either Ellison's in Invisible Man or Baldwin's in Notes of a Native Son. Their speakers are often educated and upwardly mobile people who move between White and Black American worlds. Walker's, on the contrary, are frequently the secular and religious "folk" who share a communal quest. She blends historical sense with biblical implication: "Neither the slaver's whip nor the lyncher's rope nor the / bayonet could kill our black belief. In our hunger we / beheld the welcome table and in our nakedness the / glory of a long white robe." The narrator identifies Moloch, a god of cruel sacrifice, and all people who have died for no just cause. She prepares for the myth that dominates the last three parts of the poem, the miracle that Jesus performed on the eyes of a blind man. After He instructs him to wash them in the pool of Siloam, the man sees clearly (John 9:25). Another allusion suggests the miracle that Christ worked for the afflicted people near the Sea of Galilee. Walker's narrator knows the legend, but awaits the transformation (Mark 7:37). The waiting prepares for an irony phrased in alliteration: "Surely the priests and the preachers and the powers will hear … / … now that our hands are empty and our hearts too full to pray." This narrator says that such people will send a sign—the biblical image of relief and redemption—but she implies something different. Although her humanism embraces Christianity, she adds militancy and impatience. Her rhetoric illustrates liquid sound, alliteration, and assonance: "We have been believers believing in our burdens and our / demigods too long. Now the needy no longer weep / and pray; the long-suffering arise, and our fists bleed / against the bars with a strange insistency."
The impatience pervades "Delta," which has the unifying type of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Although the first part presents the blood, corruption, and depression of the narrator's naturalistic world, the second illustrates the restorative potential of nature. High mountain, river, orange, cotton, fern, grass, and onion share the promise. Dynamic fertility, the recleansed river (it flowed through swamps in the first part), can clear the Southern ground of sickness, rape, starvation, and ignorance. Water gives form to anger, yet thawing sets in. Coupled with liquidity, the loudness of thunder and cannon implies storm; the narrator compares the young girl to Spring. Lovingly the speaker envisions vineyards, pastures, orchards, cattle, cotton, tobacco, and cane, "making us men in the fields we have tended / standing defending the land we have rendered rich and abiding and heavy with plenty." Interpreting the meaning of earth can help to bridge the distance between past decay and present maturity when the narrator celebrates the promise:
the long golden grain for bread
and the ripe purple fruit for wine
the hills beyond for peace
and the grass beneath for rest
the music in the wind for us
and the circling lines in the sky
Elsewhere a gothic undercurrent and an allusion to Abel and Cain add complexity; so does an allusion to Christ and transubstantiation. Rhetorical power emerges because the harsh tone of the Old Testament threatens the merciful tone of the New one. Loosely plotted, the verse recounts the personal histories of the people in the valley. Still, the symbolical level dominates the literal one, and the poem portrays more deeply the human condition. The narrator profits from the gothicism which has influenced Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden Brown, and Edgar Allan Poe. Just as Walker's pictures create beauty for the African-American, they communicate a grace to all who appreciate symmetrical landscapes. The tension in her literary world comes from the romantic legacy of possibility set against denial: "High above us and round about us stand high mountains / rise the towering snowcapped mountains / while we are beaten and broken and bowed / here in this dark valley." Almost no rhyme scheme exists in the poem, but a predominance of three or four feet gives the impression of a very loose ballad. The fifth stanza of the second part has incremental repetition, as the undertone of Countee Cullen's poem "From the Dark Tower" heightens the deep despair, the paradox of desire and restraint: "We tend the crop and gather the harvest / but not for ourselves do we sweat and starve and spend … / here on this earth we dare not claim…" In the stanza before the final one the reader associates myth and history. While the narrator remembers the Blacks unrewarded in the Southern past, the imagery suggests Christ and transubstantiation. The speaker, however, alludes mainly to Abel slain by Cain (Genesis 4:10): "We with our blood have watered these fields / and they belong to us." Implicitly the promise of the Psalmist ("Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death") has preceded.
In four quatrains, "Since 1619" strengthens Old Testament préfiguration. Aware of World War II, the narrator illuminates human blindness. She emphasizes the inevitability of death and the deterioration of world peace. With anaphora she repeats the Psalmist: "How many years … have I been singing Spirituals? / How long have I been praising God and shouting hallelujahs? / How long have I been hated and hating? / How long have I been living in hell for heaven?" She remembers the Valley of Dry Bones in which the Lord placed the prophet Ezekiel, whom He questioned if the bones could live. Whereas in the Bible salvation is external and divine, here the transformation comes fromwithin. The poem contrasts moral renewal to the spiritual death during World War II and the pseudo-cleanliness of middle-class America. Written in seven stanzas, the verse has four lines in the first section and three in the second. Initially the poem portrays the ancient muse, the inspiration of all poetry, and later it illustrates poverty, fear, and sickness. Even the portrait of lynching cannot end the narrator's quest for cleanliness. Although Americans face death, they will continue to seek solace through intoxication and sex. The beginning of the poem foreshadows the end, but the directness in the second section supplants the general description in the first. The middle-class Americans in the first part have no bombing planes or air-raids to fear, yet they have masked violence and ethnocentric myth: "viewing weekly 'Wild West Indian and Shooting Sam,' 'Mama Loves Papa,' and 'Gone By the Breeze!'" Calories, eyemaline, henna rinse, and dental cream image a materialistic nation. With a deeper cleanliness, the speaker advises the reader within an ironic context: "Pray for second sight and the inner ear. Pray for bulwark against poaching patterns of dislocated days; pray for buttressing iron against insidious termite and beetle and locust and flies and lice and moth and rust and mold."
The religious types in the second and third sections of For My People rival neither those in the first section nor those in Prophets for a New Day. When Walker ignores biblical sources, often she vainly attempts to achieve cultural saturation. Without biblical cadences her ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In "Yalluh Hammah," a folk poem about the "Bad Man," she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money.
But sometimes the less figurative sonnets are still boring. "Childhood" lacks the condensation and focus to develop well the Petrarchan design. In the octave a young girl remembers workers who used to return home in the afternoons. Even during her maturity, the rags of poverty and the habitual grumbling color the Southern landscape still. Despite weaknesses, the poem suggests well a biblical analogue. As the apostle Paul writes "When I was a child, I spake as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (I Corinthians 13:11), Walker's sonnet coincidentally begins, "When I was a child I knew red miners … / I also lived in a low cotton country … where sentiment and hatred still held sway / and only bitter land was washed away." The mature writer seeks now to restore and renew the earth.
In Prophets Walker illustrates some historical antitypes to the Old Testament. Her forms are the visionary poem, free verse sonnet, monody, pastoral, and gothic ballad in which she portrays freedom, speech, death, and rebirth. Her major images are fire, water, and wind. When she opposes marching to standing, the implied quest becomes metaphorical, for she recreates the human community in the spiritual wilderness. She looks beneath any typological concern of man's covenant with God, and even the pantheistic parallel of the Southerner's covenant with the land, to illuminate man's broken covenant with himself. The human gamut runs from death ("mourning bird") to the potential of poetry ("humming bird"). Poetry recreates anthropocentric space. The speaker depicts the breadth through dramatic dialogue, sarcasm, and satire. Even the cold stone implies the potential for creative inspiration or Promethean fire. The narrator verbally paints urban corruption in the bitter cold and frozen water. Her portrait images not only the myth of fragmentation and dissolution, but the courage necessary to confront and transcend them. Her world is doubly Southern. Here the Old South still withstands Northern invasion, but the Black South endures both. One attains the mythical building beyond (sounds like Thomas Wolfe), the human house, through fire. Form is imagined silence. Poetry, both catharsis and purgation, parallels speaking, crying, and weaving. The center includes geometric space and aesthetic beauty. To portray anthropocentric depth is to clarify the significance of human cleansing.
Although the sonnets and ballads in For My People are weak, the typological poems in Prophets for a New Day envision universal freedom. But neither Walker nor her reader can remain at visionary heights, for the real world includes the white hood and fiery cross. Even the latter image fails to save the poem "Now," in which the subject is civil rights. Here both images of place and taste imply filth as doors, dark alleys, balconies, and washrooms reinforce moral indignation. The Klan marks "kleagle with a klux / and a fiery burning cross." Yet awkward rhythms have preceded. In shifting from three feet to four, the speaker stumbles: "In the cleaning room and closets / with the washrooms marked 'For Colored Only.'" The ear of "Sit-ins" catches more sharply the translation of the Bible into history. Written in twelve lines of free verse, the lyric depicts the students at North Carolina A & T University, who in 1960 sat down at the counter of a dime store and began the Civil Rights movement. The speaker recreates Southern history. In the shining picture, the reader sees the Angel Michael who drove Adam and Eve from Paradise, but the portrait becomes more secular: "With courage and faith, convictions and intelligence / The first to blaze a flaming patch for justice / And awaken consciences / Of these stony ones." The implement that in the Bible and Milton symbolized Paradise Lost becomes a metaphor for Paradise Regained. In viewpoint the narrator gives way to the demonstrators themselves: "Come, Lord Jesus, Bold Young Galilean / Sit Beside This Counter / Lord With Me."
As with most of Walker's antitypical poems, "Sit-ins" hardly rivals "Ballad of the Free," one of her finest. The latter work portrays the heroic missions and tragic deaths of slave insurrectionists and excels through consistent rhythm as well as compression of image. At first the verse seems true to the title. Although the design of the typical ballad usually emphasizes a rhythmic contrast between two lines in succession, "Ballad of the Free," stresses a contrast between whole stanzas. Of the twelve sections which comprise the poem, each of the four quatrains follows a tercet which serves as the refrain. The narrator adds a striking twist to St. Matthew (19:30; 20:16), in which Peter asks Jesus what will happen to people who have forsaken everything to follow Him. Christ replies that the social status will be reversed. Although He speaks about the beginning of the apocalypse in which all persons are judged, Walker's narrator forsees the end of the apocalypse in which all are equal: "The serpent is loosed and the hour is come…."
The refrain balances social history and biblical legend. The first stanza presents Nat Turner, the leader of the slave insurrection in South Hampton, Virginia, during 1831. After the first refrain, the reader recognizes Gabriel Prosser, whom a storm once forced to suspend a slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia. With a thousand other slaves, Prosser planned an uprising that collapsed in 1800. Betrayed by fellow bondsmen, he and fifteen others were hanged on October 7 in that year. After the first echo of the refrain, Denmark Vesey, who enlisted thousands of Blacks for an elaborate slave plot in Charleston, S.C., and the vicinity, appears in the fifth stanza. Authorities arrested 131 Blacks and four Whites, and when the matter was settled, thirty-seven people were hanged. Toussaint L'Ouverture, who at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries liberated Haitian slaves, follows the second echo of the refrain. Shortly afterwards an evocation of John Brown intensifies the balance between history and sound. With thirteen Whites and five Blacks, Brown attacked Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859, and by December 2 of that year, he was also hanged. In the poem, as in the Southern past, the death of the rebel is foreshadowed. Gifted with humane vision, he wants to change an inegalitarian South. But the maintainers of the status quo will kill, so the hero becomes the martyr.
In order to emphasize Turner as historical paradigm, the narrator ignores the proper chronology of L'Ouverture, Prosser, Vesey, Turner, and Brown. She gives little of the historical background but calls upon the names of legend. What does she achieve, by naming her last hero, if not a symmetry of color? The ballad that began with Black Nat Turner ends with White John Brown, for if action alone determines a basis for fraternity, racial distinction is insignificant.
For a central portrait of Turner, the verse moves backward and forward in both typological and apocalyptic time. As with the narrator of Hughes's "Negro Speaks of Rivers," the speaker can comprehend different decades. Because she is outside of Time, L'Ouverture and Brown, who come from different periods, appear to her with equal clarity. Until the eleventh stanza, the biblical sureness of the refrain has balanced history. The note of prophecy sounds in the slowness and firmness of racial progress: "Wars and Rumors of Wars have gone, / But Freedom's army marches on. / The heroes' list of dead is long, / And Freedom still is for the strong." The narrator recalls Christ (Mark 13:7) who prophesies wars and rumors of war, but foretells salvation for endurers. The final refrain interfuses with the fable and history: "The serpent is loosed and the hour is come."
"At the Lincoln Monument in Washington, August 28, 1963," presents analogues to Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis, and Deuteronomy. Written in two stanzas, the poem has forty-four lines. The speaker dramatizes chronicle through biblical myth, racial phenomenology, and Judaeo-Christian consciousness. She advances superbly with the participant to the interpreter, but even the latter speaks from within an aesthetic mask. The poetic vision authenticates the morality of her fable and the biblical analogue. The first stanza has twenty-eight lines, and the second has sixteen. As the speaker recalls the march on Washington, in which more than 250,000 people demonstrated for civil rights, she attributes to Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the movement, the same rhetorical art she now remem bers him by. The analogue is Isaiah: "The grass with ereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever" (40:8). Two brothers, according to the fable, led the Israelites out of Egypt. Sentences of varied length complement the juxtaposition of cadences which rise and fall. The narrator names neither King as "Moses" nor King's youthful follower as "Aaron," yet she clarifies a richness of oration and implies the heroic spirit. King, before his death, said that he had been to the mountain top, and that he had seen the Promised Land. But the speaker literarily retraces the paradigm of the life; she distills the love of the listeners who saw him and were inspired: "There they stand … / The old man with a dream he has lived to see come true."
Although the first eleven lines of the poem are descriptive, the twelfth combines chronicle and prefiguration. The speaker projects the social present into the mythical past. Her words come from a civil rights song, "We Woke Up One Morning With Our Minds Set On Freedom." The social activist wants the immediate and complete liberation which the rhetorician (speaker and writer) translates into literary symbol: "We woke up one morning in Egypt / And the river ran red with blood … / And the houses of death were afraid."
She remembers, too, the story of Jacob, who returns home with his two wives, Leah and Rachel (Genesis 30:25-43). Laban, the father-in-law, gave him speckled cattle, but now the narrator understands that Jacob's "house (Africa-America) has grown into a nation / The slaves break forth from bondage" (emphasis mine). In Old Testament fashion, she cautions against fatigue in the pursuit of liberty. Through heightened style, she becomes a prophet whose medium is eternal language. She has mastered alliteration, assonance, and resonance.
Write this word upon your hearts
And mark this message on the doors of your houses
See that you do not forget
How this day the Lord has set our faces toward freedom
Teach these words to your children
And see that they do not forget them.
Walker's poetry alludes subtly to King but refers to Malcolm X directly. The verse dedicated to Malcolm portrays him as Christ. Nearly a Petrarchan sonnet, the poem is not written in the five-foot line, but has several lines of four or six feet. Neither of the last two lengths usually characterizes the form, and even a concession of off-rhyme does not make a Petrarchan scheme unfold. The comments sound repetitious because they are. As with the earlier sonnet "Childhood," "Malcolm" appears at first to deserve oblivion because here, too, Walker fails to condense and control metrics. Still, the quiet appeal is clear. The Christ story compels rereading, and one finds it a meaningful experience. When Malcolm is associated with a dying swan in the octave, the narrator alludes to the Ovidian legend of the beautiful bird which sings just before death. Malcolm takes on Christ's stigmata: "Our blood and water pour from your flowing wounds."
Vivid and noble portraits of crucifixion, another type of martyrdom, give even more vitality to "For Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney" (hereafter "For Andy"), a poem about three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi on June 21, 1964. The elegy complements seasonal and diurnal cycle through the reaffirmation of human growth and spiritual redemption. Despite the questionable value of martyrdom, sunrise balances sunset, and beautiful leaves partly compensate for human mutilation. In dramatic reversal, Walker's narrator uses the literary technique which distinguishes Lycidas, Adonais, and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
The flower and the paradigmatic bird (lark, robin, mourning bird, bird of sorrow, bird of death) restore both an epic and elegiac mood. The reader half-hears the echo of the goddess Venus who mourns for Adonis; mourning and morning, excellent puns, signify the cycle and paradox of life. The short rhythm, two feet, and the longer rhythm, three or four, provide the solemn folksiness of a very loose ballad or free verse. With interior rhyme, the musical balance communicates quiet pathos: "They have killed these three / They have killed them for me." The gentle suggestion of the trinity, the tragic flight of the bird, and the slow but cyclical turning from spring to spring intensify the narrator's sadness and grief.
Just as "For Andy" shows Walker's grace of style, the title poem of Prophets illustrates that the Bible prefigures the eloquence. As with the earlier poem "Delta," "Prophets" resists paraphrase because it abstractly portrays Black American history. The poem has three parts. The first shows thatthe Word which came to the biblical prophets endures, and the next presents the actual appearance of the ancient vision to new believers. In the third part, the reader moves to a final understanding about tragic death. While the poet marks the recurrence of sacred light, fire, gentleness, and artistic speech, she contrasts White and Black, dark and light, age and youth, life and death. Some allusions to Ezekiel and Amos now fuse with others from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. Amos tells of a prophet-priest of sixth century B.C., a watchman over the Israelites during the exile in Babylon, by the river of Cheber (Ezek. 1:15-20). As a herdsman from the southern village of Tekoa, Judah, he went to Bethel in Samaria to preach a religion of social justice and righteousness. He attacked economic exploitation and privilege and criticized the priests who stressed ritual above justice. Because Amos is Walker's personal symbol of Martin Luther King, Jr., she provides more background about him than about others. The reader knows his name, character, and homeland.
But Walker socially and historically reinvigorates the scriptures. She is no eighteenth-century Jupiter Hammon who rewrites the Bible without any infusion of personal suffering. She feels strongly and personally that the demonstrators in the sixties antitypify the Scriptures: "So today in the pulpits and the jails, / A fearless shepherd speaks at last / To his suffering weary sheep." She implies perseverance even in the face of death, and her speaker blends the images of the New Testament with those from Beowulf. Her lines depict the beast:
His mark is on the land
His horns and his hands and his lips are gory with our blood
He is death and destruction and Trouble
And he walks in our houses at noonday
And devours our defenders at midnight.
The literary word images fear and sacrifice more than immediate redemption. What shadows the fate of the good? The beast
The same scene relives the crucifixion.
Walker draws heavily upon the Bible for typological unity. Of the twenty-two poems in Prophets, seven of the last nine have biblical names for titles, including "Jeremiah," "Isaiah," "Amos-1963," "Amos (Postscript-1968)," "Joel," "Hosea," and "Micah." A similar problem besets all, although to a different extent. The aesthetic response relies on historical sense more than on dramatized language, and passing time will weaken the emotional hold. In "Jeremiah," the narrator is conscious of both the fallen world and the apocalyptic one. She suggests Benjamin Mays, who has been a preacher and educator in Atlanta for over fifty years. Seeking to lift the "curse" from the land, Mays wants to redeem the corrupted city. The mythical denotation of the place—"Atlanta"—inspires the cultural imagination. Once a girl by that name lost a race to Hippomenes, her suitor, because she digressed from her course to pursue golden apples. Yet Walker's poem does more than oppose Mays to urban materialism. Through his articulation (the spoken word), he signifies the artist and the writer. The narrator who recounts the tale is an artist, too, since Walker's speakers and heroes mirror each other. Although Jeremiah appears as a contemporary man, he exists in a half-way house between legend and reality. Despite limitations, the final six lines of the verse combine myth and anaphora, where the speaker compares the imaginative and historical worlds more closely than elsewhere. Once destroyed by fire, Atlanta suggests Babylon, capital first of Babylonia and then of Chaldea on the Euphrates river. As the scene of the biblical Exile, the city represents grandeur and wickedness. The book of Psalms portrays the despair of the Israelites who sat down and wept when they remembered Zion. With an undertone of an old folk ballad, Walker builds a literary vision. While anaphora strengthens solemnity, the voice subsumes both narrator and prophet:
My God we are still here. We are still down here Lord,
Working for a kingdom of Thy Love,
We weep for this city and for this land
We weep for Judah and beloved Jerusalem
O Georgia! "Where shall you stand in the Judgment?"
Through the fire, the mark, and the word, "Isaiah" clarifies the typology which leads from "Lincoln Monument," midway through the volume, to "Elegy" at the end. Jeremiah expresses himself in the public forum as well as on television. He resembles Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a major Civil Rights activist in Harlem during the depression. Powell persuaded many Harlem businesses, including Harlem Hospital, to hire Blacks. As Chairman of the Coordinating Committee on Employment, he led a demonstration which forced the World's Fair to adopt a similar policy in 1939. He desegregated many Congressional facilities, Washington restaurants, and theatres. He proposed first the withholding of federal funds from projects which showed racial discrimination; he introduced the first legislation to desegregate the armed forces; he established the right of Black journalists to sit in the press galleries of the United States House of Representatives and in the Senate. As Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor in 1960, he supported forty-eight pieces of legislation on social welfare and later earned a letter of gratitude from President Johnson.
In 1967, however, Powell's House colleagues raised charges of corruption and financial mismanagement against him. In January he was stripped of his chairmanship and barred from the House, pending an investigation. On March 1, 1967 Powell was denied a seat in the House by a vote of 307 to 116, despite the committee's recommendation that he only be censured, fined, and placed at the bottom of the seniority list. On April 11 a special election was held to fill Powell's seat. Powell, who was not campaigning and was on the island of Bimini and who could not even come to New York City because of a court judgment against him in a defamation case, received 74% of the Harlem vote cast. [Peter M. Bergman and Mort N. Bergman, The Chronological History of the Negro in America, 1969.]
Even more clearly, the "Amos" poems reconfirm Walker's greater metaphor for Martin Luther King, Jr. The first of these two verses, twenty lines in length, portrays Amos as a contemporary shepherd who preaches in the depths of Alabama and elsewhere: "standing in the Shadow of our God / Tending his flocks over the hills of Albany / And the seething streets of Selma and of bitter Birmingham." As with the first "Amos" poem, the second "Postscript (1968)" is written in free verse. With only ten lines, however, the latter is shorter. King, the prophet of justice, appears through the fluidity and the wholesomeness of the "O" sound: "From Montgomery to Memphis he marches / He stands on the threshold of tomorrow / He breaks the bars of iron and they remove the signs / He opens the gates of our prisons."
Many of the short poems that follow lack the high quality found in some of Walker's other typological lyrics. "Joel" uses the standard free verse, but the historical allusion is obscure. "Hosea" suffers from the same problem. The Bible presents the figure as having an unfaithful wife, but Walker's poem presents a Hosea who, marked for death, writes love letters to the world. Is the man Eldridge Cleaver? The letters and the theme of redemption clearly suggest him, but one can never be sure. The legend could better suit the man. The last poem in Prophets appropriately benefits from some of Walker's favorite books such as Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, and St. John. "Elegy," a verse in two parts, honors the memory of Man-ford Kuhn, professor and friend. Summer and sunshine give way to winter snow and "frothy wood," since the green harvest must pass. But art forms ironically preserve themselves through fire, and engraving comes from corrosion. Eternity paradoxically depends upon decay. The first section concerns the cycle of nature which continually turns; the second, an elaborate conceit, depicts people as ephemeral artists. Reminiscent of Virgil's Aeneid, Shelley's "The Witch of Atlas," and Danner's short lyric, "The Slave and the Iron Lace," Walker's second section begins:
Within our house of flesh we weave a web of time
Both warp and woof within the shuttle's clutch
In leisure and in haste no less a tapestry
Rich pattern of our lives.
The gold and scarlet intertwine
Upon our frame of dust an intricate design….
Here are her ablest statement and restatement of the iamb. The "I" sound supports assonance and rhyme, even though the poem is basically free. At first the idea of human transitoriness reinforces Ecclesiastes which powerfully presents the theme. In a second look, however, one traces the thought to Isaiah (40:7): "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it…." But the speaker knows the ensuing verse equally well: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word [emphasis mine] of our God shall stand for ever" (40:8). Poetry, an inspired creation in words, is divine as well. To the extent that Kuhn showed Christ-like love and instruction for his students, his spirit transcends mortality. For any who demonstrate similar qualities is the vision any less true and universal? To Nicodemus, the Pharisee whom Jesus told to be reborn (John 3:8), the final allusion belongs.
We live again
In children's faces, and the sturdy vine
Of daily influences: the prime
Of teacher, neighbor, student, and friend
All merging on the elusive wind.
Patient nobility becomes the poet who has recreated Martin Luther King, Jr. as Amos. She has kept the neatly turned phrase of Countee Cullen but replaced Tantalus and Sisyphus with Black students and sit-ins. For her literary fathers, she reaches back to the nineteenth-century prophets Blake, Byron, Shelley, and Tennyson. Her debt extends no less to Walt Whitman and to Langston Hughes, for her predecessor is any poet who forsees a new paradise and who portrays the coming. As with Hughes, Walker is a romantic. But Hughes had either to subordinate his per spective to history or to ignore history almost completely and to speak less about events than about personal and racial symbols. Walker, on the contrary, equally combines events and legends but reaffirms the faith of the spirituals. Although her plots sometimes concern murder, her narrators reveal an image of racial freedom and human peace. The best of her imagined South prefigures the future.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5193
SOURCE: "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 499-510.
[Collier discusses Walker's use of Black myth and ritual in the poems of For my People and Prophets for a New Day.]
"For my people everywhere…," the reader began, and the audience of Black folk listened, a profound and waiting silence. We knew the poem. It was ours. The reader continued, his deep voice speaking not only to us but for us, "… singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees…." And as the poem moved on, rhythmically piling on image after image of our lives, making us know again the music wrenched from our slave agony, the religious faith, the toil and confusion and hopelessness, the strength to endure in spite of it all, as the poem went on mirroring our collective selves, we cried out in deep response. We cried out as our fathers had responded to sweating Black preachers in numberless cramped little churches, and further back, as our African ancestors had responded to rituals which still, unremembered and unknown, inform our being. And when the resonant voice proclaimed the dawn of a new world, when it called for a race of men to "rise and take control," we went wild with ancient joy and new resolve.
Margaret Walker's "For My People" does that. It melts away time and place and it unifies Black listeners. Its power is as compelling now as it was forty-odd years ago when it was written, perhaps more so as we have experienced repeatedly the flood tide and the ebb tide of hope. The source of its power is the reservoir of beliefs, values, and archetypal characters yielded by our collective historical experience. It is this area of our being which defines us, which makes us a people, which finds expression in Black art and in no other.
Make no mistake: What we call the "universal" is grounded in particular group experience. All humans (except, perhaps, an occasional aberrant individual) share such fundamentals as the need for love, an instinct for survival, the inevitability of change, the reality of death. But these fundamentals are meaningless unless they are couched in specific human experience. And there is no person who is not a member of a race, a group, a family of humankind. Nobody exists alone. We are each a part of a specific collective past, to which we respond in a way in which no person outside the group can respond. This is right. This is good.
Margaret Walker has tapped the rich vein of Black experience and fashioned that material into art. By "Black experience" we refer to the African past, the dispersal of African people into a diaspora, and the centuries-long incubus of oppression. Included is the entire range of human emotion from despair to joy to triumph. The discussion here will be of Margaret Walker's use of this shared experience in her poetry.
Margaret Walker's signature poem is "For My People." Widely anthologized in Black collections and often read at dramatic presentations, it is the work most closely associated with her name. Some years ago, when I was involved in compiling an anthology of ethnic literature for high schools, the editor (white) refused to permit us to include this poem. It was too militant, he said. The man was unutterably wise: the poem thrusts to the heart of Black experience and suggests a solution that would topple him and the culture he represents from its position of power. White response to African American literature is often, and for obvious reasons, diametric to Black response; this poem is indeed a case in point.
"For My People" exemplifies Walker's use of Black myth and ritual. [By myth is meant the wellspring of racial memories to which I have previously alluded. By ritual is meant the actions, gestures, and activities which recur in a culture and which overlap with and result from myth.] The poem first evokes the two mechanisms which have never been a source of strength to Black folk: music and religion. But even in the first stanza is implied a need to move beyond historical roles, for the "slave songs" are sung "repeatedly," the god (lower case) to whom the people pray is "unknown," and the people humble themselves to "an unseen power." Then the poem catalogues the rituals of the toil which consumes the life of the people, hopeless toil which never enables one to get ahead and never yields any answers. The stanza jams the heavy tasks together without commas to separate them, making them all into one conglomerate burden: "washing, ironing, cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting…." The poem rushes by, as indeed life rushes by when one must labor "never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding…."
Walker now changes focus from the general to the specific—to her playmates, who are, by extension, all Black children playing the games which teach them their reality—"baptizing and preaching and doctor and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking and playhouse and concert and store and hair and Miss Choomby and company…." She shows us the children growing up to a woeful miseducation in school, which bewilders rather than teaches them, until they discover the overwhelming and bitter truth that they are "black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood…." The children grow, however, to manhood and womanhood; they live out their lives until they "die of consumption and anemia and lynching…."
The poem then returns to the wide angle of "my people" and continues its sweep of Black experience, cataloguing the troubled times wrought by racism.
The form of the first nine stanzas supports their message. Rather than neat little poetic lines, they consist of long, heavily weighted paragraphs inversely indented. The words and phrases cataloguing the rituals of trouble are separated by "and … and … and." There is little punctuation. Each stanza begins with a "for" phrase followed by a series of modifiers. Finally the long sentence, with its burden of actions and conditions, ends with one short, simple clause which leaves the listener gasping: "Let a new earth rise." Five words. Strong words, each one accented. Five words, bearing the burden of nine heavy stanzas, just as Black people have long borne the burden of oppression.
The final stanza is a reverberating cry for redress. It demands a new beginning. Our music then will be martial music; our peace will be hard-won, but it will be "written in the sky." And after the agony, the people whose misery spawned strength will control our world.
This poem is the hallmark of Margaret Walker's works. It echoes in her subsequent poetry and even in her monumental novel Jubilee. It speaks to us, in our words and rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.
The volume For My People is the fruit of the Chicago years in the 1930s when the young poet found her voice. A lifetime's experience went into the writing of the book: the violent racism of the deep South, her gentle and intelligent parents, her bitter struggle to retain a sense of worth despite the dehumanizing forces of Alabama of the 1920s and 1930s; her disillusionment at discovering that racial prejudice was just as strong in the Midwest, where she went to college, as in the South. After her graduation from Northwestern University in the mid-thirties, she went to Chicago to work at various jobs, including the Federal Writers Project. There her developing sensitivity was nurtured by her association with young artists and intellectuals, including Richard Wright. She became interested in Marxism and, like many of her contemporaries, saw it as the key to the accomplishment of the dream. After four years she left Chicago to study in the School of Letters of the University of Iowa. The poems in For My People, reflecting the thoughts, emotions, and impressions of all the years, were her master's thesis. After receiving her degree, she returned to Southern soil, this time to stay.
The South is an ancestral home of Black Americans. It is true, of course, that slavery also existed in the North and that Black people have lived from the beginning in all sections of this country. But collectively it is the South that is the nucleus of Black American culture. It is here that the agony of chattel slavery created the history that is yet to be written. It is the South that has dispersed its culture into the cities of the North. The South is, in a sense, the mythic landscape of Black America.
This landscape as portrayed vividly in this first important volume for the South is the psychic as well as the geographic home of Margaret Walker. The children in "For My People" play "in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama." The strong grandmothers in "Lineage," who "touched earth and grain grew," toiled in the wet clay of the South. And the farm in Iowa reminds the poet of her Southern home. "My roots are deep in southern life," writes Walker in "Sorrow Home," flooding the poem with sensual images of warm skies and blue water, of the smell of fresh pine and wild onion. "I want my body bathed in southern suns," she writes in "Southern Song," "my soul reclaimed from southern land." This poem is rich in images of silver corn and ponds with ducks and frogs, of the scent of grass and hay and clover and freshturned soil.
Both poems portray what Eleanor Traylor calls the ruined world, the fragmented world of the American South, the ambivalence which ever haunts Black people. For the Southland [in "Sorrow Home"] is the "sorrow home, melody beating in my bone and blood!" And the speaker (for us all) demands, "How long will the Klan of hate, the hounds and the chain gangs keep me away from my own?". And the speaker, the collective "I," after portraying the peace and beauty of the Southland, pleads in graphic detail for undisturbed integration of the Self.
The poem that most completely exploits the motif of the South is the long poem "Delta." "I am a child of the valley," Walker asserts, and again the "I" is collective. The valley is both literal and symbolic. The images are realistic descriptions of an actual place. But the poem's essence is its symbolic meaning. The valley is, in the beginning, a place of despair, of "mud and muck and misery," hovered over by "damp draughts of mist and fog." Destruction threatens, for "muddy water flows at our shanty door / and leaves stand like a swollen bump on our backyard." Here the sounds are the dissonance of the honky-tonks, the despairing sounds of "the wailing / of a million voices strong." The speaker, in deep despair, demands that her "sorrowing sisters," "lost forgotten men," and a desperate people rise from the valley with a singing that "is ours."
This vision of hope recalls the fact that the generationslong labor of the people has made the valley theirs / ours. The snowcapped mountains tower high above the "beaten and broken and bowed" ones in "this dark valley." On the river, boats take away "cargoes of our need." Meanwhile, our brother is ill, our sister is ravished, our mother is starving. And a deepseated rebelliousness surfaces from inside our collective self. Oppression increases with the destruction of a sudden storm, and the rape and murder of all we love leaves us "dazed in wonder." From this lowest of all points, when we are threatened with total loss, we realize our love for this place, and our right to it, precisely because it is "our blood" that has "watered these fields." "Delta" encompasses the essence of Black myth in America. The valley depicts our traditional position as the most completely oppressed people in America; the mountains, snowcapped, are our aspiration for the fulfillment of America's promise—ever before us but totally beyond our reach. Again, the rituals of toil and despair and regeneration affirm the myth. The message of the poem is that we have bought our stake in this nation with our labor, our torment, and our blood. And nothing, nothing, can separate us from what is ours.
The poems of the South portray one level of the Black American ancestral home. Walker is not unaware of the scattered places worldwide which created the Black American. "There were bizarre beginnings in old lands for the making of me," she asserts in "Dark Blood." The "me" is both personal and collective as she refers not only to her own immediate ancestry in Jamaica but to the eclectic background of Black people—Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean. "There were sugar sands and islands of fern and pearl, palm jungles and stretches of a never-ending sea." She will return "to the tropical lands of my birth, to the coasts of continents and the tiny wharves of island shores" to "stand on mountain tops and gaze on fertile homes below." This return is a psychic journey into the mythic past, a journey necessary for the Black American, for only by reuniting with the fragmented self can one become whole. On her return to the place of her physical birth, Walker writes, the "blazing suns of other lands may struggle then to reconcile the pride and pain in me." The poem thus encompasses space and time—continents and islands, antiquity and now. It thrusts deep into the Black American self.
In another section of the volume, Walker shows another aspect of our psyche: our folklore. Here the voice is that of the tale teller indigenous to Black America, especially the South, who reaches back ultimately to the people who swapped tales around the fire in ancient Africa. Using ballad forms and the language of the grass-roots people, Walker spins yarns of folk heroes and heroines: those who, faced with the terrible obstacles which haunt Black people's very existence, not only survive but prevail—with style. There are the tough ones: Kissie Lee, who learned by bitter experience that one must fight back and who "died with her boots on switching blades"; Trigger Slim, who vanquished the terror of the railroad workers' mess hall, Two-Gun Buster; and the baddest of them all, Stagolee, who killed a white policeman and eluded the lynch mob. There are the workers: Gus the lineman, who handled his live wire and survived many certain-death accidents only to drown drunk, facedown in a shallow creek; and the most famous worker, John Henry, who "could raise two bales of cotton / with one hand anchored down the steamboat," but who was killed by a ten-pound hammer. There are the lovers: Sweetie Pie, done wrong by her lover Long John Nelson; the Teacher, whose "lust included all / Women ever made;" Yalluh Hammuh, who was defeated by jealous Pick Ankle and his girl friend May; Poppa Chicken, whose very presence on the street made the girls cry, "Lawdy! Lawd!" There are the supernatural elements throughout: old Molly Means, "Chile of the devil, the dark and sitch," whose ghost still "rides along on a winter breeze"; Stagolee's ghost, which still haunts New Orleans; Big John Henry, whom the witches taught how to conjure. These are all archetypes who recur repeatedly in Black American lore and are vital to the culture—mythic characters performing endlessly their rituals of defeat, survival, and triumph.
Contrasting with the ballads are the poems which end the volume: six sonnets. But even here the setting is the mythic landscape, the South of Walker's memory. It is peopled by "red miners" who labor incessantly and hopelessly, "painted whores," pathetic and doomed, and people who are hurt and bewildered, muttering protests against their oppression. The landscape is filled with tree stumps, rotting shacks of sharecroppers, and cold cities with tenements. The form of these poems supports their theme. For the dignified sonnet form, which emerges from a European vision of an orderly universe, substitutes here approximate rhyme rather than true rhyme, indicating that, for these people, the promise has been distorted.
The symbols in the For My People poems are elemental: sun, earth, and water. The sun is the primary symbol, appearing repeatedly. The sun is a beneficent force, radiating comfort; it is the source of healing. "I want my body bathed again in southern suns," she writes in "Southern Song," "to lay my hand again upon the clay baked by a southern sun…." In "Dark Blood" it is the "blazing suns of other lands" which bring together the scattered ancestry and "reconcile the pride and pain in me." Often the sun force is implied in the many agrarian images of growing grain or seeds planted with the expectation of fulfillment. In "Sorrow Home" the absence of the sun is symbolically significant. Declaring that "I was sired and weaned in a tropic world…. Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood," the poet asserts her longing for the sun and the natural things it produces in contrast to the unnatural environment of the city: "I am no hot-house bulb to be reared in steam-heated flats with the music of 'L' and subway in my ears, walled in by steel and wood and brick far from the sky."
The most sustained reference to the sun is in the brief poem "People of Unrest," where the speaker gazes "from the pillow" at the sun, the pillow seeming to symbolize lethargy or other conditions which prevent one from knowing one's potential and taking appropriate action. The sun is the "light in shadows"—hope when all seems hopeless. The day grows tall; it is time for action—for self-knowledge, for healing, for positiveness. We should seek joyfully the force which will make us whole and move us to positive action. For our curse of "unrest and sorrow," the sun will provide regeneration.
Earth and water are closely associated with sun. Soil, sunwarmed, is also healing. It is the womb from which springs nourishment for spirit as well as body. The sturdy, singing grandmothers "touched the earth and grain grew." The persona caught in the unnatural environment of the Northern city longs for unbroken rest in the fields of Southern earth, where corn waves "silver in the sun" ("Southern Song"). We need "earth beneath our feet against the storm" ("Our Need"). Water also is a life force, working with earth to produce nourishment and peace. The city-dwelling persona longs to "mark the splashing of a brook, a pond with ducks and frogs…" ("Southern Song")
But an imbalance between sun, earth, and water produces chaos. The valley, where there is little sun, yields "mud and muck and misery" ("Delta"). The soil there is "red clay from feet of beasts." The red of the clay suggests violence as "my heart bleeds for our fate." There is muddy water at our shanty door, and we are threatened by swollen levees. Rivers are the mode of transportation by which the fruits of our labor are taken from us. In the city, where there are "pavement stones" instead of warm earth and "cold and blustery nights" and rainy days instead of sun, the people shield themselves from that nature, brooding and restless, whispering oaths ("Memory").
The symbols of sun, earth, and water arise from racial memory of generations when nature, not Western technology, sustains life. The slave culture was an agrarian culture, and before that the African sun and earth and water in balance kept us living, in imbalance made us struggle against death. Walker uses these symbols in accordance with our history, tapping Black myth and ritual.
Something else particularly significant to Black people infuses the For My People poems: music. In poem after poem music is heard as a life-sustaining force. There are not only the rhythms of the long-paragraph poems and the ballads, but also the repeated references to music. It is music that reflects the emotional tone of many of the poems and often provides an essential metaphor. In "Sorrow Home" the music of the city is dissonant; the persona is plagued by the restless music propelling her toward home. Beneath it all is the melody of the South, the sorrow home, beating in her bone and blood. "Today" is itself a song, singing of the terrible images of a wartime world: "I sing these fragments of living that you may know by these presents that which we feared most has come upon us." In two poems Walker defies Black tradition. In "For My People," the religious songs are called "dirges" and she demands that they disappear in favor of "martial songs." In "Since 1619" she demands impatiently, "How many years since 1619 have I been singing Spirituals? / How long have I been praising God and shouting hallelujahs?" Music, for Walker, is a medium for communicating her message, as it has been for Black people since the beginning of time.
The poems in For My People thus emerge from centuries of Black American myth and ritual. Tinged with the Marxism which influenced the young poet's thinking at the time, they nevertheless reflect not only the writer's own grounding in Black Southern tradition but the generations of racial experience which were the ingredients of that tradition. The major dynamic in the book is the tension between the natural beauty of the land and the unnatural horror of racism, the poet's longing for the South but dread of its oppression and violence. The book is a demand for revolution.
The major part of this essay is concerned with these poems because this critic feels that For My People is Margaret Walker's most vital contribution to our culture. It is the nucleus which produced her subsequent volumes. Nearly thirty years passed before Walker published another collection of poems. Meanwhile the nation had engaged in wars, declared and undeclared, and Black people's fortunes had risen and fallen several times over.
Prophets for a New Day (1970) was the fruit of the upsurge of rebellion of the 1960s; it was published by a major Black influence of the times, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. The poems in this small paperback volume are Walker's tribute to the people, celebrated and unsung, who contributed their agony and sometimes their lives to freedom.
Here the Souther landscape has become the battleground for the struggle for civil and human rights. As in For My People, the poet contrasts nature's beauty with the horror of violence and oppression. The elemental symbols of sun, earth, and water have disappeared as the scene shifts to the cities, which are the backdrop for struggle and death. Jackson, Mississippi, where lie "three centuries of my eyes and my brains and my hands," is called "City of tense and stricken faces … City of barbed wire stockades." The sun is destructive here, for it "beats down raw fire." The jagged rhythms and uneven rhyme underscore the tension ("Jackson, Mississippi"). Birmingham, Alabama, is a place where beautiful memories, tinged with fantasy, contrast with the present reality of hatred and death ("Birmingham").
The people on the mythic landscape are the heroes of that time. They are the "prophets." Some, like the children who were jailed, will not be remembered individually, but their collective effort is unforgettable history. Others are names whose very mention elicits floods of memories of that bitter time: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, the three slain young civil rights workers. Walker has captured their heroism in poem after poem. She alludes often to specific events—the 1963 march on Washington, Dr. King's ringing speech there, the march on Selma, the dogs and fire hoses and cattle prods used against young and old nonviolent demonstrators, the murder of heroes. The poems are infused with rage, controlled and effective.
One difference from the For My People poems is immediately apparent: the biblical references in Prophets for a New Day. The early poems, consistent with their Marxist cast, saw religion as an opiate. "Since 1619" demands that "these scales fall away from my eyes" and that "I burst from my kennel an angry mongrel…." In another poem from that volume, "We Have Been Believers" she damns all Black religion, the "black gods from an old land" and the "white gods of a new land," ridiculing the faith of the people and insisting, "We have been believers believing in our burdens and our demigods too long." She demands revolution, which she apparently sees as the antithesis of religion. Prophets for a New Day, however, reflects a profound religious faith. The heroes of the sixties are named for the prophets of the Bible: Martin Luther King is Amos, Medgar Evers is Micah, and so on. The people and events of the sixties are paralleled with Biblical characters and occurrences. The title poem makes the parallel clearly. It begins, seeing fire as paradigm in the burning bush of the Moses legend, the goals informing the lips of Isaiah, and as Nommo, or the Word, which inspires the prophets of today's "evil age." The religious references are important. Whether one espouses the Christianity in which they are couched is not the issue. For the fact is that Black people from ancient Africa to now have always been a spiritual people, believing in an existence beyond the flesh. African art, the music of the slave culture, and the fervor of urban storefront churches affirm the depth of this faith.
Prophets for a New Day, like its predecessor, is grounded in Black myth and ritual. It records the generation of the sixties' contribution to the history of bloody struggle against oppression and the soul-deep conviction that we—that all people—are meant by nature to be free.
Another volume, October Journey, a collection of poems from 1934 to 1972, was published by Broadside Press three years later. For the most part, I found these poems less impressive than the others. Some were occasional poems and some written in sonnet form, using formal diction, which this critic found artificial and lacking in spontaneity. Here I admit a personal bias: I have never found European structures such as the sonnet, nor poems written for specific occasions, to be sturdy enough vehicles to contain the weight of our centuries-long tragedy and triumph, nor of our vision which stretches from an African past to the future.
"October Journey," the title poem, is an exception. It is a fine work, rivaling the best poetry of our times in its imagery, its emotional appeal, and the way it burrows deep inside the reader. The poem is a journey into the mythic homeland. It begins with a warning fashioned out of folk beliefs, suggesting that for the traveler the "bright blaze" of autumn's rising is to be preferred to heady spring hours, or to what might be tempting summer nights; cautioning that broad expanses of water should be avoided during the full moon, and that some kind of protection should be carried. The message is that the finest journeys occur in October. Then follows a series of passionate images of the Southland in October, "when colors gush down mountainsides / and little streams are freighted with a caravan of leaves," and in all the seasons. The description is a collage of form and color and sun-earth-water. The speaker eagerly anticipates the return to the place of so many loving memories; such a return is necessary if one is to be whole. "The train wheels hum, Ί am going home, I am going home, / I am moving toward the South.'" But, as in Walker's other poems, the old ambivalence is there: "… my heart fills up with hungry fear…." And when she arrives in homeland, the natural beauty of the place and the warmth of childhood memories are swallowed up in the dreadful reality of the ruined world, portraying brilliantly the withering of promise, the grief too deep and pervasive to be expressed, the dried blooming, the wasted potential, sullen facets of the profound. Again Walker has portrayed brilliantly the profound historical experience of Black people, the mythic past which lies just behind our eyes.
Margaret Walker is a profoundly important poet whose works plumb the depth of our racial experience. And our racial experience is a deeply human experience no less universal than that of our oppressors and, in fact, more important. For it takes inhumanity, greed, and technology to be an oppressor; but it takes all the attributes of godly humanity to survive oppression and to emerge as victorious human beings. Margaret Walker shows us the way. The power of her emotion and poetic craftsmanship transcends ideology and bares the struggle and strength which are integral to our individual and collective selves. Despite the many images of brutality inflicted upon us, Walker's vision from the beginning has been of a people striking back at oppression and emerging triumphant. Despite her avowed abhorrence of violence Walker has ever envisioned revolution. Rapping with Nikki Giovanni, Walker admitted that her feelings about Black people and the struggle for freedom were best encompassed in an early poem published in Prophets for a New Day, "The Ballad of the Free." This poem unites the old urge toward revolution and the militance of Christian teachings learned from her minister father. She evokes the champions whose blood colors our history: Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Toussaint L'Ouverture, John Brown. She repeats, in a stirring refrain, words that sing our most intimate racial self. The metaphor is that of a serpent loosed, and echoing Fanon, Walker prophesied that there is more to come than merely the last being first.
Margaret Walker's poetry has mined the depths of African-American racial memory, portraying a history and envisioning a future. Like all artists, she is grounded in a particular time and thus labors under particular limits of conscious perception. Her vision of the African past is fairly dim and romantic, in spite of various individual poems on ancestry. Consciously she sees African-Americans as a minority group in the United States of America, the stepchildren, rejected, oppressed, denied, brutalized, and dehumanized by the dominant group. [See Walker's essay "Willing to Pay the Price," in Shades of Black by Stanton L. Wormley and Lewis Fenderson William, 1969.] But her poetry emanates from a deeper area of the psyche, one which touches the mythic area of a collective being and reenacts the rituals which define a Black collective self. When she was nineteen, Margaret Walker wrote:
I want to write
I want to write the songs of my people.
I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark.
I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn throats.
I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into notes.
I want to catch their sunshine laughter in a bowl;
fling dark hands to a darker sky
and fill them full of stars
then crush and mix such lights till they become
a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.
And she has done just that.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1509
SOURCE: "Preface," in This Is My Century, New and Collected Poems, University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. xiii-xvii.
[Walker summarizes her poetic career, acknowledging sources of literary inspiration and personal assistance from family members, friends and other writers throughout her life.]
At Northwestern I first heard of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, and the Yale University Younger Poets competition. I heard Harriet Monroe read her poetry at North western, and I must have seen an ad in the Poets of America magazine announcing the Yale competition. I vowed then to publish in Poetry and to enter the competition at Yale.
I graduated from Northwestern during the Depression, and after seven months looking for a job I began work on the WPA Chicago Writers' Project. Here I worked with Richard Wright, who was writing his first professional prose at the time. I was profoundly impressed with his talent, his intense driving ambition, his discipline, and his strange social theories and perspectives. The critic Robert Bone says Richard Wright led a new movement, the Chicago Renaissance, which grew out of the South Side Writers' Group organized at that time. I was a member of that group for three years.
Meanwhile, I discovered that the office of Poetry was on the same street, Erie, as the Project where I worked. I met Miss Geraldine Udell, who introduced me to George Dillon, the editor of Poetry at that time. He encouraged me to read the French Symbolist poets. I could read both French and German and had already translated poems by Goethe, Schiller, and Heine. Now I was reading Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer, Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un faune, and a smattering of Verlaine and Valéry. All my life I had read English and American classics, and I especially liked the English Romantic poets and American women writers such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Léonie Adams, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan. I met Muriel Rukeyser at a cocktail party at the office of Poetry just after she won the Yale award for Theory of Flight. It goes without saying that I had also read poetry by black people all my life: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson. I was privileged to meet all of them.
Shortly after my twenty-second birthday I sat down at my typewriter and in fifteen minutes wrote all but the last stanza of the poem "For My People." Nelson Algren read it on the Project and told me how to write the resolution and conclusion. George Dillon published it that November in Poetry. The next year he published "We Have Been Believers" and the following year in a special WPA issue celebrating twenty-five years of Poetry he published my sonnet "The Struggle Staggers Us." In connection with the celebration there was a radio program and I was on that, too, reading my sonnet.
I had been trying to write sonnets since I was sixteen and seventeen. Professor Hungerford said poets have to write sonnets because sonnets furnish the same discipline for the poet as five-finger exercises for the musician. When I was in school in Iowa in the sixties I took my qualifying oral exam on sonnets, the history of that form, and sonnet sequences.
In Iowa in the late thirties, Paul Engle, my teacher in the poetry workshop and my thesis advisor, reawakened my interest in folk ballads and I began to experiment with that form. Also at Iowa I began to correspond with one of America's greatest balladeers, Stephen Vincent Benét. In 1942, five years after "For My People" was published and two years after the twenty-six poems in the For My People collection served as my master's thesis, I won the Yale award. For My People was published with a foreword by Mr. Benét.
I wrote "October Journey," a poem that has multiple meanings in my life, in 1943 after a few weeks at Yaddo, where I wrote the ballad "Harriet Tubman." I was actually making the journey South in October, and "October Journey" expresses my emotions at that time. I met my husband in October, and after thirty-seven years of our marriage he died in October. This poem was one of Arna Bontemps's favorites.
The decade of the sixties was a turbulent one in American society, and the civil rights confrontations made it a violent decade. The most violent year was 1963. By the time President Kennedy was assassinated in November, there had been many brutal killings in the South. Our neighbor Medgar Evers was assassinated on the street where I live. Four little girls were killed when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed. One of those children was the granddaughter of a neighbor from my childhood days in Birmingham. My cousins were members of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and they took me as a child to worship in that church. I gradually came to know many of the civil rights leaders, women and men, and so I was emotionally moved to write my civil rights poems in 1963. They are the poems in Prophets for a New Day.
One Sunday afternoon in 1963, ten years after my father died, I wrote ten typewritten pages of a poem called "Epitaph for My Father." That poem appeared in the October Journey collection. Prophets for a New Day, consisting of twenty-two poems in thirty-five pages, was published in 1970. Three years later in November 1973 the ten poems of the October Journey volume were published.
In 1979 I took early retirement from teaching at Jackson State University, where I had been since 1949. I immediately sat down and wrote the poems which constitute the section of this book called This Is My Century. Although twelve of the thirty poems in that section have seen previous publication, this is the first publication of the complete collection. In 1985 I was asked to write about Farish Street. The poems in Farish Street, the latest of the five sections, were printed in 1986.
All these poems have come out of my living. They express my ideas and emotions about being a woman and a black person in these United States—Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?
I seem to write in only three distinct forms: narratives or stories as ballads, lyrical songs as sonnets, and the long line of free verse punctuated with a short line. The characteristics of my poetry that may superficially be considered reflective of Sandburg, Masters, Jeffers, and Whitman are not derived from these poets but rather from a lifetime of reading the Bible and wisdom literature of the East—Mahābhārata, Bhagavad-Gītā, Gilgamesh, Sundiata—that they too had read. I have worn out four Bibles and am beginning to wear out the fifth. For twenty years I taught the Bible as literature at Jackson State University and for twenty-five years I taught the annual Bible study classes to the women in my local church. In my humanities classes I taught the wisdom literature of the East beginning with the Book of the Dead from Egypt; the Mahābhārata and Bhagavad-Gītā from India; Gilgamesh from Babylonia; and the African epic Sundiata. All of these are pre-Homeric epics which my white professors denied existed.
Stephen Benét says I write my own kind of sonnet. My friends, the black male scholars and critics, speak disparagingly of my sonnets, but the editors of The Sonnet: An Anthology, Robert Bender and Charles Squier, say my sonnet on Malcolm X is one of the major sonnets of this century. Louis Untermeyer said my ballads were either Paul Laurence Dunbar gone modern or Langston Hughes gone sour. If I worried about what critics say I would stop trying to write, to practice the craft and the art of writing. As long as I live I shall keep trying. Why? Because I must.
I have lived most of my life in the segregated South. With the exception of one year in Meridian, Mississippi, when I was five, I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, my birth place, until I was ten. I began writing in New Orleans, where I lived from age ten to seventeen. At seventeen I went out of the South for the first time to attend North-western University and, after graduation, lived and worked in Chicago for four years. I spent one year in the late thirties and three years in the sixties in Iowa, earning a master's degree in 1940 and a doctoral degree in 1965 from the University of Iowa. I began teaching at Living-stone College in North Carolina in 1941. After a year of teaching in West Virginia in 1942-43 I returned to North Carolina, where I married and resumed teaching. Since 1949 I have lived and worked in Jackson, Mississippi, going out of the South only to study, teach, or lecture. The South is my home, and my adjustment or accommodation to this South—whether real or imagined (mythic and legendary), violent or nonviolent—is the subject and source of all my poetry. It is also my life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2901
SOURCE: "Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker's Poetry," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, March 1990, pp. 367-77.
[In the following excerpt, Buckner defines folklore and explores the manner in which Walker uses it in her ballads.]
Since, quite often, there are misconceptions about the definition of folklore or "fakelore" (a term coined by Richard Dorson [in American Folklore] in 1950, which means the falsifying of the raw data for capitalistic gain rather than totalitarian conquest), it is necessary to establish some ground rules for exploring folklore in literature. Three tests that can be used to see if an author has used folklore follow:
1. There must be biographical evidence; we should be able to establish that the author knew of and was part of the oral tradition.
2. From reading the story, we should be able to establish that the author gives an accurate description of the folk group and their customs—in other words, he has observed the group firsthand.
3. We must be able to show that the folk motifs can be found in the Motif Index and that the folk material has had oral circulation before the author included it in his story. [David Laubach, Introduction to Folklore]
Couple the above three-faceted test set forth by Dorson with a four-part test by Laubach—(1) Folklore is oral; (2) folklore is traditional within a certain group; (3) folklore must exist in different versions; and (4) folklore is anonymous—and one readily observes that Walker definitely utilizes the folk tradition … [A] close examination of any number of Walker's poems reveals just how deeply steeped she is in the folkloric traditions of black people.
"Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad" is an example of Walker's masterful usage of folklore elements. Surface-wise, this poem is about a protagonist's concern about an evil spell cast upon her by "the goofer man" or the "root worker." No reason is given for this act, but the spell is reversed and the caster is ultimately the victim of his own evil deed. On the surface, also, is the tall tale told in ballad form. Structurally, the poem follows most of the conventions of the traditional ballad. Each stanza consists of four lines with four beats or stresses in the first line, three in the second, four in the third, and three in the fourth. The second and fourth lines rhyme; the first and the third do not. Thus, if the word "Ballad" were not included in the title, one could merely scan the poem and identify its form. An example is this stanza:
The góo/pher mán/ was hól/leríng a
"Don't kíll/ that hóp/py-tóad." b
Sis Á/ veŕy/ she sáid/ "Hońey, c
You boút/ to lośe/ your lóad." b
The above stanza follows the traditional ballad format, while other lines in some of the stanzas veer from this pattern; the first line of the poem is an example of such a variation (poetic license, perhaps). Yet, the rhyme scheme abcb pervades the poem. (It may be necessary to point out that the ballad is one of the commonest forms for relaying folk information. Note, for example, "Sir Patrick Spens" or "Barbara Allan.")
Like a number of ballads, also, the "Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad" has many of the properties of a full-blown short story: setting, plot, characters. This story takes place on a Saturday on Market Street, wherever, U.S.A. While the street may mean some place specific to Walker, her description leads the reader to a vivid description of the Southern Saturday marketing day, washing day, and fighting and drinking day. Thus, she gives a time, background, and place for the oncoming story. Her characters, likewise, are well established: The narrator or protagonist, the goopher man or antagonist, and Sis Avery. The rise in action begins with "the night I seen the goopher man / Throw dust around my door," and continues throughout the narrator's seeking Sis Avery's assistance in curtailing the spell. The climax of this dramatic piece is the changing of the horse to a toad with the dénouement being the toad and goopher man dying simultaneously.
In addition to the traits previously listed, the "Ballad" abounds in other folklore elements. There is, for example, the constant mentioning of various animals, and the animal stories are very much a part of folklore tradition. The reader is introduced to the toad, via inference, of course, in the first stanza: "When the Saturday crowd went stomping / Down the Johnny-jumping road." In the second stanza, the deacon's daughter is "lurching / Like a drunken alley goat "; the "root-worker" is a dog that needs to behave; and the charging horse is reduced to the ultimate "hoppytoad." Paula Giddings observes that the animal imagery that Walker uses shows her indepthness. [See Giddings's excerpt, "A Shoulder Haunched Against a Sharp Concern."]…
Another element that authenticates this ballad as folklore is Walker's use of the conjurer or conjurers, when one considers Sis Avery. The use of magic, ju ju, mojo, voodoo, hoodoo, etc., has long been a part of the black heritage. The user of such magic (a conjurer) has a special place in black history:
Conjurers could be pictured as exotic Old Testament type prophets or magicians: "He could turn as green as grass, most, and was just as black as a man could very well be, and his hair covered his neck and he had lizards tied on it. He carried a crooked cane. He would throw it down and pick it up and say something and throw it down and it would wriggle like a snake, and he would pick it up and it would be as stiff as any other cane!" [Lawrence Levin, "The Sacred World of Black Slaves," Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 1977].
Historically, while the slave conjurer, for the most part, used his powers to ward off some of his master's abuse, quite often that same power could be used against other slaves. As Lawrence Levin notes, "[t]he power of conjurers to wreak retribution upon slaves when requested to do so by other slaves was believed to be almost unlimited…. Other conjurers, of course, could be consulted to reverse these effects." So the conjurer with such great powers becomes highly respected, and this background information is evident in the "Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad" when the goopher man or root worker casts a spell on the storyteller and has it reversed by Sis Avery to his disadvantage.
One other significant aspect about the spell-casting episode is the back-and-forth play between good and evil or sacred (good) and profane (evil). The narrator tells the reader that the spell is an "evil note," and hexes usually carry a negative connotation. Yet, the other conjurer may use a counter spell to reverse the act only after the narrator has tried the Christian or "right" way via the church and prayer. Giddings notes the same dichotomy….
One final observation about the "Ballad" is that it conforms to the Dorson test of folklore in literature: (1) it is definitely an outgrowth of the oral tradition since the story was told to Walker by someone (anonymous) from the North Carolina area; (2) the storyteller/narrator gives a very detailed account of the characters, as noted, and their customs (any reader would recognize the description of the typical Souther-Saturday and Saturday-night episodes); and (3) the fire or prayer to ward off evil spirits, the reversal of spells or duper being duped, and the animal lore are representative folk motifs that can be found in the Motif Index.
Equally as compacted with similar folkloric elements of the "Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad" in content is Walker's "Molly Means." There is good and evil (the innocent bride and evil conjurer); there is the spell casting and its reversal; there is the animal emphasis, and the animals in "Molly Means" are a dog and hog. Yet Molly has all the charm of a snake. Further comparison/contrast of these two works reveals a male goopher man in the "Ballad" and a female witch in "Molly Means," with both becoming victims of their own evil doings. Additionally, Walker, in "Molly Means," tells how the witch gets her powers:
Some say she was born with a veil on her face
So she could look through unnatchal space
Through the future and through the past
And charm a body or an evil place….
Yet the reader is not privy to such information in the "Ballad's" root worker. This particular idiom of a person's being born with a veil has been catalogued, and the belief is still widespread among the black community; however, it does not always indicate evilness. Rather, a child born with a veil (in actuality the placenta) is born for good luck and has the gift of being able to see into the future.
There is the lack of religious impetus to counteract the evil spirit in "Molly Means," and the reader gets the implication that religion is replaced by the devout love of the husband for his young bride. As with the religion that does not work in the "Ballad," the husband has to contact a conjurer, "who said he could move the spell / and cause the awful thing to dwell / On Molly Means…." Details of how the conjurer accomplishes this feat are not as explicit as in the "Ballad," but the resulting deaths of the evildoers are evident. While nothing remains of the "Hoppy Toad," the ghost of Molly Means remains whining, crying, cackling, moaning, and, of course, barking, thus iterating that her demise, too, is somehow affiliated with an animal, more specifically, a dog. The return of a person in the form of a ghost or an animal can be found in the Motif Index, although the reasons for returning differ.
Two other folklore elements of note found in "Molly Means" are the use of numbers and the refrain structure. In folklore, especially modern lore, each number represents something in particular. Numbers have been catalogued, and usually the odd numbers (3, 7, 11) used by Walker indicate good luck; but these seem to mean the opposite in "Molly Means": "Imp at three and wench at 'leben / she counted her husbands to the number seben." The second point of note is that the structure of "Molly Means" is a variation of the traditional folk ballad; some ballads repeat the last line of each stanza, and some repeat a particular refrain. Walker thus makes use of incremented repetition in "Molly Means" which "involves repeating the basic structure of a line but changing it slightly (the increment) in order to move the story forward; sometimes this technique has striking dramatic effects." The first line of the refrain that follows each stanza is basically the same—"O Molly, Molly, Molly Means"—with the exception of stanzas two, three, and six, where the "O" is replaced with "Old." So the balladeer refers to Molly as "old" when describing her evilness, her "black-hand arts," and her death. The first two words of the second line of the refrain are also changed slightly to denote progression: "There goes the ghost of Molly Means"; "Dark is…"; "Cold is…."; "Where is…"; "Sharp is…"; "This is…"; "Lean is…." The only time Walker asks a question is before the husband goes in search of the witch, thus suggesting a change in the action of the story.
While the "Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad" is structurally much like the traditional ballad, "Molly Means" has more dissimilarities than similarities. It is, however, of the oral tradition, about a particular group of people and their customs and about a specific event. Walker is like the traditional balladeer in "Molly Means" because this poem is more objective; she "reports the news of the day in a very impersonal way" and "refuses to condemn." On the other hand, in the "Ballad," she is author/narrator/protagonist, making judgments about the townspeople and even calling the goopher man a dog. With this subjectivity, too, comes more dialogue, particularly between the narrator and Sis Avery and between Sis Avery and the goopher man.
In further searching for folklore elements in these two works, one must take note of the language which is a part of folk tradition. According to Laubach, "[f]olk grammar often is nonstandard…. Particularly good examples of these usages are double negatives, such as 'I ain't got none,' and double superlatives, such as 'most kindest.'" One can readily see the differences between the more formalized English of "Molly Means," which the author treats more objectively, and the non-standard English of the "Ballad," in which the author/narrator seems to be one and the same. Spears [in "Black Folk Elements in Margaret Walker's Jubilee," Mississippi Folklore Register, 1980] says of Walker on this issue, though his reference is to Jubilee, "Walker is a dialectologist in the strictest send of the word, and her use of eye dialect for characterization is both accurate and effective. It captures the essence of black dialect in pronunciation, vocabulary items, and usage and grammar, particularly in syntax." Walker's use of dialect in both of the poems tends to lend credibility to her characters. She employs subject-verb nonagreement: "I knows just what will hex him"; auxiliary verb dropping: "And when the tale begun to spread"; double subject: "What you reckon that there mean"; folk pronunciation: "Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch" (Chile for child and sitch for such); and folk sayings: "Honey, / You bout to lose your load." In her dialectal poems, the influence of Paul Lawrence Dunbar is quite obvious….
Walker's folk heroes come in different sizes and shapes, and she celebrates the good heroes in Prophets for a New Day and the more diversified ones in the second section of For My People. Most of her prophets are fighters for civil rights, with special attention being given to Michah and Amos, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King. In this collection, she calls on numerous Biblical figures and images to describe her heroes; and if one considers the folklore inherent in the Bible, he need not test any of these poems for elements of lore. Of the poetry in For My People, Baxter Miller writes, "Without biblical cadences her ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In 'Yalluh Hammer,' a folk poem about the 'Bad Man,' she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money." Yet, in spite of Miller's observation, the weaker person's overcoming the stronger one as Lil Lad Two-Gun Buster is definitely in the folk tradition and is easily recognizable as a folk motif. In addition to the local heroes that Walker addresses—such as Poppa Chichen, the pimp, or Kissie Lee, who dies with her boots on—Walker renders more compact versions of national heroes, such as John Henry, who dies with a nine-pound hammer in his hand as opposed to a ten-pound one, and Stackerlee, who in her version does not take over hell, but rather "his ghost still walks up and down the shore / Of Old Man River round New Orleans / with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans!"
Whether Walker deals with her heroes as tragic possibilities or comic reliefs, she is always very serious about those who gave their lives to set right an inegalitarian society. When asked about her response to William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner, one can almost visualize the writer's anger in her response: "The racism in that book is the damage that he does to the hero for the black child. Nat Turner represents to Black people, first of all, a preacher, and that is one of our heroes—you see, folk heroes…. He [Styron] attacks Nat Turner as a man; he attacks him as a preacher; and he attacks him as a folk hero." Perhaps it was out of such an attack on Nat Turner that Walker wrote "The Ballad of the Free," which celebrates such insurrectionists as Turner, Vesey, L'Ouverture, and John Brown. These legendary figures, about whom there are written and oral accounts and versions, offer for Walker material to describe the heroic missions and tragic deaths of slave insurrectionists. The power of this poem may lie in the balance that Walker finds between historical fact and Biblical imagery. The facts are about the heroes, and the religious images are in the refrain:
The serpent is loosed and the hour is come
The last shall be first and first shall be none
The serpent is loosed and the hour is come.
Although the above reference can be found in the Bible, it is certainly no accident that Walker uses words that are included in Nat Turner's confessions about a vision dictated to Thomas R. Gray: "And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was just approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
In conclusion, Walker's poetry is definitive proof that she is a poet of the people, her people. The folkways, customs, beliefs, or superstitions embodied in lines, even words, of her poetry reveal that she is a folklorist and, indeed, a folk poet.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267
SOURCE: "Poet of history, poet of vision," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, Nos. 10-11, July, 1990, pp. 41-2.
[In the following review of Walker's poetry, Howe discusses "Epitaph for My Father" from the "October Journey" section and "Fanfare, Coda, and Finale" from the "Farish Street" section of This Is My Century.]
Last November, at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, Margaret Walker accepted The Feminist Press literary award of 1989 in honor of her "achievement as poet, novelist, critic and essayist; as teacher and fighter for human rights; and as a spirit of great empathy, compassion and understanding." The citation continued: "You came of age in a world not friendly to women or black people. You helped lead the way towards changing that world. You offer all of us, whatever our race, a vision of possibility. Without diminishing the pain of prejudice, conflict and war, you also see past the suffering and sorrow into a dif ferent dimension, into the moments or even the months and years of Jubilee." In This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, Walker's spirit blazes through 100 poems written during the past half-century, the early ones as powerful today as they were when For My People won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1942….
I found most moving the elegy called "Epitaph for My Father," a poem in which Walker recalls her father's Jamaican roots, the pain of life for him as emigrant in Jim Crow Southern cities. She brings to life not only the family's dynamic (mother's caution about money; father's wanting to be generous), but one hurtful sentence she wishes she had not spoken to him, and a vision of how it might have been, given her view of him, had she been born male, not female:
I might have followed in his every step,
Had preached from pulpits, found my life as his
And wandered too, as he, an alien on the earth,
But female and feline I could not stand
Alone through love and hate and truth
And still remain my own. He was himself;
His own man all his life.
And I belong to all the people I have met,
Am part of them, am molded by the throng
Caught in the tide of compromise, and grown
Chameleon for camouflage.
The image of a woman "grown / Chameleon" for survival in a white patriarchal world might suit many women of Walker's generation and mine. But it is also another way of saying that, if we search for the poet behind the poems in this volume, we need to study the people who fill its pages—from those sturdy grandmothers and their ancestral slaves to the little boy in 1963 who cried "Hurry up Lucille or we won't get arrested with our group. " If we are searching for Margaret Walker, she is telling us, we need to find Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and John Brown, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Robert Hayden and perhaps, more surprisingly, Freud, Kierkegaard, Einstein, as well as Du Bois.
When she says she "belong[s] to all the people I have met, / Am part of them, am molded by the throng," she is describing herself as a poet of history. For those who remember the sixties' civil rights movement, Walker's poems stir memories of the fearless children who ignored threats and attended Freedom Schools, of the sit-ins, of the demonstrations and of the deaths—Medgar Evers, the children of Birmingham, Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. Much of this poetry is inspirational, celebrating, often in elegies, the heroism of people who stood for human—not national or racial—dignity. It is not that Walker ignores race; the poems more often than not speak to "the color line." Rather, she speaks to it and beyond, perhaps because of that visionary quality her poetry has had from the first. Walker is the least sectarian Christian I can name. Steeped, she tells us, not only in the Bible, but in the "wisdom literature of the East," she values the lessons of the past, especially when they offer evidence of the human energy for spiritual as well as material survival.
Ultimately, then, as a poet of history, she is a poet of vision, of the flow of past not only into present, but of a reach into the future. The seven new poems called "Farish Street" that close the volume focus with camera-like intensity on the Southern street, its shops and people, and, at the same time, recall an ancestral African village, the "Root doctor, Hoodoo man" then and now. And in the series' final poem, "The Labyrinth of Life," Walker presents herself as "traveler," looking down the road "to the glory of the morning of all life." But the poems that precede this final group remind us of the terrible world still needing mending: "On Police Brutality," "Money, Honey, Money," "Power to the People," "They Have Put Us on Hold," "Inflation Blues"—the titles themselves a litany of troubles for all the have-nots, all the powerless who would have space to live.
In the final poem of this section, "Fanfare, Coda, and Finale," Walker returns to the form of "For My People," only the rhythm is muted, slowed to a dirge:
How to conclude? Of all the poems in the collection, the one that speaks to me most personally and urgently today comes from the 1942 volume, which I first read twenty years ago. In 1990, even the title, "The Struggle Staggers Us," overwhelms. For those of us who have lived through three (or more) decades of change know that we are only at the beginning (or at best in the middle) of much more to come. This 1942 poem speaks with immediacy not only to the contemporary women's movement, so interested as it is in "difference," but to a world that needs to solve the problems of poverty if it is ever to have racial and ethnic harmony inside nations and among them.
Walker tells us that being born and dying, like eating, drinking and sleeping, are "easy hours." "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.
For persons are involved, individuals and their behavior that cannot be legislated:
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.
"Struggle," Walker concludes, "marks our years" of present and future. Amen, Margaret Walker, Amen.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369
Giovanni, Nikki and Walker, Margaret. A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974, 135 p.
Giovanni questions Walker regarding her personal life and her views on history, social issues, and politics; Walker's answers include comments about how these aspects of her life have influenced her literary career.
Walker, Margaret. How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1990, 157 p.
A collection of essays by Walker, some literary, but many of a personal, autobiographical nature.
Bontemps, Arna. "Let My People Grow." New York Herald Tribune Books 19, No. 19 (January 3, 1943): 3.
Recognizes Walker's poetic contribution to an understanding of the social conditions of the black race.
Hull, Gloria T. "Covering Ground." African American Writers 6, No. 3 (Spring 1991): 2-4.
Points out the consistency of Walker's humanitarian themes and allegiance to her race throughout her poetic career as revealed in the poems of This Is My Century.
Traylor, Eleanor W. "'Bolder Measures Crashing Through': Margaret Walker's Poem of the Century." Callaloo 10, No. 4 (Fall 1987): 570-95.
Thoroughly analyzes poems in This is My Century including scansion of specific lines, summary of themes, and explication of imagery, symbols and rhymes.
Whipple, Leon. "Songs for a Journey." Survey Graphic. XXXI, No. 12 (December 1942): 599-600.
Praises Walker's "genius": her ability to speak for her race, to connect the present to the past and to fashion a better future.
Untermeyer, Louis. "New Books in Review." The Yale Review XXXII, No. 2 (December 1942): 370-71.
Appreciates the emotional intensity of the poems in Part One, the free verse section, of For My People, but faults the sonnets and folk ballads in the rest of the book as being trite and unoriginal.
Graham, Maryemma. "The Fusion of Ideas: An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander." African American Review 27, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 279-86.
Walker discusses her political and social views and the way they influence her poetry.
Additional coverage of Walker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 6; Black Literature Criticism; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Module; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 54; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 76, 152; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.