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Margaret Walker 1915-1998

(Full name Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander; also wrote under the name Margaret Walker Alexander) American novelist, poet, teacher, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Walker's career from 1986 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1986, see CLC, Volumes 1 and 6.

Walker was an important...

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Margaret Walker 1915-1998

(Full name Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander; also wrote under the name Margaret Walker Alexander) American novelist, poet, teacher, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Walker's career from 1986 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1986, see CLC, Volumes 1 and 6.

Walker was an important voice in the African-American literary community for seven decades. Her poetry and fiction, especially her novel, Jubilee (1966), helped to capture the essence of the struggles and triumphs of African Americans from the pre-Civil War period to the present.

Biographical Information

Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her Jamaican-born father was a pastor, and her mother, a music teacher. Walker's parents respected learning and expected her to excel in school. During her youth, she was exposed to well-known African-American literary and cultural figures who appeared on various black campuses where her parents taught. The poet Langston Hughes became her mentor. At fourteen Walker completed high school in New Orleans and enrolled in New Orleans University, now Dillard University. Two years later, with the encouragement of Hughes, she left the South, finishing her bachelor's degree at Northwestern University in 1935 only a few months after her twentieth birthday. Soon after graduation she joined the Federal Writers Project in Chicago, where she met Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Willard Motley, and other promising young writers. In 1939 she left the project, and by 1940 she had received her M.A. from the University of Iowa. In 1942 she married Firnist James Alexander, with whom she had four children. Walker's first collection of poetry, For My People (1942), was selected by Stephen Vincent Benét for the Yale Younger Poets Series; the first such award given to a black woman. Also in 1942, at about the same time she married Alexander, she began her career as an English professor, first at West Virginia State College, then at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, where she stayed until 1946. From 1949 to 1979 she taught at Jackson State University, also directing the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. While raising four children and supporting the family (her husband was disabled) she managed to do extensive research and to compose Jubilee's early drafts. During this same period she also wrote poems, speeches, and essays; received the Rosenwald Fellowship for Creative Writing in 1944 and a Ford Fellowship at Yale University in 1954; and, in 1965, completed her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, with Jubilee serving as her dissertation. In 1977 Walker became embroiled in a lawsuit against Alex Haley, author of Roots, over copyright infringement. Despite this incident, an earlier feud with novelist Wright, and a copyright lawsuit brought by the Wright estate in the 1980s over the biography The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright (1982), she forged ahead, continuing to work on novels and poetry almost to the end of her life. Walker died in Chicago on November 30, 1998.

Major Works

Walker first came to prominence with the publication of her award-winning For My People, whose title poem became a rallying cry for several generations of African Americans. Aside from a minor novel published in 1962, Walker did not publish another book until 1966, when her most important novel, Jubilee, appeared. In this work, an early example of black historical fiction, she follows the life of a black woman from the slave years, through the Civil War, to Reconstruction, realistically portraying the violence and upheaval affecting African Americans during this period. Walker chronicled the laborious process of researching and writing the book in How I Wrote Jubilee (1972). Her poetry collections, Prophets for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973) identified Walker more closely with young African-American writers such as Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni—the latter of whom Walker joined in published “conversations” in 1974. Walker's poetry is noted for its mastery of poetic forms and its use of the folklore and speech patterns of the black experience. Her responses to growing social change in the late 1960s and the 1970s were compiled in a book of essays, Black Women and Liberation Movements (1981). The publication of This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems in 1989 further solidified Walker's literary legacy. A final collection of essays, On Being Female, Black, and Free, was published in 1997.

Critical Reception

Walker first gained critical attention in the 1940s with the publication of For My People. She became identified as a strong voice for African-American sensibilities; however, she all but disappeared from reviewers' attention for a number of years until Jubilee appeared. Although not always included in the canon of African-American novels of the 1960s and 1970s, Jubilee received a number of positive reviews. Some critics, however, faulted Walker for the too-obvious message of Christian forgiveness which her protagonist displayed. Others took a more laudatory tone, pointing out Walker's skillful incorporation of the history, mythology, and linguistic patterns of black Americans in the novel. Walker's poetry, especially For My People, has been singled out as representative of the voice of a people, especially as it reflects the rhetorical power of generations of African Americans. Her biography of Wright was more controversial, with some critics calling it a useful addition to Wright scholarship and others finding it biased and somewhat puzzling in its psychological approach. In general, Walker has retained her position as an important voice in African-American literature: a transitional figure between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the social protest writers of the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, she herself admitted that she found no affinity with postmodernists but rather saw herself as a more traditional figure who insisted on embracing humanistic values and did not worry about pleasing the literary establishment of the day. After Walker's death, a significant number of critics began to re-evaluate her work for its artistic merit, its important place in the spectrum of African-American literature, and its evidence of a woman's creative perseverance.

Principal Works

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For My People (poetry) 1942

Come Down from Yonder Mountain (novel) 1962

Jubilee (novel) 1966

Prophets for a New Day (poetry) 1970

How I Wrote Jubilee (nonfiction) 1972

October Journey (poetry) 1973

A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni [with Nikki Giovanni] (interviews) 1974

Black Women and Liberation Movements (essays) 1981

The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright (biography) 1982; revised as Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, 1987

My Farish Street Green [For Farish Street] (poetry) 1986

This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1989

How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (essays) 1990

God Touched My Life: The Inspiring Autobiography of the Nun Who Brought Song, Celebration, and Soul to the World [with Thea Bowman] (biography) 1992

Setting the Record Straight (lecture) 1996

On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker (essays) 1997

Richard K. Barksdale (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Barksdale, Richard K. “Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy.” In Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 104-17. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

[In the following essay from his book on post-World War II African-America poets, Barksdale emphasizes Walker's attachment to African-American folk traditions in her use of language and subject matter.]

Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa—the master's degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966—were granted because of her achievements in creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master's degree; her prize-winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But Margaret Walker's poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of Hayden's poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker's poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and sonnets. It is now clear in retrospect that Hayden and Tolson were influenced by the academic poets of the 1930s and 1940s—Ciardi, Tate, Lowell, Wilbur, Auden, Dickey. Their poetry has an academic gloss, suggesting richly endowed libraries in the sophisticated suburbs of learning. Only rarely do they seem sensitized to problems and dilemmas confounding an unintellectualized, urbanized, and racially pluralistic America, a concern which dominates Margaret Walker's poetry.

Although Walker, too, spent all of her days in academia, she was never as a writer held captive by it. An analysis of her poetry reveals that in subject, tone, and esthetic texture, it is remarkably free of intellectual pretense and stylized posturing. One finds instead the roots of the Black experience in language simple, passionate, and direct. If one asks how Margaret Walker as a writer remained in the academy but not of it, the answer appears in the circumstances governing her family life and background.

Margaret Walker was the daughter of a preacher man, and not just an ordinary one. Her father, Sigismond Walker, was a native of Jamaica who, in 1908, four years before Claude McKay's arrival in 1912, came to America to study at Tuskegee. Unlike the poet McKay, however, Sigismond Walker persevered academically, gained a degree at Atlanta's Gammon Theological Institute and then joined that small band of educated Black methodist ministers who ventured forth to preach the Word in the pre-World War I South. So Margaret Walker grew up in a household ruled by the power of the word, for undoubtedly few have a greater gift for articulate word power than an educated Jamaican trained to preach the doctrine of salvation in the Black South. Indeed, personal survival in the Walker household demanded articulateness. The poet admits that in a home filled with song and singing inspired by her musician mother, she struggled successfully to survive without the gift of song; but survival without the mastery of words and language was impossible. So by the age of twelve, Margaret Walker was writing poetry and sharpening her communication skills; and, when, at the age of seventeen, she transferred from New Orleans' Gilbert Academy to Northwestern, she took her well-honed verbal skills with her. As noted in How I Wrote Jubilee, she quickly discovered at Northwestern that she did not know how to convert the rich orature of her talking, word-filled New Orleans household into a novel, but she was fully convinced that she had carried the power of the word with her to Evanston.

Not only was there a preaching father in the Walker household, but there was a talking maternal grandmother—a grandmother full of tales of “befo' dah wah” and “duin da time afta da wah.” So there were stories to be listened to and placed in the vault of memory. And there was also New Orleans with its rich background of folk mythology, its music, its red beans and rice and jambalaya, and its assortment of racial experiences to be remembered and recalled through the power of the word.

So Margaret Walker as a poet and as a writer was not dependent on the academy for her subject matter, for her style, for her authorial posture. Indeed, the rhetorical power of the poem, “For My People”—the verbal arpeggios, the cascading adjectives, the rhythmic repetitions—has its roots in the “preacher-man” rhetoric of the Black South. Similarly, Vyry's eloquent prayer in Jubilee came from the Blacks' past and from the deep folk memories of a trouble-driven people.

The poet would also be the first to admit that her “down-home” grounding in the principles of the Judeo-Christian religion, Blackstyle, protected her against the frivolous intellectualism of the academy. She had no need to join movements, to bow to trends, and identify with esoteric cults. Her religion also stood her in good stead when, in 1935, she graduated from Northwestern and joined other writers in Chicago's rather radical WPA Writer's project—writers such as Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Willard Motley, James Farrell, and Jack Conroy. In 1935, Chicago lay by the shore of Lake Michigan like a beached whale, panting its way through the Depression, and the world and Chicago were ripe for social and political revolution. Racism, gangsterism, corruption, and political radicalism were everywhere. But Margaret Walker kept her home-grown faith through it all, calling not for violent revolution but for “a new earth” that would “hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves.”

The poet's career started out with a bang. In 1942, when, at twenty-seven, she published her first volume of poems—For My People—she became one of the youngest Black writers ever to have published a volume of poetry in this century. Langston Hughes had published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at the age of nineteen, but his first volume of poems was not published until 1926 when he was twenty-four.1 Moreover, when her volume won a poetry prize in 1942, Margaret Walker became the first Black woman in American literary history to be so honored in a prestigious national competition. But these achievements are not what is notable or significant about For My People. The title poem is itself a singular and unique literary achievement. First, it is magnificently wrought oral poetry. It must be read aloud; and, in reading it aloud, one must be able to breathe and pause, pause and breathe preacher-style. One must be able to sense the ebb and flow of the intonations. One must be able to hear the words sing, when the poet spins off parallel clusters like

… the gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing
plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging along.

This is the kind of verbal music found in a well-delivered down-home folk sermon, and, as such, the poem achieves what James Weldon Johnson attempted to do in God's Trombones: fuse the written word with the spoken word. In this sense the reader is imaginatively set free to explore what Shelley called the beautiful “unheard melody” of a genuine poetic experience. The passage is also significant in its emphasis on repetitive “work” words describing the age-old labors of Black people. The activities are as old as slavery—slavery in the “big house” or slavery in the fields. Adding “ing” to these monosyllabic work-verbs suggests the dreary monotony of Black labor in slave times and in free times. Without the “ing,” they remain command words—enforcing words, backed up by a white enforcing power structure. And behind the command has always lurked the whip or the gun or the overseer or the Captain or the boss or Mr. Charlie or Miss Ann. Indeed, Black laborers, long held captive by Western capitalism, were forced to work without zeal or zest—just “Dragging along.” Somehow they remained outside the system of profit and gain; no profits accrued to them for their labor; thus, they dragged along, “never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding.” In just these few lines, Margaret Walker performs a premier poetic function: she presents a succinct historical summary of how the Black man slipped into an economic and social quagmire when, first as a slave and then as a quasi-free man, he was forced to cope with the monster of European capitalistic enterprise.

Not only does For My People have word power, but it is a poem filled with subtle juxtapositions of thought and idea. When the scene shifts from the rural South to the urban North—to “thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New York”—the poet describes her people as “lost disinherited dispossessed and happy people.” At another point, they are depicted as “walking blindly spreading joy.” This Donnesque yoking of opposites linking happiness with dispossession and blind purposelessness with joy reveals the depth of Margaret Walker's understanding of the complexities of the Black experience. In fact, the poet here is writing about the source of the Black peoples' blues, for out of their troubled past and turbulent present came the Black peoples' song—a music and a song that guarantee that happiness and joy will somehow always be found lurking behind the squalor of the ghetto or behind the misery of the quarters or in some sharecropper's windowless cabin in the flood-drenched lowlands. For whenever there is trouble, a Bessie Smith or a Ma Rainey or a Bill Broonzy or a B. B. King or someone with the gift of song will step forward to sing it away. In fact, the song gets better when one is real lowdown and disinherited and even suicidal:

Goin' down to the railroad
Put my head on de track
Goin' down to the railroad
Put my head on de track
When No. 3 come rollin in
Gonna pull ma big head back.

So, although misery and woe are ever-present in the Black community, suicides remained low. If things got too bad, there is always tomorrow; so one sang, “Hurry sundown, see what tomorrow bring / May bring rain / May bring any ol' thing.” As the poet indicates, joy and misery are always juxtaposed in the Black experience.

Margaret Walker also states that Blacks die too soon, the victims of “consumption and anemia and lynching.” Each word in this triad of death has its own history in the Black experience. Consumption (or the more clinical but less poetical word tuberculosis) became a famous word in the white experience when it became “the white death” that ravaged the industrial nations during and after the Industrial Revolution. No capitalistic society was spared; and, since it was highly contagious, it quickly spread from white mill hands and miners to all levels of the Western capitalistic society. Famous poets and artists—Keats, Dunbar, Dumas' “Camille,” Rosetti's “Elizabeth Siddal”—died of consumption. Indeed for some the dying cough became a very romantic way to depart this troubled earth. For those, however, who lived on the fringes of the capitalistic nations—Blacks, Indians, Eskimos, Polynesians—consumption was devastatingly genocidal. Unprotected by medical strategies of any kind, the dark-skinned minorities died like butterflies in a mid-winter blizzard. On the other hand, anemia was different. It was and is the Blacks' disease of the blood, the result of their centuries-long battle against malaria in their African homeland. In building up an immunity against one dread disease, Black people ironically inherited a capacity for incurring another dread disease. So anemia had deep roots in the Black peoples' past—like their love of yams or their love for the chanting tribal drums.

On the other hand, lynching, the final word in the poet's triad of death, was different from the other two causes. Lynching had no deep roots in the history of the Black person's past: it was not transported from Africa, but rather was a uniquely “American” practice that blended well with a brutally exploitative economic system. Essentially, the lynching of Black males was the Southern white male's response to the Black man's inferred sexual superiority; for, usually, the lynched Black was castrated before he was burned or hanged, even if he had not been accused of a sexual crime. In this way the guilt-stricken white South expressed its fear of the Black man's imputed sexual vigor. To date, Margaret Walker has not published a poem elaborating on this particular topic of racial sexual rivalry in the South, but in a recent interview, she comments on the matter in an interesting fashion.2 In her opinion “Sexual warfare” exists because “there's a mirror image of racism in the South.” The poet explains:

What white men see in black men, black men see in white men. … The worst thing in the world [for the white man] was a black man with a white woman. … The worst thing in the world [for a black man] was a black woman with a white man.

The bloody tide of lynchings that swept the South from the years following the Civil War into the mid-twentieth century indicates that Blacks, powerless and politically helpless, lost the battle for sexual equality. And the poet is right. Only Blacks die of lynching; history does not record a single instance of a white man's being lynched because he raped a Black woman.

Two additional comments about “For My People” should be made. First, according to the poet's own recollection, she needed just fifteen minutes to compose it on her typewriter.3 The poem is thus comparable in composition time to Langston Hughes' “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which Hughes states that he wrote while crossing the Mississippi River enroute on a long train ride to visit his father in Toluca, Mexico.4 Second, the poem is comparable to McKay's sonnet, “If We Must Die,” in its breadth of universal appeal. It struck a chord of vibrant response in pre-World-War II America, and it became the rallying cry twenty-five years later during the strife-torn 1960s. If the test of a great poem is the universality of statement, then “For My People” is a great poem.

Although one cannot say that the rest of the poems in Margaret Walker's initial volume meets the same criteria for high poetic quality, they reflect the young poet's sense of “word power” and her sharp awareness of the importance of Black orature. The poems in Part II contain a series of Black folk portraits—Poppa Chicken, Kissee Lee, Yallah Hammuh. In many of these, one can trace the influence of Langston Hughes' 1927 volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which contained many verses portraying Black folk and celebrating the Black urban life style. Indeed both Poppa Chicken and Teacher remind one of Hughes' “Sweet Papa Vester” in that poet's “Sylvester's Dying Bed.” All three are sweet men—men who pimp for a living and generally walk on the shady side of the street. There are differences, however, between the Hughes portrait and those by Margaret Walker. Hughes' version is comically objective. Nowhere does the author obtrude an opinion in the brief story line, and everything, as in any good comic routine, is grossly exaggerated. As he lies dying, “Sweet Papa Vester” is surrounded by “all the wimmens in town”—“a hundred pretty mamas”—Blacks and “brown-skins” all moaning and crying. On the other hand, both “Poppa Chicken” and “Teacher,” written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter, lack the broad comic touch one sees in the Hughes poem. In fact, the protagonist is a “bad dude” and not to be taken lightly:

Poppa Chicken toted guns
Poppa wore a knife.
One night Poppa shot a guy
Threat'ning Poppa's life.(5)

Teacher similarly has no comic stature. In fact, it is the poet's opinion that

Women sent him to his doom.
Women set the trap.
Teacher was a bad, bold man
Lawd, but such a sap!

(p. 44)

Three other poems in Part II of For My People, “Kissee Lee,” “Long John and Sweetie Pie,” and “Yallah Hummuh” reflect a Hughesian influence. Although all three are written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter that Hughes never used in his Black folk portraits, they all reveal a finely controlled and well-disciplined narrative technique. There is just enough compression of incident and repetitive emphasis to provoke and sustain the reader's interest. And all of the characters—Long John, Sweetie Pie, Kissee Lee, and Yalluh Hamma—come from the “low-down” social stratum where, Hughes believed, Black men and women lived in accordance with a life style that was to be treasured simply because it was distinctively Black. Theirs is an environment filled with heroic violence, flashing knives, Saturday night liquor fights, and the magnificent turbulence of a blues-filled weekend of pleasure and joy. For instance, after Margaret Walker's Kissee Lee “learned to stab and run” and after “She got herself a little gun,”

… from that time that gal was mean,
Meanest mama you ever seen.
She could hold her likker and hold her man
And she went thoo life jus' ra'sin san'.

(p. 38)

To the Kissee Lees of the world death comes soon and

… she died with her boots on
                    switching blades
On Talledega Mountain in the likker raids.

(p. 39)

The ballad “Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie” presents another story which has been repeated many times in Black folklore—the story of a very stressful romantic relationship that ends in disappointment, separation, grief, and death. There is the inevitable triangle involving Long John, who is ever a lover but never a laborer; Sweetie Pie, who cooks real good and eats far too well; and a “yellow girl,” who has “coal black hair” and “took Long John clean away / From Sweetie Pie one awful day.” The brief story ends when Sweetie Pie, her lover gone, wastes away and dies. To historians and literary scholars, it is a story of small, almost mean, insignificance; but to a Black folk poet interested in the rich orature of her people, this little story opened another window on the world of the Black experience.

Part II of Margaret Walker's first volume of poetry also includes poems about “Bad Ol' Stagolee” and “Big John Henry,” Black mythic folk heroes whose stories have been told and sung for generations. Since both men really lived and died, the poet in recounting their stories dips into authentic Black folk history. John Henry, the steel-driving man who would not let “a steam drill beat him down,” was employed in the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia on the C&O Line and lost his life in a tunnel accident in 1872. Similarly, Stagolee, born in Georgia shortly after the Civil War, became a Memphis gambler who was widely known for his big stetson hat, his.44, and his ever handy deck of cards. When a fellow gambler named Billy Lyons objected to the way Stagolee shuffled the cards and, in a fit of anger, knocked off Stagolee's stetson and spit on it, Stack promptly shot him dead with his.44. In her poetic version of the John Henry and Stagolee stories, Margaret Walker does not restrict herself to the known historical facts. She shifts through the accretion of myth and incident and, in swinging couplets, tells how “Bad Man Stagolee” shot, not Billy Lyons, but “a big policeman on 'leventh street” and how John Henry was a “sho-nuff man / Whut lived one time in the delta lan'” in the Mississippi cotton country. Both men are larger than life heroes. For his murder of a white policeman, Stagolee is never caught, and no one knows how he eventually died; all that is known is

Bad-man Stagolee ain't no more
But his ghost still walks up
          and down the shore
Of Old Man River round New Orleans
With her gumbo, rice and good
                    red beans!

(p. 35)

On the other hand, the poet tells us how her John Henry died—“a ten-poun’ hammer done ki-ilt John Henry.” But the manner of his dying is not nearly as important as his symbolic fame as the preeminently gifted Black laboring man. He stands for all Black men who, amid great adversity, farmed and plowed, dug and hammered, lifted and strained throughout the South to build railroads, load steamboats, and tote bricks in “the bilin' sun.” But Margaret Walker embellishes her John Henry with even more heroic attributes. He consorts with witches who

          taught him how to cunjer,
And cyo the colic and ride the

(p. 49)

He can whistle like a whippoorwill and talk to the “long lean houn.” In other words, in addition to being the symbolic Black laboring giant, he has supernatural gifts that lift him far above humankind's mortal sphere.

One other poem in this section of For My People merits some comment. “Molly Means” is a well-crafted poetical description of “a hag and a witch; Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch.”

Imp at three and wench at leben
She counted her husbands to the number seben.
          O Molly, Molly, Molly Means
There goes the ghost of Molly Means.

(p. 33)

Apparently, Molly is a sorceress, in some way related to the New Orleans conjure women that Margaret Walker knew so much about. It is also apparent that the setting for Molly's witchery is rural, for farmers fear that she will blight their crops for

Sometimes at night through the shadowy trees
She rides along on a winter breeze.

(p. 34)

What is interesting about the poem is that it was written in the mid-1930s, shortly after the period known as the Harlem Renaissance had drawn to a Depression-induced end, but in no way does the poem reflect, in theme or in style, the poetry of that period. Like the title poem of the award-winning volume, “Molly Means” speaks with a new voice in Black American poetry. It is not a poem of racial or romantic protest, nor does it ring with social or political rhetoric. Rather it is a poem that probes the imaginative vistas where witches and elfins dwell—a poem that demands “a willing suspension of disbelief.” And, as indicated above, “Molly Means,” in its balladic simplicity, is a far cry from the carefully cerebrated poetical statements coming from the poets of the academy during the mid-1930s.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Margaret Walker published a few occasional poems (later gathered for publication in a Broadside Press volume, October Journey, in 1973); but, in addition to attending to her responsibilities as wife, mother, and college professor, she devoted most of her “literary” time to researching historical and biographical data for her fictional magnum opus, Jubilee. When this novel was published in 1966, the South was already ablaze with the Black protest against segregation and the century-long denial of the Black people's civil rights. The events of that period—the bombings, the deaths, the marches, the big-city riots—stimulated the most exciting outburst of Black poetry since the Harlem Renaissance. These poets, with some significant exceptions, were young urban revolutionaries who were conscientiously abrasive in their racial rhetoric. Not only did they insist that wrongs be righted, but they assumed a para-military posture and demanded that the guilty be punished by fire, by bullets, or by the sheer violence of their poetic rhetoric. Inevitably, the seething racial turbulence of the times provoked a poetical response from Margaret Walker. Because of her experience, background, and training—her familial gift of word power, her intensive apprenticeship in Chicago's literary workshop in the 1930s, and her mastery of Black orature—her Prophets For a New Day (Broadside Press, 1970) stands out as the premier poetic statement of the death-riddled decade of the 1960s. The poems of this small volume reflect the full range of the Black protest during the time—the sit-ins, the jailings, the snarling dogs, the 1963 March on Washington, the lynching of the three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi. All of the poems in the volume touch the sensitive nerve of racial memory and bring back, in sharply etched detail, the trauma and tension and triumphs of that period. “Birmingham” and “For Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney” stand out as carefully wrought poetical reactions to a city and to an event that filled the world with horror and foreboding.

Both of these poems are unusual simply because painful emotions are not recollected in tranquillity but in moods carefully textured by the delicate filigree of the poet's imagery. For instance, in “Birmingham” the first part of the poem is filled with the persona's nostalgic memories of the beauty of the Birmingham countryside as the twilight settles over the red hills. In this section of the poem, the reader senses the God-wrought beauty that enfolds the city—a city filled with the evil that man has wrought.

With the last whippoorwill call of evening
Settling over mountains
Dusk dropping down shoulders of red hills
Cardinal flashing through thickets—
Memories of my fancy-ridden life
Come home again.

Part II of the poem is concerned with death and the images of dying. The principal persona of the poem has returned to a city engulfed by it—a city “where a whistling ghost” makes “a threnody / Out of a naked wind.”

I died today.
In a new and cruel way.
I came to breakfast in my night-dying clothes
Ate and talked and nobody knew
They had buried me yesterday.

(p. 14)

In Part III the persona longs to return to her “coffin bed of soft warm clay,” far from the North's “bitter cold.” For Birmingham and the South, drenched in the blood of countless Black martyrs, are good places in which to die and be buried.

The lines dedicated to the memory of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the young Civil Rights martyrs murdered by klansmen in Mississippi's Neshoba County, are also rich in imagery and symbol. There is no rhetoric of confrontation, but there is a very successful effort to filter through the nuances of memory and find the three young men again. One remembers, first, three faces—one “sensitive as the mimosa leaf,” one “intense as the stalking cougar,” and the third as “impassive as the face of rivers.” And then one remembers that the summer of their death cannot last forever and that soon fall will come and the three young men will metamorphose into three leaves, cut adrift from life and mixing helter-skelter with nature's superb fall potpourri of wind, water, and sunlight.

Then the poet turns directly to the lives of the three young men to probe how a century of concern can be reduced to a quintessential moment in the “hourglass of destiny.” Cut off prematurely, they will never know the “immortality of daisies and wheat,” “the simple beauty of a humming bird,” or “the dignity of a sequoia”—never know the full meaning of winter's renunciation or spring's resurrection. And who murdered the sensitive Goodman, the intense Schwerner, the impassive Chaney? The poet exercises her poetic license to castigate with a forceful alliterative phrase those who killed and entombed the three young men:

The brutish and the brazen
without brain
without blessing
without beauty. …

Before closing the poem, Margaret Walker once again examines the startling contradiction between the South's languorous natural beauty and the ugliness of Black lynched bodies floating in muddy rivers or buried in soggy graves shaded by fragrant magnolias and stately live oaks. The South is full of paradoxes, but the juxtaposition of floral beauty and bloody violence is the most puzzling. And nowhere is this more obvious than in Mississippi.

In the final section of Prophets for a New Day Margaret Walker turns to history and prophecy, linking today's Black leaders, old and young, to the biblical prophets. The volume's title poem begins with “the Word,” but the final lines of the title poem throb with the poet's indignation and outrage about the unfettered power of the beast of racial hatred that roams the land.

His horns and his hands and his lips are gory with
          our blood.
He is War and Famine and Pestilence
He is Death and Destruction and Trouble
And he walks in our houses at noonday
And devours our defenders at midnight.
He is the demon who drives us with whips of fear
And in his cowardice
He cries out against liberty
He cries out against humanity.

(p. 23)

The poems that end the volume of poetry present in brief portraits the “Prophets for a New Day”—Benjamin Mays (Jeremiah), Whitney Young (Isaiah), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Amos), Julian Bond (Joel), and Medgar Evers (Michah). These poems with their strong religious content prove that Margaret Walker has come full circle from the biblical source for social history back to biblical parable. She begins and closes with the Word. In the “breaking dawn of a blinding sun,” she offers a promise that “the lamp of truth” will be lighted in the temple of hope and that, soon one morning, “the winds of freedom” will begin “to blow / While the Word descends on the waiting World below.”

Langston Hughes, in his review of Gwendolyn Brooks' Street in Bronzeville, stated that all good poets are more far sighted and perceptive in discerning social problems and ills than politicians.6 Of Margaret Walker he would have noted her great gift for prophecy and the marvelous word power that enabled her to burrow deeply into the rich orature of her people.


  1. Paul Laurence Dunbar published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1892, a few months after his twenty-first birthday.

  2. John Griffith Jones, interview with Margaret Walker, in Mississippi Writers Talking (Univ: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1983), II, 140-41.

  3. Ibid., 133.

  4. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (New York: Knopf, 1940; rpt. Hill and Wang, 1963), 33-34.

  5. Margaret Walker, For My People (rpt. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1968), 36. The volume appeared originally in the Yale University Series for Younger Poets (1942).

  6. Opportunity (Fall 1945), 222.

Margaret Walker and Lucy M. Freibert (interview date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6968

SOURCE: Walker, Margaret, and Lucy M. Freibert. “Southern Song: An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies 9, no. 3 (1987): 50-6.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1986 and published in 1987, Walker discusses her personal life and her working methods and compares herself with other Southern women writers.]

[Freibert]: You have been a writer, teacher, activist, homemaker, and cultural analyst. What is the unifying role in your life?

[Walker]: Well, I think that the feminine principle of being a daughter, a sister, a mother, and now a grandmother has been the motivating and inspiring agency. I think I said that first in a piece I wrote called “On Being Female, Black, and Free”—that being a woman is first, that when the doctor says “It's a she,” that's the first thing.

Would you talk about some of the people who have influenced you the most?

Well, my parents had the first influence on me. They were teachers. My mother taught music, and my father taught religion and philosophy. My father had taught in high schools before he taught in college; he had taught many different subjects. He was a fine English scholar, but he was first and foremost a theologian. Hearing my father give his sermons, watching him prepare them, and seeing him exemplify in his daily life what he preached had an effect on me. My mother was a musician—just hearing her play and hearing that music every day had a real influence on me. But equally important was my grandmother. When I think of how I grew up, I think of the three of them.

My teachers until I was almost college age were mostly women. I had only one male teacher in grade school, and then in high school I had three or four male teachers. When I was in college, my freshman English teacher was a woman, a very fine teacher who had graduated from Northwestern. She told my parents they should send me to Northwestern, where they had gone to school. And then when I was sixteen, I saw Langston Hughes for the first time. He was one of the first black male writers influential on me. … Then I went to Northwestern when I was seventeen, and I had no more women teachers. The only woman who taught me at Northwestern taught hygiene. I was surprised to discover that black women teaching in black colleges in the South had far more position, prestige, and status than white women teaching in northern coed universities. The black woman on the black college campus can be anything she wants to be, but the faculties of Northwestern and Iowa showed me the lower status of white women teachers.

Three black men influenced you?

My three black writer friends didn't teach me formally in school but influenced my work very much. I read Langston Hughes first when I was eleven years old, and I saw him when I was sixteen. I knew him for thirty-five years. He was a close friend and a real influence. W. E. B. Dubois, whom I also saw for the first time when I was about seventeen at Northwestern, published my first poem in a national magazine, Crisis. It was called “Daydream,” but it's now called “I Want to Write.” That was my dream—to write. And the third black man was Richard Wright, whom I met after I was out of college.

Did your parents directly encourage you to write?

Yes, they did. When I was twelve years old, my father gave me a daybook in which I could keep my poems, and told me to keep everything I wrote together, not to scatter my work. That motivated me to fill the book.

That became your journal, then?

Well, it wasn't really a journal. I started a journal when I was thirteen. My journals were kept in composition books. I think that I may be able to go back to them and use them for the autobiography. I have been blocking it out in my head and looking for a theme. I am sure that there will be passages from those journals that I will want to go back and remember and include in the autobiography.

Do you normally use materials from your journals in your literary works?

I think so, but it has been an unconscious thing. I was consciously writing journals. I wasn't consciously taking material from them to use in the books, except when I was working with the Richard Wright book. For that I went back to entries in my journals deliberately. I read his journals but wasn't allowed to quote directly from them. But I could quote from my own. The episode in which our friendship ended is recorded in the book in its entirety. I was a very young woman, in my very early twenties. As I look back on it now, the experience is as clear and concise and direct as I recorded it then. I have not changed a word in that journal entry. …

I am sure you are pleased to have the Wright book finished and to know that it will be coming out soon. Would you comment on the title you gave the book: Richard Wright: A Daemonic Genius.

I am using the Greek term “daemonic,” and using it in an aesthetic sense. The creative genius of Wright was not orphic, and it was not, shall I say, visionary like that of Blake. It was daemonic in the way that we speak of the shield of Achilles made by Haiphaestus as being daemonic. Daemonic genius is genius driven by devils or demons but not purely Satanic. Wright was also like the god maker, the person of character and personality like Pygmalion. It's that kind of daemonic. I am not calling him a devil, although I think his widow must believe that's what I'm up to.

Your relationship with Wright ended rather abruptly. According to one report, you said that Wright picked your brains and then dismissed you.

[laughing] Well, I think feminists will grab that, but wait a minute, let's stop there. People have made a great deal over the friendship and the breaking up, and I don't look back now with any regret. I have written the book with a great deal of hard work and some pleasure, and I hope that it is going to be available soon. I suppose that I may have gotten a great deal from the Wright friendship. I know he got a lot from me. Whether he picked my brain—he may have tried to—I doubt that he could have thoroughly picked my brain.

Would you discuss the other works that you have in progress? I saw a rather lengthy list in your file over at the Jackson State library. It starts with Minna and Jim.

That's the sequel to Jubilee. I have only blocked that out. I haven't done any work on it.

And Mother Broyer?

I'm working on that now. I've done a hundred pages, and I'm in the second section of that. It is laid in four cities: it starts in Algiers, across the river from New Orleans, moves to Los Angeles, California, and then to Harlem, New York, and ends on the West Side of Chicago. Mother Broyer spends the first twenty-two or three or maybe twenty-five years in New Orleans, then about ten or twelve years in Los Angeles, about a year, six to eight or ten, maybe twelve to eighteen months in New York, and then spends the rest of her life in Chicago.

Then there's This Is My Century.

This Is My Century is a book of my poetry. It is going to be the collected poetry. It will include five books: For My People, Prophets for a New Day, October Journey, This Is My Century, and A Poem for Farish Street.

And then you are working on the autobiography.

Yes, I have done a hundred pages on the autobiography, but I am going to have to rearrange and reorganize it in terms of the themes that I have in mind. …

Do you write on schedule, or do you just wait until the spirit moves you?

Well, I can write any time that I sit down to the typewriter or with my notebook. It depends on what I am writing. I really had a schedule that last year with Jubilee, in the last few months especially, but never before or since have I been able to get back to a schedule.

When you write poetry, do you carry the poem around in your head first, or do you start right out putting things on paper?

Regardless of the medium, whether you are a musician, a painter, a graphic artist, a plastic artist, or a sculptor, whether you are a writer or an architect, you begin the same way. Creative writing grows out of creative thinking, and nothing begins a work before the idea as a conceptualization; that is the beginning. All writers, all artists, all musicians, all people with creative talent begin with that creative thinking. They begin with conceptualization. You get an idea, and sometimes the whole process moves on mentally and unconsciously before it is given conscious artistic form, but the process begins with the idea.

Everything begins in the mind. You have an idea, and you may not know for a long time what form this idea is going to take or what you are going to say or how you are going to say it, but you have that first. For me it is intuitive. Some people are not intuitive. I'm intuitive. I in-tu-it. For me it begins with a concept, maybe before it is even an idea—a concept before it becomes thought or idea. It may begin with a picture. For the musician, I am sure it begins with a musical motif or a sound that the musician hears or senses. It is a process using the sensory perceptions, I guess you would say. You perceive or conceive. You perceive what is outside. You conceive what is inside. And you move from the perception of a concept or thought or idea to a figuration and a configuration.

The poet has nothing but words and language to be used as tools. And the poet—I think my father taught me this—the poet in my instance uses rhetorical devices. I have been told by some poets and even by some teachers that I am too rhetorical. I cannot conceive of writing poetry without metaphor and simile, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole. I grew up with that, and my work is rhetorical, but I think it is rhetorical in the best sense of the word. I had teachers who tried to break me of the habit. My father taught me my first lessons in rhetoric from an old English book that he had brought to this country. It gave all the rhetorical forms. I don't think a poet writes simply in grammatically correct language. I think all the greatest poets in the world were rhetoricians, and I believe in the rhetoric. Paul Engle has criticized me for it. He said, “Margaret was just too rhetorical.” I laughed, because I am still rhetorical, and I always will be.

That's what makes your voice so distinctive. What or who helped you to find your voice?

My father, really. I think Stephen Benét tells it in the introduction to For My People. It was not just that I heard the sermons my grandfather and my father preached, but it was that training my father gave me in the use of rhetoric. And I really didn't believe when I was a teenaged youngster growing up that you could write poetry without the use of simile and metaphor. I thought you had to use them. After I was older and had gained my own voice, I realized that I had read the Bible all my life and that the use of parallelism was what I had learned from the Bible: cataloguing and repetition and internal rhyme—not so much end rhyme, because that was what I had learned from ordinary poetry. I didn't think of the poetry in the Bible as ordinary. I thought it was extraordinary. And when Benét says you can feel these Biblical rhythms in my poetry, that is the greatest compliment he could give me. I think most of us in the South grew up on that Bible, the King James version of the Bible, as much as on reading Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. Because if you were a student in the South, you have read Scott, Dickens, the Bible, and Shakespeare, and you may have read Milton, because we are very Miltonic in the South. And these are the great influences in English and American literature. And just because we have learned to speak in cryptic language and monosyllabic sentences, making sentences out of monosyllabic words, that is no reason to drop rhetoric from poetry. I'm very certain that I am one of the few black writers who believes that strongly in rhetoric. But I can't help it. It's a part of my background.

I think the voices I have heard in the classics, whether it was the great English, American, or Continental poetry, carry with them not only the surge, the melody, and the rhythm of Biblical poetry, they also have power. And I have had people tell me that my words have power, the power that comes out of that Biblical background, that religious background that makes you aware that words are not just some idle spoken things but they should carry great meaning with them. My father taught me that poetry must have three qualities. It must have rhythm or music, but first it must have pictures or images, and third it must have meaning. And everything I write I test by those three standards. Are there any pictures here in the poetry? Do you see images? Do you feel the rhythms? Do you sense the power behind the meaning? Those are my three major standards. I was a long time coming to this in prose. I thought that prose was completely disconnected from poetry. I didn't grow up realizing that stories and novels and biography and autobiography had sometimes the same rhythms, the same images that poetry has. I was taught versification and scansion by masters. When I was at Northwestern, my teacher, Professor Hungerford, rigidly schooled me in versification and scansion. He has written a little book, On Remembering the Rhythms. He believed in that sweep, and he liked my poems. He said that in “JEAN LAFITTE, the Baratarian” I was writing like Keats, that I had that sensuousness that Keats had, that it came from my descriptive power in the pictures, the images, but it was also in the rhythm, because I wrote in couplets. But they were not heroic couplets; they were run-on Keatsian couplets. I was always determined to have meaning or power in these things.

The connection you made between poetry and prose shows up so well in Jubilee. Almost every chapter is like a poem in itself.

I appreciate your saying that because one critic said that my style was atrocious and that I had no poetry in Jubilee. I was amused at that. He said that the book wasn't interesting, was dull, and didn't have any sex in it. When I read that, I laughed because I said, “Millions of people do not agree with you.”

Jubilee was probably the earliest book to focus on the complexity of the relationship between black and white women.

Well, I think that's what Minrose Gwin is talking about in Black and White Women of the Old South. She says that I do express that connection, that relationship. And I am sure they must be there because my audience consists of both black and white. And I have had many, many white people in the South tell me they relate to the book. They feel with the characters in there. They recognize people. And, of course, black folks tell me, “Oh, Vyry is everybody's grandmother.” They love Vyry because they say, “She's just like my grandmother. She was like my grandmother was. Where does she come from?” They know her. They recognize her. It wasn't a simple, easy, quick task to bring her to life.

Was that perception of the black and white women's dilemma in your grandmother's story, or is that where your artistry comes in?

I think it was both. Of course, you know, I never saw Vyry. Vyry was really Margaret, my great-grandmother, and Minna, who told me the story, was really Vyry. Her name was Elvira. My grandmother was a part of my raising, my rearing. She told me the story. The story, as she told it, reflected the relationship of my great-grandmother to all people around her, black and white. I think you recognize the humanistic value of Vyry because whether it's Aunt Sally or Mammy Sukey, whether it is Miss Lillian or Miss Lucy, you see the kinship of women. When the poor white woman in the house with the children has not been fed, Vyry feeds her, and she tells Randall Ware and Innes—the night that they talk and she shows her back—she says, “If any of those people came to my door in the mornin', no matter how bad they treated me, I would feed 'em. I would feed 'em.”

One of the reviewers said that Jubilee is a powerful testament to Christianity, to Christian love, because the thing that we get from Vyry—and people don't want to believe it—is that out of outrage and violence and bitterness, she comes up with this Christian love and forgiveness. And you know, I was raised that way. My grandmother was that way. And she was Vyry's child. And I realized when I finished the book that I had never known Vyry, but I knew her daughter, and she was like Vyry. My mother said, “Oh, you've got my grandmother down. She was just like that.” I said, “But you know I was really using grandma.” Then she said, “Well Mamma was like grandma.” And I said, “And my mother was like her mother.” I'm like my mother. The older I get, the more I look like my mother and I think like my mother. My grandmother was just like her mother. Women are like their mothers.

And childbearing women—I have a daughter expecting—and I told her, “Women have their children the way their mothers had them.” That's part of being a woman—in the difficulty of going into puberty, the problems of early marriage, or even when marriages don't last (because all marriages are not made in heaven), and divorce, which is perhaps the worst thing a woman can go through short of death itself, and the whole business of estrangement—in all these instances women follow the pattern of women who have gone before them.

But then we have an interesting thing happening, which has happened with the sexual revolution. We have women who look at the pain they have suffered and who have been through some excruciating sexual pain, that is, in their relationships with men and other women so that they determine to break the shackles, to do away with the ikons, and to avoid the stereotypes. And these women are speaking out more and more, but this is what the women's movement has meant. At first it was simply to break the terrible slavery of domestic bondage, where they were under the rule of the father and the husband, and they didn't dare cross them and be independent and think for themselves. And then they decided we want to be a part of the world around us. We want to be educated. We want to have our chance at careers. We want options. We don't all want to be married. We don't all want to have children. We want to be able to make a living without this father or husband.

And then we have seen this male domination go so far that we find women who have been brutalized in their marriage relationships or in their paternal relationships, and they moved out to what may seem a perversion of love—they found a bonding with other women. This is very obvious in our society today. It existed before, but we kept it hidden. We closed it off. We didn't want this to be a part of what the world knew about us, because then we became pariahs and were thrown aside.

It is a long way up for women from the status of women in ancient times, say in the time of Jesus, when a woman could be brought before Jesus and accused: “This woman was caught in the act of adultery, and Moses said stone such a one to death. What do you say?” I think that is the first move toward woman's liberation, when Jesus says, “Well, any man who has never sinned and who is not guilty of any woman, let him pick up the stone and throw first.” He didn't say, “Where is the man who was with this woman?” He didn't say, “Well, I don't believe there should be one kind of standard or two.” He just said, “Let the man without sin cast the first stone.” And he looked around and all these men had moved away. He said to the woman, “Woman, where are your accusers?” She said, “Sir, I have none.” He said, “Well, neither do I accuse you.” In other words, “I know nothing about you. I haven't been guilty of it. So you may go on your way, but don't sin any more.”

What are the differences in black and white southern women's relationships then and now?

Well, I think we have gone through three or four stages. And I am sure that white women as well as black women have advanced. First of all, in those days of slavery, nobody thought about educating women. We didn't have women's suffrage. The women's movement in this country has paralleled the black movement or the struggle for black rights, whether they were civil or human rights. And as the women's movement became a national movement, at first the southern white women were not a part of it. And as the northern women sought to bring the southern white women into the movement, they ran into conflict over the question of race. The southern white women were the last to accept the black women into the movement.

Even important women like Susan B. Anthony and others who were friendly with Ida B. Wells wanted her to back off, saying, “Don't come and march, don't stand and speak, because our southern sisters will be offended.” The movement broke in two between the white northern and their southern white sisters who objected to the inclusion of the black women. Three or four very important black women rose up, not only Ida B. Wells and Mary McCloud Bethune later, but Sojourner Truth was a very great leader in the women's movement, and Harriet Tubman was in the movement. Ida B. Wells was one of the most outspoken, and at the turn of the century we had that kind of crisis.

Then we came to the very great drive of women all over the country, except in the South, where black people as a whole had been disenfranchised. Black men were not voting en masse, and black women had no voice. But white southern women were fighting for the vote, too, and when that vote came in 1919, black people still did not have the vote. There was friction and conflict in the women's movement over these issues. Anti-lynching was the great cause that Ida B. Wells was fighting. She was fighting lynching, but she was writing, too, along with Mary Church Terrell and Mary McCloud Bethune, great organizers of the National Council of Negro Women and the Federated Women's Clubs movement. They were talking about the lack of voting privileges of all black people.

I forgot to say that at the turn of the century Ida B. Wells was preparing to go to the first big international conference of women held in England. She expected to go as a delegate for women from this country, and there was a great protest made. The southern women were outraged, and the northern women compromised by asking Ida B. Wells not to go and not to speak. She went, of course. She was asked on another occasion when they were demonstrating for the vote not to appear, but she did appear. That is the kind of racial conflict we've had within the women's movement.

Even today the aims and imperatives of the women's movement are not the same for black women as they are for white. The white woman in the past fifty years has sought to be liberated from her husband and from a patriarchal bond. The black woman never felt that kind of pressure. The black woman was always a working woman from the days of slavery. All the days she had been in this country, all the years, she has been a working woman. We do not have the same kind of conflict between marriage and career that white women have. I remember somebody's saying to me once that marriage was nothing more than being a kept woman, and I was surprised to hear that, because women in my family had always been married women, working women, mothers with careers. I go back to my great-grandmothers. Vyry was a slave and having babies with the threat of being separated from husband and children, but always working. Then my grandmother was married to a minister. When he died my grandmother was forced to work. At first she took in sewing, and then she took in washing—washing and ironing. And these black women have always been very strong women, but not necessarily taking the places of men.

We never felt threatened in our homes by the fact that we had to work at our careers. Nowadays we hear a great deal about whether a woman should work when the children are small. My mother said she was at work teaching when I was six weeks old. At my first job I did stay home fourteen months before I went back to teaching, but with the next child my husband asked me to stay home two years. I stayed home three. At the end of those three years I had another child, and I didn't wait two years. He—the third child—was nine weeks old when I came to work at Jackson State. The fourth child was born while I was on a Ford Fellowship, and when I came back to work, I brought that child with me two weeks short of three months old.

I always had some help. I brought someone in. I had a person come in to cook and clean. I didn't like very much having someone do the cooking because I preferred to cook myself, but I would be so tired. And to this day I have always had somebody to come in and help with the cleaning. Anyway I have learned that black women have never been free to pursue the same aspirations that white women pursue. The white woman has had to fight the father and the husband for the right first to go to school, second to become a part of the professional world, third to be a working mother, and even so the pattern of the white woman is that she generally stays home with the child, with the baby, for so many months or so many years before she goes back to work. That couldn't work with the black woman. Many times there was no man in the house. There was no man there. She had these children in the fields. She had these children on the job. She had these children one day and then went back to work the next day. So the aspirations and aims of white and black women in the same women's movement have not been the same.

One thing that I think black and white women agree on is that women need to be paid the same money for the same work or the same jobs as men, but that has rarely happened in our society. I wrote a piece—I think part of it is in Claudia Tate's Black Women Writers at Work—in which I said that my mother, my sisters, and I have all suffered in academia. Men with the same degrees, the same training, made more money. Men doing the same work got more money. This has prevailed in the society. And even though there is a federal law against it now, the law is frequently violated. It is rare that a woman receives promotion, rank, and pay with men. The society still doesn't abide by that rule.

How does your experience as a black woman writer compare with that, say, of Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, or Gwendolyn Brooks?

I guess I have had some of the same problems they have had. You should compare me with a white woman writer, because there is where the great difference has been. I'm not an unfulfilled person in the same sense that Zora was. Zora was certainly a very great storyteller and very bright, a brilliant woman, but she didn't graduate from Columbia with a doctorate under Papa Boaz. Not that she wasn't as smart as Margaret Mead or Ruth Benedict. They were white, and she was black. There's where the contrast is. She didn't get the doctorate in anthropology. Well, I can say that I went to school, and I got the doctorate. Very few black people had done it at Iowa before I did, and very few have since, but I went back where I had gotten a master's and, though it was difficult, I managed to fulfill the requirements. And I got it. Therefore, that's one thing that Zora was frustrated in. I've not been frustrated.

Zora was married twice very briefly. Her marriages did not work out. I was married thirty-seven years to one man, and I have four children, eight grandchildren from that union. In that sense I am not frustrated at all. I know only one other person who has been married as long as I have to the same man, and that is Gwendolyn Brooks. Gwen was married to Henry Blakely in her very early twenties when first I knew her. They had a very brief separation, but while they were separated I think Gwen must have realized that Henry was always very good for her. They had two children together, a son and a daughter, and in that respect we are alike. Gwen is still married to Blakely. My husband is dead.

I never knew Nella Larson. I saw Zora as a child, but I never saw Nella Larson and knew little about her until I was an adult. I read Zora's books as they came out. I have since read Nella Larson's Quicksand and Passing. I don't care for her as much as I do for Zora, but I think she's a fine writer. I know almost nothing of her personal life. Zora was accused of sodomy, taken into court, and although she came out of it and was vindicated and proved innocent, it literally ruined her life and career. And I have not had that kind of awful situation.

There are three women from Georgia—two white and one black—whom I put in the same bag: Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, whom I knew at Yaddo, and Alice Walker. I never knew Flannery O'Connor, but she went to the same school I went to in Iowa, and they told me about her. Those three women are from the same neck of the woods in Georgia. They are all three women of gothic imagination, all three writing of the violent South. It was Flannery O'Connor who wrote The Violent Bear It Away. Carson was writing things about grotesque people in Ballad of the Sad Café, and in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye. I would say even in Clock Without Hands. Flannery O'Connor's “Artificial Nigger,” The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge—they can all be compared with Alice Walker's Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian, and The Color Purple. I'm not like any of those women. Those women have a different imagination. Those women have a different perspective. They have a different philosophy. I think they are all remarkable writers. I think that it will take many more years before we say these women were great artists. They were great craftswomen, virtuosos, but I don't think any one of those women can stand up now to the test of what I consider the great test of an artist—that you are willing to go back and read their books over and over again. I don't know. I do not personally enjoy reading them over and over again. I'm repelled by Flannery O'Connor's “Artificial Nigger.” I don't think much even of The Violent Bear It Away. I think one of her best things is Everything That Rises Must Converge. Carson McCullers, who is around my age, died very much younger. I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and liked that, but there were things in it I didn't like. And then she came out with Reflections in a Golden Eye. I would never read that book again. When she came up with Clock Without Hands, it was so painful I could hardly bear to read the whole book.

I had great difficulty with Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I do not like the book for many reasons. I think Alice's best work is In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. It's a very beautiful book and a book that I can relate to and understand. The Third Life of Grange Copeland for me has many problems. The book Meridian includes my name, and I'm there as a character, and I don't exactly appreciate that. I can hardly make myself go back and look at Meridian. I think I feel about those books the way I feel about Faulkner's Sanctuary. At first I was just repelled. I like the kind of macabre humor that Faulkner uses, but then again, it is that same gothic imagination.

Now I find myself able to read and reread Eudora Welty, and she has a gothic imagination and she does sometimes deal with the grotesque and with things almost gruesome, but her Delta Wedding reflects that Delta language and you can hear that speech. Her folk things are truly authentic. I think she is a great artist. You see the difference? I can read her any time. I would say that Eudora Welty's immortality is assured. I'm not sure about those three women from Georgia. I think that way up the road, they are going to be like Kate Chopin.

She's back now. My students love her. They loved Meridian, also.

A lot of people love and like Alice. I have known Alice, but I think that The Color Purple is a reflection on the black family as a whole, particularly on black men, that it is not even complimentary to black women, and certainly to black children. And I agree with those women out in California who said that it is not good reading for pre-adolescent children, that it should not be required reading in the grade schools and junior high schools.

I don't think it was intended for that.

But when the fight came up, the question came up as to censorship, and all of us are opposed to that. So you see there is a fine line there.

That is the most difficult thing to decide.

And that's what I'm saying. It is like saying Henry Miller is a great writer in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. There is some filthy stuff there. There is some filthy vile stuff there. Now it depends on how you are judging. And I don't think literature should be judged on moral grounds. I think it should be judged on aesthetic grounds, and then you might say Henry Miller is a great writer.

Young writers like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez rate you among the greats. Sonia calls you “a strong gust of woman.”

Sonia is like a child of mine. Nikki and Sonia and Alice are my daughters' generation. Sonia is older than they by a few years, but they are still young enough to have been my daughters. I like all three of them personally.

Alice and Nikki and Sonia can write what I cannot write. I want to write very much about the Vietnam War, the sixties, and the seventies, but I ask myself over and over again, “What am I going to do with that vocabulary?” because it is a shocking, brutal kind. And the four-letter words, the drug scene, the violence and crime, the black nationalism, all that stuff. It's really not my cup of tea. I want to write about it because it's my son's generation. He went to Vietnam, and I think there needs to be a record of that. I don't know whether I am ever going to be able to put it down, because I cannot use the four-letter words and the language, and I cannot deal with the shock bit.

To skip backward a minute, what is it about Gwendolyn Brooks's Annie Allen that so appeals to you? You have spoken so highly of that work.

Well, I'll tell you what I liked about Annie Allen when I read it. I had read A Street in Bronzeville, which shows Gwen's talent very clearly, and it's a very good first book, but Annie Allen reflects very careful discipline, hard work, knowledge of the craft, and such an understanding of that adolescent girl as she does in Maud Martha, that I think the book is nothing short of superb. “The Anniad,” which is in there, is to me a great piece. I have argued with Dudley Randell when I say it's written in rhyme royale. He says it's not the Chaucerian stanza, but I say it is. I think I know as well as Dudley. It is the Chaucerian line and stanza. And that's a very difficult stanza to write. I think Gwendolyn Brooks proved in Annie Allen that she was capable of most difficult forms, that she could write in the strictest meters and still keep the very wonderful flavor of black life and folklore. I think that's what's in Annie Allen. I think, too, that that book is a very well-crafted book. I think that Gwen is at her very best in Annie Allen. I think in this book she fulfills the promise of A Street in Bronzeville. You see in Annie Allen that she is an artist who understands the craft of poetry and the art of writing. And I think that aside from a number of the very flavorsome pieces in there, you don't see anything like it again until she comes to “Mecca.” “Mecca” is another very fine piece.

I haven't seen any recent things of Gwen's to say that I like this or that, but Gwen wrote nine volumes of poetry. She says some of the stuff was for children and then did Maud Martha, which I think is a sensitive portrait. I wish she had done more of that sort of thing, but Annie Allen is superb. I think I have said it somewhere.

I'd like to get back to your poetry for just a moment. The French feminist critics talk about “writing from the body” these days. Early in the forties you wrote,

I want my careless song to strike no minor key; no fiend to stand between my body's southern song—the fusion of the South, my body's song and me.

Is there a connection here?

Well, I don't know whether I was thinking in the feminist vein when I said that, because I have said it over and over again, in both “Southern Song” and “Sorrow Home.” What I'm saying, in a very sensuous, not sensual but sensuous, way is that I'm a creature of the South. When I wrote this I was in cold Chicago, and I didn't see grass and hay and clover in bloom. I didn't see red clay. I didn't smell the earth after the rain. All of this comes back to me, so I write about the South, and then I contrast, as I do frequently in poetry and prose. (I do it a lot in the Richard Wright book.) I contrast the ideal beauty of the land, the ambience of the South, and the horror of its violence and racial conflict. When I leave the physical beauty of the South, and when I talk about “my body's southern song—the fusion of the South, my body's song and me,” I mean that I am a part of this whole process of nature, that when we come together I am complete and it is complete because it is a part of me and I am part of it. Now I want to see the dichotomy closed, the split ended. The social horror and the physical beauty are constantly there, and I talk about that in everything I write—the beauty of the South and the horror of this other society.

Margaret Walker Alexander and Kay Bonetti (interview date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5233

SOURCE: Walker Alexander, Margaret, and Kay Bonetti. “An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander.” The Missouri Review 15, no. 1 (1992): 112-31.

[In the following interview, Walker touches on the differences between writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the protest writers of the 1930s, her relationship with Richard Wright and her copyright disputes with the Wright estate, writer Alex Haley, and the origins of Jubilee.]

Of special note: In what is being called a landmark decision on “fair use,” the U.S. Court of Appeals in November, 1991, ruled against the Richard Wright estate, who had sued Margaret Walker and Warner Books over her use in the biography of letters, journal entries, and an earlier essay she had written about Wright.

This interview was conducted by Kay Bonetti, Director of the American Audio Prose Library.

[Bonetti]: Ms. Walker, when you were a teenager, after you'd finished two years of college in New Orleans, Langston Hughes told your parents that their daughter had talent and that they should get you out of the South. Why?

[Walker]: Langston was saying that I couldn't get the kind of education I needed there. The summer before I went to Northwestern, some Jewish friends of my mother and father took my poetry to a professor of English at Tulane University, Richard Kirk. I dared not walk on that campus. At that time the only black people who could go over on Tulane's campus had to be maids and cooks and janitors. He wrote me a nice little note, said he thought I had talent, if I was willing to work.

How did you decide on Northwestern?

My mother and my father had gone there. It was a Methodist school and Methodist ministers could send their children there cheaper—they'd get a rebate. It cost about six hundred dollars a year, and they took off a hundred and some dollars of each semester for us. When I left school I still owed some of the money. I paid it though.

After you finished school you stayed in Chicago for a time working on the Federal Writers' Project of the WPA. At the end of that time you made a most interesting statement. You said, “I felt the thing that I had to do then was to go to graduate school and get a teaching job back south.” Why did you want to go back?

The South is symbolic—the violence of the South, the protest, the struggle, all of that. The South is both an historic region and a mythic ideal. All my images, in my poetry, come from out of the South, where I was a child, where my imagination was formed, and where I was an adolescent. I never felt at home anywhere but in the South.

And yet, why do you have to live there to write about it? Look at all the southern writers who have left.

I'm one of the few black writers who lives in the South and writes there. Alice Walker told me she had to get out of Mississippi. She simply could not write there. I don't feel that I have to be in exile to write. I wrote at Yaddo. I wrote at Cape Cod. I wrote in Virginia. I wrote in North Carolina. I wrote in New York. I wrote in Chicago. There is no place that I can live where I can't write. Maybe if I were in New York or Chicago my stuff might be considered better than it's considered as a southern woman living in Jackson. But I don't care about that. Those places were too cold, the pace was too fast. I just like living where I live.

You began Jubilee in your senior year at Northwestern, worked on it for thirty years and published it in the sixties. Where do you think it fits on the continuum of twentieth-century African-American fiction?

Jubilee is a folk novel and an historical novel. In every sense of the word, regardless of period, time and circumstance, Jubilee can be defined in that way. I used folk ways, folk sayings, folk philosophy, folk ideas, folk everything. Vyry is a folk character. At the same time, no one can deny the historical accuracy of what I have written—the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction and reaction.

How was it received when it came out?

My southern salesman said if I had been a white woman writing that book I would be a rich woman. He went to a bookstore in Atlanta to get them to have an autograph party and when they discovered I was black, they told him no. He came to one of the church bookstores in Jackson, I think Southern Baptist, and although I had been a regular customer and had bought many, many books, they refused to have the book autographed in their store. But a big department store that has stores over Louisiana and Alabama gave me a wonderful autograph signing. The woman in that store said she sold more of that book than she had sold of any book in twenty years.

Were black people buying it, or white people?

Black and white. People in the South ate up that book quickly. In many schools it's required reading and it's on various supplementary reading lists. The book is twenty-four, twenty-five years old, I guess, and it has never gone out of print. Next year, Jubilee will be twenty-five years in paperback. That's where it's sold most.

Did you have trouble finding a publisher when you finished it?

My publisher was waiting for it when I finished it. I signed seven book contracts without an agent, but I tell all young people now that if they want to have a career, the best thing to do is to get an agent. I don't need an agent now. My books have made their own reputation.

Beginning with the Yale Younger Poets prize after you got your Masters at Iowa.

I tried the Yale Younger Poets competition off and on about five years. Stephen Vincent Benét encouraged me. My book was rejected in '40 and '41 and I was not even going to send it in '42, but he asked me about it. He immediately gave it the award, but said that the publishers were not anxious to have a black woman published at Yale. I had not expected to find that kind of prejudice there. When I went up to Yale, I stayed first in the Y, and the woman told me that they had no discrimination there. I said, “Well, I didn't expect to find it here.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Isn't this the cradle of democracy?” But I did discover there was strong prejudice and racism all over this country.

Do you see Jubilee as a novel about African-American experience?

I take that for granted. I'm an African-American woman, and I write about being a black person.

Where do you see yourself in terms of that tradition?

I was a child at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. I knew most of those people, read them as a child. But I belong to the school of social protest of the thirties. I was influenced by Wright, by what he wrote and what he said. I worked with him for three years.

The social protest writers were pretty radical, weren't they?

I'm in one or two anthologies that reflect that. One is called Writing Red. I said to someone, once, “I didn't know I was that radical. I never published in any left-wing magazines. They wouldn't have me. I published in Crisis.” They said, “Yes, and that was black, wasn't it? But it was considered red, too.” I didn't realize that, but I did know that was the decade of socially conscious writers. And that is where I belong. Despite the fact that Jubilee appeared in the sixties, it's influenced by the thinking that I acquired in the thirties. My poetry was written in the thirties and forties, published in the forties. But it's socially conscious poetry.

During the mid-thirties, after you graduated from Northwestern, you stayed in Chicago where you worked on the WPA and were a member of Wright's South Side Writers Group. Did you know Jack Conroy during that time?

The first time I saw Jack he had just come to Chicago to revive and organize the new Anvil, because the old Anvil had gone under, about that time. I thought Jack Conroy was a very, very wonderful person. He tried to help young writers. He tried to publish people in the movement—not just the labor movement, but basically the labor movement. He had a tendency to appreciate, shall we say, those with a leftist radical orientation. He had great, great stories of the working class, of mines and of the workers, the farmers, everybody.

Conroy tells a funny story about having to send a rejection letter to J. D. Salinger. He and Nelson Algren had run out of money and were writing rejection notes on mortuary stationery, because it was all they had. J. D. Salinger wrote back and said, “Thank you for your nice letter, and I'm really sorry that you can't publish my work. I have to say, I hope it's the only rejection slip I ever get from a mortuary.”

They were very thick. I think Wright thought a great deal of Jack, too, and Jack liked Wright then.

Jack Conroy said that he never really knew what happened to break up the friendship, that Nelson Algren just turned on him, and he never knew why.

He didn't have to do anything. I knew Nelson before Jack came to the job. Nelson was a gambler. He must have made two or three fortunes, with the book and movies, and he gambled it all away. He even gambled away the money he made at the Iowa workshop.

You and Richard Wright were very close during those years.

I knew Richard Wright three years. I was always at his desk. Everybody seemed to feel that I was trying to marry the man, and that kind of thing. I don't think he ever asked me, and I don't think I was asking him. We talked about marriage, and I told him, “I hope when you're ready to marry the woman you want to marry will want to marry you, because I think that's what's important.” I knew when our friendship ended that he had used me in Chicago. He had used me. He was not my sweetheart. We were never romantically involved. He was not a lover, as people have said. They saw us together, and put their own interpretations on it. What I have said in Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius is as true as if I had put my hand on the Bible and raised my hand up and said, “I swear to tell the truth.”

You have your journals, too.

I have the journals. And I have his journals, too. That's part of the problem. Mrs. Wright sold Richard Wright's letters and papers and journals to Yale University for $175,000. In those papers she had forty pages of letters that I wrote to him, of which I have no copies. I had no idea I was going to write the biography. It so happened that I went to Atlanta, to speak for the Institute of the Black World, and there I saw Horace Cayton. He was going to Paris that month, December, and then he would be through with his research and ready to write his book about Wright. We spoke in a Baptist church that night, and I talked about Wright's negative treatment of women, and implied that his treatment in fiction was the way he felt about women. That caused a furor. I think I do the same thing in my book, although I didn't say in my speech that he was bisexual, that I had actually seen him on the bed with another man in New York. That was the reason for the breaking up between us, not my going there trying to get married to him, as Michel Fabre and Ellen Wright said. They didn't know what they were talking about. But I got it from the horse's head; I saw the two men in the room.

You were set up. A woman took you up there, so that you would see, but she didn't know you were too naive to understand what you were seeing.

I was stupid as the day is long. I didn't know anything about a ménage à trois, which was also going on then.

You say in your biography of Wright that his work is a line of demarcation in African-American literature. Can you explain what you mean by that?

We had some very fine writers, like James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles Chessnutt, long before Wright. Wright comes after the Harlem Renaissance, when we had a great school of black writers, but the writers of the Harlem Renaissance believed that black people were really what white people said we were: some kind of exotic, that we laughed in our suffering because we were not without laughter, as Langston Hughes wrote. None of those writers had the real conception of the problems of black people being basically economic and political. Wright wrote with the understanding that we are basically a powerless people because we do not own the means of production, and the political system is manipulated by those who do own the means of production. As a result we have very great difficulty with the system. All the problems we face—of substandard education, substandard housing, problems of health—all of these problems go back to the basic problems of politics and economics. That was his thesis.

And what do you think then followed?

After Wright we have a school of writers who not only were naturalistic, as he was, but who sought to deal with a consciousness that came out of an understanding of the problems. That school was most evident in the late thirties through the forties and fifties. In the sixties the Black Nationalist Revolution colored our thinking so that our best writers were the ones who understood the changes we had gone through. Both Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were influenced by Wright, but I don't think they were as consciously naturalistic as Wright. A woman like Ann Petry, who wrote about the street, was doing the kind of writing, based on sociology, that much of Wright's writing was like.

Now, I'm very much refreshed with the knowledge that black women in the eighties were really the key to the best literature in the country, that we had a group. I don't know that these women were that much influenced by Wright, because I think Wright was very chauvinistic. Most of the black writers up to his time were chauvinistic. Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Sterling Brown belonged to the Harlem Renaissance, but so did Zora Neale Hurston, and she was a wonderful writer. Great imagination, marvelous storyteller, and just as talented as the men. But they gave her a hard time.

It's interesting that you don't think the black women writers of the eighties were influenced by Wright. They were influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, who in turn influenced Wright, as you argue so persuasively.

Zora Neale Hurston definitely influenced Wright, though he talked about her terribly. I don't know whether all male writers are like the black male writers, but they certainly have shown a jealousy of the black woman writer.

Toni Morrison has said, “Nobody can tell me that those books that I grew up with, by people like Langston Hughes and Jimmy Baldwin, weren't beautiful. But those books were written for you, and I am writing for somebody else.” Do you think there's any validity to that?

Yes. Wright said that, after all, the critics are white and the audience was white. Their books didn't sell that much among blacks.

Toni Morrison feels that now, because of their heritage, black writers are free to write …

What they want to write. And to write for a black audience as well as for a white audience.

The thing that strikes me about much African-American literature that's come along in the last twenty to thirty years is a strong strain, like you see in Alice Walker, of Christian existentialism. I think you see it in Jubilee, as well. Vyry's strength is that she refuses to buy into hatred. She elects choice.

Vyry is conditioned by what she learned in the quarters, what she learned from black and white people, and she belongs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jubilee grows out of my family beliefs. I'm the daughter of a minister and the granddaughter of a minister. I'm a Methodist and my background is Christian. I think you can't get away from that when you're writing. Vyry didn't believe that hatred would solve any problem. I say exactly what Vyry says, “Yeah, a lot of white people are evil, but every white person is not evil.” My father used to say, “We should respect a man's belief. If we don't, we don't respect him.” I can't write a book that is not influenced by Christian theology and by Christian faith.

What led you finally to write Daemonic Genius?

After I was in Atlanta Vincent Harding said, “Margaret, you better get ready to finish this book.” I said, “What book?” He said, “This book about Richard Wright.” I said, “Are you crazy? Why would I write a book about Richard Wright?” Well, he says, “Can't you see our brother Horace will not be able?” A month later, fifteenth day of January, 1970, Horace Cayton was dead in Paris. That's the day I knew somebody had to write the book. I was sure Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre were satisfied that everybody was dead who had attempted to do this. Then they began to court me. Fabre wanted to come and see me. And I sent word I wouldn't be available.

Was this after he had written his book, or while he was writing it?

Before he had written it. His book didn't come out until '73, and Cayton died in '70. I saw him in Iowa in '72, and met him then. Then when his book came out in '73 he had all this mess in there about these women who were Wright's girlfriends.

And you knew that didn't make much sense, given what you knew about Wright.

Right, and not just what I knew. Both the marriages had failed. But Ellen Wright is mad because I put all that in the book.

About the bisexuality?

The bisexuality. The fact that his marriages didn't last. The first one was gone in less than a year. During his second marriage, to Ellen, Wright was moving around the world. In 1952 he was a whole year in England writing The Outsider, in '53 he went to Africa, in '54 he went to Spain. This kept right up 'til '57, and then they were going to move to London, but the English would not let him stay—he came back to Paris and she stayed. I said to Abraham Chapman, “Why would Mrs. Wright stay in England when her husband was denied a visa and came back to Paris?” He said, “But Margaret, their marriage was over two years before Dick died. That marriage was over.” That's the first time it had even crossed my mind.

What was the basis of Mrs. Wright's lawsuit?

In 1971, Charles Davis asked me to come to Iowa to participate in a seminar on Richard Wright. “How I Wrote Jubilee” had been published in New Letters and included excerpts from letters Wright had written to me, which gave it great authenticity. When I began to write the book, I naturally planned to use that as a nucleus and core for the book. My essay was published in '71, published as a book in '72, and then in paperback. During those three publications she did not say a word. Fabre did not say a word. They didn't say anything until in '82 they heard that I was doing a biography. Then they began to say that I was using the letters and those had not been published, and therefore couldn't be used. I said they'd been published, and I can prove they've been published. I wasn't using any letters that were not published. The judge said I had a right to do everything I did. The case was decided on the 19th of September, 1990, and I won.

Yet they're still fighting it, even though the book's already in print.

I haven't gotten a penny out of the book, and probably never will because it's been tied up in that suit. They're using the royalties to fight the legal battles. This black woman has been through two copyright infringement suits—lost one and won one. Now everybody figured that Ellen Wright was going to beat me in court because she was a white woman, and she was saying I couldn't use her husband's stuff. But the judge gave me the benefit of the doubt. Papers in the country headlined the fact that I had won that suit; they said this is a boon to authors.

There seems to have been controversy about both of your very large books, the Richard Wright biography and Jubilee. Can you talk about the problem with Alex Haley and Roots?

To tell the record straight would take three full big books. In 1977, when I sued Alex Haley, I had never heard the term “fair use.” I didn't know what the laws on copyright infringement were. I studied them for two years. I went through Roots and found every plagiarized thing. Fifteen scenes from Jubilee somehow showed up in Roots. I wish you could see the book, because it's all the way through.

There are six characters, most of them with the same names; Chicken George is born on a page in Jubilee. There are one hundred and fifty some-odd verbatim expressions. Some part of four hundred pages of Jubilee appear in Roots. My friends said, well, so what? You wrote “Goose Island” and Richard Wright took it and made Native Son. You turned around and wrote a book about him. What's the difference?

Richard Wright was a demonic genius, and I won't say what I generally call Mr. Haley. We went to court and the judge said that I was wrong, even though he said in his opening remarks that it was a foregone conclusion that copying had gone on. Then he assigned us to magistrate court. The magistrate sent word back that there was every evidence of plagiarism, that there had been complete access, but she did not have the authority to declare it a case of copyright infringement. The judge must do that. It went back to him and he said, “I'm going to make a ruling on this case in ten days, and then I'm going to retire from the bench.” A man in mid-life, in good health, federal judge for life, got off the bench after rendering the decision in that case. Then he said, “Alex Haley hasn't copied anything from anybody. There are similarities, but they're strained, and there's nothing there.” Well, the public had seen what was there. They saw it on television in 1974, two years before Roots was published.

Weren't there other suits against Haley?

There are one hundred books, not just mine, where something has been copied out of them and used in Roots. A man named Harold Courlander hired lawyers, just like I had. Two months after the judge said that mine wasn't copied, another judge said there were three paragraphs copied out of Courlander's book, The African. That's all. And he won. They settled outside the court. It was rumored that he got $750,000. A month before I sued there appeared in a magazine called New West a story about an editor at Playboy named Murray Fisher who said he not only put together the book Roots for Alex Haley, but he put together The Autobiography of Malcolm X for Alex Haley. He said he did that one for free, because Malcolm X believed that all white people were devils, and he was proving that he was a white man who wasn't a devil. But he wasn't going to do Roots for free, because there was too much money in that, and they would either have to pay him or put his name on the book. Alex Haley wrote Doubleday and said, “You'll have to settle with Murray Fisher, because you can't let his name go on the book. People are going to say I didn't write this book anyhow.” New West said Murray Fisher was paid a quarter of a million dollars, cash, flat, plus ten percent of the net proceeds from the sale. What shocked me most was that here comes a man from England, named John Rolling, who said Kunte Kinte was his story. He had a book named Kunte Kinte. So, when people look at me like I'm crazy, an agitated old woman making up something, that's just the superficial stuff.

I'm just burning with curiosity about some of the historical circumstances of Jubilee. How much did your great-grandmother tell you about her father, who served as a model for Randall Ware?

I knew that he was Randall Ware, and I kept that name. His name is in the courthouse in Dawson, Georgia, now, as having owned practically the whole town of Dawson, a black man. It's very hard to separate fiction from fact, when you've worked with this thing imaginatively over such a long time. But my grandmother told me that her father was a rich man.

In How I Wrote Jubilee you speak of the year that your father died, when you and your husband decided to cut back around through Greenville, and trace backwards your grandmother's journey as a child with her mother, from Dawson, Georgia, to Alabama. You found your grandmother's youngest sister who gave you Vyry's chest. Had your immediate family lost touch with these great-aunts who descended from Vyry's second marriage?

Two or three of the half-sisters had been down to see my grandmother when we were in New Orleans. The youngest was Martha. Martha lived to be ninety-nine years old. She was born when my grandmother was having her first child so Vyry was having her last child when her first child was having her first child. When Vyry died my grandmother said her mother's things had been sold all over two hills, Baptist Hill and Methodist Hill. Martha had done away with most of her mother's things, but she carried that Bible and chest with her to Detroit, where she died. When I went to Detroit, Uncle Henry's granddaughter had the Bible. I made Xerox copies, and got some information that I wanted. She would not turn loose that Bible under any circumstances. She resented my grandmother's side of the family because Martha was one of the second man's descendants. There was feeling there.

Among the two sets of children. I wondered about that.

My grandmother never said anything, against any of her sisters, because they were all her mother's children. I'm the only one in the family, other than a cousin who died three years ago, who kept up with records and births and deaths. About three years ago, a white woman in Greenville called me on the telephone and said she had read Jubilee and people there remembered my great-grandmother, and that her people, her folk, had a farm nearby. This woman came to see me, in Jackson, and brought me three documents: my grandmother's marriage license, dated December of 1876, Jim's marriage license, and my great-grandmother's will. Vyry's will is documented in the courthouse in Butler County, Greenville, Alabama. They begin the sequel to Jubilee.

How did she come by that stuff?

It's in the courthouse. She said she was doing research and she was interested. I know what she was doing. She was hunting up that property, because her people had taken it over. She was looking me up to see if I had sense enough to know she has no business with that property. I'm not concerned about her people taking the property. That's happened to black people all over the South.

How does it happen?

Black people had land all over the South, just like Randall Ware had all that land. All of that land got taken over by wealthy white people in the town. They're wealthy now, they weren't wealthy then.

You've said that you conceived Jubilee as a series of episodes with titles drawn from your grandmother's sayings. Did those sayings provide the concept for each episode?

No. What I did was to write a sentence outline. If you wrote a complete sentence, and left it there, twenty-five years later you could go back to that complete sentence and the thought that sentence expressed would return to you. I wrote that outline in 1948, complete sentences. Some of them were things my grandmother had said. Some were not. When I sat down to the typewriter I had my topic sentence. But a sentence is not an idea. A sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought. A thought is only the beginning of an idea. A paragraph expresses an idea. A concept can be symbolized by just one word.

I know this for a fact: every artist begins with a concept. He begins with an idea, whether he's a painter, a graphic artist, a plastic artist, whether he's a musician, whether he's a writer. Creative thinking is nothing more than having the concept out of which the idea grows. It doesn't matter whether you're writing a poem or a piece of prose. It begins in the idea.

What was your vision? What was the idea of Jubilee, to you?

Oh, I don't think it was one big thing at all. It was a lot of little things that we put together which makes the big book.

Each chapter has what each poem has, unity. Unity and coherence, and emphasis, which I was taught as a child. What gives it lasting value is it's not a story you've ever heard before. It's a different story. It's unique. A lot of people, however, will say, “That's the same story my grandmother told me. I heard that story.” But nobody had ever put that story down.

Why did you want to do it?

Because my grandmother talked about it all the time, and when I was a little girl, I told her, “When I grow up I'm going to write that story.” I'd ask, “And where did you go, where did you live after that?” I had the feeling that it was an important story. The older I got, the more I realized that I had a very great story. And I had a document, a living document. I knew that the society in which I have grown up and lived, the segregated society, didn't want to believe that story. They had another story that they were always telling, Gone With the Wind. And that wasn't my story.

Margaret Walker and Joanne V. Gabbin (interview date 1996)

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SOURCE: Walker, Margaret, and Joanne V. Gabbin. “Conversation: Margaret Walker Alexander and Joanne V. Gabbin.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, pp. 239-51. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1996 and published in 1999, Walker discusses such subjects as influences on her writing, social protest poetry, the postmodernists, and her own humanistic viewpoint.]

[Gabbin]: Fifty-four years ago, you won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for your first volume of poetry, For My People, making it the first collection by an African American writer to win a national award. Now you are the dean of African American writers and respected and revered for your work. When did you begin writing and who were the people who most influenced your burgeoning literary interests?

[Walker]: I started writing poetry when I was eleven years old. My father told my mother, “Pay her no attention, don't get excited; it's just a puberty urge,” which made me very angry. By the time I had filled the date book that he gave me I was at Northwestern; I think I'd written in those three hundred and sixty five pages by the time I was eighteen. I told him, “Do you still think this is a puberty urge?” He said, “I guess you're going to write as long as you live.” When someone asked me the other day, “When are you going to retire?” I said, “Retire from what? Retire from life?” I'd retired from teaching, and I said, “I will retire from writing when I'm dead. I won't write anymore after I die, but until I do I'll keep trying.”

I think my mother's music and my father's books were my first inspiration, but I had wonderful teachers—mostly women—throughout the grade school years, and then in high school a few men. My teachers were always encouraging me. I had little composition books that I wrote in and I wrote poetry in class, but I managed to answer the questions when they asked me: I just looked up and said “so-and-so” and started writing again.

I think the earliest I can remember reading the Harlem Renaissance writers was when I was eleven. The Harlem Renaissance took place when I was a child. I saw a little booklet, Four Lincoln Poets—including Langston Hughes and Waring Cuney and Edward Silvera, when I was eleven. By the time I was sixteen I saw my very first living writer. I told my father and mother that when the white president said he didn't think people would pay a dollar to listen to a Negro read poetry, not even a few people, that he had to have Langston come to New Orleans. So we wrote eight hundred letters and we filled the auditorium of that campus. He must have sold hundreds of dollars of books that night. All the books that he had stacked up went away. I will never forget it, because it was the first time I had ever seen a living black writer. It was important for me, and it meant the beginning of my whole career.

Langston was a friend until 1967 when he died. I had seen him just the October before, when I went to New York just after Jubilee was published. Langston was the kind of person who would write you a letter of congratulations. He wrote when For My People was published, he wrote when Jubilee was published, and I still have those letters. I got a letter from Countee Cullen saying, “I understand you are one of these unusual poets who can read the poetry as well as write it.”

He said, “The next time you come to New York, my wife and I would like you to come to dinner.” I have that letter. I went to dinner and there I saw Claude McKay for the first time. Langston of course was there, and there were others. That was really the beginning of my professional career, with the publication of For My People. I had another wonderful experience at Northwestern when I met the great Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. He came to speak at Northwestern, and afterward I had the courage and the nerve to go up and tell him, “I write poetry, too.” He said, “Send me some.” I said, “Where shall I send it?” He said, “To the Crisis.” I did, and the next year in May, while I was still a teenager, the poem came out. Some of my friends who are very kind critics say that that is the poem I have fulfilled with my whole career.

I want to write
I want to write 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.

That's wonderful—“a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.” “I Want to Write,” also called “Daydream.”

It's had three or four different titles. Every time it's published, there's another title. I got tired of “Daydream”—I thought, “Oh, I don't want to use ‘Daydream’”—and then I saw a book Songs of My People, and I said, “Oh, there's my poem: ‘I want to Write the Songs of My People.’”

You mentioned Langston Hughes, and you also mentioned DuBois, but there's one other person you met when you were young.

Well, I saw Langston when I was sixteen, I saw DuBois when I was seventeen, and I met Richard Wright when I was twenty. Those three men have had tremendous influence on my thinking and on my writing. They were not members of my family and they were not my classroom teachers, but I read them. I read Langston, I read DuBois, I read Richard Wright. They were men that I always thought of in terms of a great protest movement of black people. People who were constantly writing for the sake of our people—not for art's sake, but for the people's. I think they influenced me more than any others. I had wonderful teachers, yes; and my parents encouraged me. I was fortunate to that extent. But those three men represented for me everything that we try to do when we write. They represent the humanity of black people; the fact that every individual is a human being. Nobody can be more than a human being, and nobody can be less. That is what I taught my students all those years.

A major theme in your poetry, in your fiction, your essays is freedom. Stephen Henderson says in his seminal work Understanding the New Black Poetry that the overarching theme of our literature is liberation, and you consistently use that theme in your writing. Why have you stayed with it?

When I was about eleven years old—I guess eleven and a half—I went to high school, and one of the first things I studied then was the French Revolution. I had already read about the American Revolution, but for some reason Patrick Henry and George Washington didn't excite me.

But when I read about the French Revolution—Robespierre, Danton, Marat—I was excited. I heard them saying freedom—“égalité, fraternité, liberté.” It became a motto for my life, and it began when I was only eleven. I was much older when I read about the Russian Revolution. In school they talked about “the barbaric Russians”—“the Communists,” they called them. They had pictures in the book that showed you these people with shining whiskers and they were devils; they told you these people were no-good people.

One of the first books I read after meeting Wright was Ten Days That Shook the World. If you ever read that book and you are not moved to think in terms of freedom for people who were living under the terror of the czars, even going beyond the Kerensky government—something is wrong if you aren't affected by it. I was tremendously impressed, and when I read the short stories that Wright wrote in Uncle Tom's Children, you've got the essence of what we were in the thirties, the writers of social protest. That's what he was saying in everything. Baldwin and the postmodernists look down on those writers of social protest. They're not popular anymore, and our black men are not writing social protest; they're doing … what is it, “deconstruction”?

“Deconstruction of the language,” “tropes,” “analysis of texts” …

I've been reading some of the postmodernists. One man is a marvel with language, and he doesn't ever have a plot. He doesn't believe in a plot. He says, “Language is everything.” The writer knows that the word is powerful, that it has more than emotional and intellectual meaning. But I am still a student of the old school of fiction; I believe you have to tell a story. Postmodernists are very wonderful writers, but they'd be better if they had a plot.

You know, I've been trying—and I know my story's probably like a lot of other people's—for many years to write down a story that's really important in my life. In fact, it's the story of how I met my husband … I've been trying to write this story, about our meeting, and every time I put down the facts, they don't come alive. They're just there; it's not a story. How do you do that? I know other people want to know.

That was my problem with Jubilee for years and years and years. I wrote those first 300 pages when I was nineteen at Northwestern. Then I looked at that stuff and I said, “Oh, this is not right.” I didn't know what was wrong with it, but nobody there could tell me what to do. In the fifties I went up to Yale, and I worked with Norman Holmes Pearson, who had coedited the Oxford Book of Verse with Auden. When I left in May I was still not understanding what to do, and Professor Parson said, “You're telling the story but it doesn't come alive. You're telling it but you're not showing it.” I left Yale deciding I would not stay there and try to get a Ph.D., that I'd go back where I learned to put the poetry together and had written the ballads for the first time. I'd throw my hat in and see if Paul Engle would let me come in, because we fussed all the time.

Anyway, when I went back, I spent a summer working under a man who taught me how to do it. His name was Verlin Cassill and he had a little book on writing fiction. I think he's done more potboilers than prize winners, but he absolutely is the most marvelous teacher of fiction I ever encountered. He told me, “You've got to read Chekhov. Not the plays”—I had read The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters—“but read the short stories and see how he puts incidents together.” What you're talking about is what was one of Wright's greatest assets. That was the ability to dramatize the material. What do we mean? Well, what is a plot? A plot is a series of related incidents that tell a story. Through the actual dramatization of material, taking the facts and making fiction by showing the action, by actually getting the person reading it to see the action. What is going on? What are they saying, and what does it mean? If they're walking, if they're thinking, if they're acting—actually dramatizing that material means showing the story rather than telling the story.

I thought that I would never learn. I spent eight weeks before I could turn in to him the first chapter, the revised first chapter, of Jubilee as you know it. He said, “You got it.” I thought about: Here I was now in my late forties, and I'd been fooling around trying to learn that ever since I was nineteen years old. That's why it took so long. I did all the research, I read all the books, but until I learned how to create a scene I could not write fiction. Everybody's got a story. Everybody knows a story. Can you write the story without telling it by showing? It's not easy, and I recommend exactly who he recommended to me: Chekhov. Chekhov's stories show you line for line, page for page, what you have to do.

You know that I've worked with Sterling Brown's work for a long time, and I'm a devotee of the folk tradition. You remember Sterling Brown, don't you, out there? Sterling Brown of “Old Lem,” Sterling Brown of “Odyssey of Big Boy” and “Sister Lou.” Sterling Brown's work taught me a love for the folk tradition. I know that you are in that tradition as well, and I want you to tell us how you show your debt to that tradition in Jubilee and the other writing that you have done.

I think one of the first conversations I ever had with Richard Wright was on that folk tradition. Both of us were tremendously interested in what we thought at the time was limited to the South, but it isn't limited to the South. It's a part of black life all over this country. It's the way we live, it's the religion we believe, it's our spirit, our art, it's our music … it's our daily living, that folk life.

I know you have read Zora Hurston and have read Richard Wright. I don't think Wright ever wanted to admit that Zora had affected him, because he was so chauvinistic that he wouldn't want to say that a woman did that. But she did. You open Richard Wright and read, “Your mama don't wear no drawers.” Where did he get it? He got it from Zora. Sterling writes about the working man, the roustabout, the stevedore. Langston writes about the culture of the cities, particularly Harlem; the menials, the maids, the cooks and washerwomen. But all of us know that when we speak in the vernacular of black people we have gone to the root of black life. We are dealing with everyday living, and everyday believing, and the everyday actions of black people. “I talked to old Lem, and old Lem said: They do the so-and-so, and we carry the cross … and they get the money.”

“And they don't come by ones …”

Walker (and others): “And they don't come by twos; they come by tens.”

In your essay “The Humanistic Tradition of Afro-American Literature,” you developed a line of thinking that I think is essential to appreciate the continuity and the connections in our literature. I'm going to read this: you say that “this tradition began in the ancient Oriental world, in black Africa, in Egypt, some 3,500 years ago with The Book of the Dead. The literature of black people, like that of all people, grew out of the cosmogony and the cosmology that developed around the Nile River, and not from Greece or Rome at the end of the ancient world, nor in the Middle Ages with the European Renaissance, nor with the modern expansion of the European man. But black America is tied to her ancient African heritage in all her physical and cultural manifestations.” I want you to talk about that heritage.

I think that very few English teachers in the Western world have a tendency to tell their students that the descent into the underworld did not begin with Homer.

She's signifying, isn't she, Baraka?

They failed to say that this is an epic convention that began with The Book of the Dead; the pyramids and the coffin texts in Egypt were far earlier than anything Greece or Rome produced. You know, white professors in the white universities—when you talk about pre-Homeric epics, they say “Was there any such thing?” They don't believe that, because they never read The Book of the Dead, and it's very hard for them to bring themselves to realize that these so-called savages understood how to go from this world to the next world without the white man telling them how.

Back in 1975 you did an interview with Charles Rowell. In that interview he asked you about writing a biography of Richard Wright and he said he thought there was no person in this country more suited, more prepared to write that biography than you. Of course, we all know you wrote that biography: Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. However, because of the sensitive and controversial material, it cost you dearly writing that book. I want you to share with us some of the problems, some of the issues, that you dealt with.

Well, I tell, in the book, of the six areas that he wished to deal with, and the problems were all growing out of that. The first problem was that this man was a card-carrying Communist for twelve years, and if I proceeded to talk about this man's Communism, how was I going to know anything about it when I was never a Communist? That was the first problem.

The second problem was dealing with interracial marriage. In the friendship that Wright and I had together—that was a very close friendship—there was never a romance, never anything like a romance between us. Early in the friendship, he told me that if he ever married, he'd marry a white woman. Since I didn't look white, I knew he wasn't going to marry me.

Then there was the question of money. Richard Wright had two Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Well, did he have a lot of money? Did he make a lot of money? He lived in Europe in a very bourgeois fashion, in a nice apartment; he traveled around the world. But did he ever have a lot of money? That was another question. How did he get along with those agents and publishers and people who helped him to reach a great pinnacle of fame in this country, and in Europe, too?

Then there was the question of the Jewish-Arab conflict. If you started talking about, “This man is a pan-Africanist …” Pan-Africanism is really a black thing: most Jewish people are opposed to it, and he was married to two Jewish women. Now how are you going to deal with that?

And finally … I have to tell this little bit and then I'll be through with it. Wright's family—his second wife, Ellen—was bitterly opposed to my publishing the book. She spent close to a hundred thousand dollars and wrote letters to publishers like Harper's telling them, “Don't give her any permission to use any of his material,” and threatened three publishers with a suit: first Howard [University Press], and then Dodd Mead, and finally Warner, and told them that as sure as I published the book she was going to sue.

Howard was scared to death; they said they'd had enough suits, and they didn't need any more. Dodd Mead was perfectly willing, but they didn't have any money. So finally Warner said, “Oh, we don't mind taking her on.” They knew when they took the manuscript that Ellen Wright was going to sue, which meant that I didn't have the authority from the family to write the biography, as Michel Fabre had. Six months after the book appeared—it appeared in November of '88, and in May of '89 she sued. One of our very dear friends who's a critic, and who's been teaching in some of our white universities, said he felt sorry for me, because that was that woman's husband, and I couldn't do anything if she didn't want it done. I got word of what he said, and I had nerve enough to do what I had to do.

I wonder … we live through lots of things, and I thought in 1977 and '78 … well, Alex Haley published a book in 1976 called Roots, and I thought that thing was going to kill me. I thought I was going to die under Roots. Everybody talked about that jealous woman wanting this man's money, an agitated old woman; how she ought to go somewhere and sit down, and how “that dumb woman thinks she's going to do thus-and-so,” and I said to my husband and my sons, “I don't know what I've done to anybody to deserve this. Anybody can pick up a book of Roots, and pick up a book of Jubilee, and they can see what's happening there. All you got to do is read it: it's there.” You know, we have a saying in the black community: “We'll understand it better by and by.” Well, when I wrote the Richard Wright book, and Ellen Wright sued Warner and Margaret Walker, I “understood it better by and by.”

I had read every book I could find on fair use and copyright infringement. I told Charlie Harris, “That book is clean, there's nothing wrong there, there's nothing in there that anybody can say I've used without saying that I have a right to do this.” That's what the lawyers said, and when it went to court that's what the court said. Then despite the fact that her lawyers and her children told her not to push it, she went to the appellate court and the lawyers in the appellate agreed with the lower court. One of them wrote an additional statement about it, which if you read the paperback copy of Daemonic Genius you'll see that the appellate court and this extra statement would all be there to explain, and I “understood it better by and by.” I couldn't understand why I had to live through the horrible ordeal of Roots. I know now. Without Roots, I never would have known what “fair use” meant.

In a 1993 interview with Maryemma Graham, you talk about the responsibility of the writer. You say, “The writer's responsibility is like God's. He's supposed to, or she's supposed to, show the way.”

Well, I meant by that not that we are divine to the extent that all human personality is not potentially divine. But I'm thinking in terms of the prophetic nature of the writer. The writer is like the prophet: he has to see the future by looking at the present. He has to understand that what's happened in the past is happening now, and will happen in the future. That is the role of the writer: to write about that future that you do not see, but that is evident in everything you do and hear. You know what's going to happen tomorrow because the seeds of it are happening today.

Talk about what's happening tomorrow. I know you love to write, and you're going to continue to write. What are your projects?

I saw a young lady here just before we began—Junette Pinckney. She was the person at CBS that had Charlie Rose have an interview with me when the Richard Wright book came out. He asked me, he said, “My, you've done all these things. What are your dreams? What do you dream about for the future?” I answered very flippantly, “All my dreams have already come true.” But I will add that some of the dreams are still in the making. I would like to return to the fiction, and I have three short novels—one about education, one about sociology of religion, and one a sequel to Jubilee. If I could live long enough I'd like to write those books.

We've been talking about your life as a writer, but we know there are so many other dimensions to your life; I think we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about your work as an activist. You say in I Dream a World and elsewhere that the three enemies of black women are racism, sexism, and fascism. How have you personally done battle with these three isms?

There are three examples of actions I took in civil rights and the community that did just that. In 1964, with the sponsorship of the NAACP, we sued to get the Jackson television station WLBT to operate with a staff that is 51 percent black. I was instrumental in changing the “confederate” history book to Challenge and Change by Sallis and Loewen. I am gratified to see my grandchildren using this book. I was also one of the first witnesses in the Ayers court trial to desegregate higher education in Mississippi. We consider ourselves loyal, good Americans, and to say that we live under a fascistic system is talking about going to the devil and living in Hell. But fascism is what we have. We live with it every day. It's in every part of our lives. It's not just the judicial system, it's not just that awful Supreme Court; it's not just Congress and that man what's his name?—Newt Gingrich. It's all of it, and what we have to understand is, that's what we live with. It's racism, it's sexism, it's fascism, and it's the role—and the right—of the black writer to put it on paper, and tell the truth.

In 1988 our literary diva, the brilliant Eleanor Traylor, did an article, “Measures Crashing Through: Margaret Walker, Poem of the Century,” In this article she equates you with Ogun, or the first artist or forger. And she talks about …

I didn't know what Ogun was. I had to go and look it up.

Margaret, I did, too. You know, Eleanor coins these words—“Ogunic.” She calls your voice Ogunic, and she says in Prophets for a New Day you equate biblical heroes with modern heroes.

Eighth-century prophets.

Yes. Who are those heroes, those modern heroes, for you?

Well, you know, we went through two revolutions: I don't know whether we got all we needed from either one. Dr. Martin Luther King caused us to see the end of legal segregation—whether you admit it or not, the civil rights movement really ended legal segregation. Then Malcolm X came along and he told us, “Make something of yourself—your manhood and your womanhood are the things out there that matter.” We changed our way of dress and our hair: we did everything to deny ourselves as purely Americans and show that we are African Americans. We learned a lot from both King and Malcolm X.

We lost three men through assassination. My neighbor Medgar Evers, killed the same year that the president of the United States was assassinated. Then we lost King by assassination, and we lost Malcolm X by assassination. What greater price can you pay for heroism? Who can you think of that deserves to be a hero who has not given his life for what he believes? They are our heroes. We have had women heroes too. My mother said something one day during the civil rights movement. She said, “You know, we had great women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Mary McLeod Bethune—all these women, but we could not get a revolution going until we had intelligent, intellectual men. The world didn't listen until they heard those men.”

Now, I know you're not going to say that I'm a woman-basher. I'm not a basher of men or a basher of women. I was married thirty-seven years to a wonderful man; I have two wonderful sons; my father was a wonderful man. I admire men as much as women. I think God intended us to be partners and to get along with each other.

All of us have our weaknesses and our strengths, and we have to strive to be better, to live out our humanity as we reach toward divinity. That is the spiritual destiny of us all.

I don't think we have as many heroes or she-roes as we should have. I think about all the black men in prison who are not in the classrooms, and how many of us work for nothing when we ought to be making dollars. We have a tendency to rise above ourselves and transcend our realities. We have a tendency to think if you scrub a floor, you're the floor. Scrubbing the floor doesn't mean you're the floor. I taught my students that it's as important to know how to make a good lemon meringue pie as it is to write a poem because there is dignity in all labor.

We cry out for heroes. You walk along the street and you see them every day, and you don't credit them with being heroes. If you live in the Deep South as I do, and you go to church or you go to school, you don't know whose money keeps it going, do you? It's that washerwoman's money. She's the one that does anything that she can do honestly to send her child to school. That's what we do every day; that's part of our life, that's our living. And the day we understand that is the day we'll step a little higher up the ladder.

After all of your years, and all that you've been through—wars and the civil rights movement; attacks on our community in terms of drugs and guns and AIDS; attacks on affirmative action; and the latest assault on our churches, the very heart of our community—somehow through it all, you seem to maintain a kind of faith in humanism; a faith in humanity. I want to know: what is it that keeps you hopeful?

I think that any day you believe that every human being has a spark of divinity within him, you will not destroy yourself by trying to destroy somebody else.

You will have to believe in the goodness of the future if you believe that we are constantly striving toward a real divinity. We are black people of spirit. That spirit is the basis of animism and ancestor worship in Africa. The African believed for a while in animism, and he said, “Spirit is in everything. It's in the water; it's in the grass and the trees; it's in the wind; and it's in us.” We have the greatest amount of spirit in us, and if we don't think positively, how can that spirit live?

Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, thank you for your poetry, your writing, your essays; for the pool of brilliance that you've mirrored in this part of the world.

This conversation took place on July 2, 1996, at the Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. It was taped in front of an audience of more than two hundred people whose response to Margaret Walker's call was electric.

Nancy Berke (essay date November 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6747

SOURCE: Berke, Nancy. “Anything That Burns: The Social Poetry of Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, and Margaret Walker.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 37 (November 1998): 39-53.

[In the following essay, Berke calls attention to the often-neglected socially conscious poetry of three writers, including Walker's For My People.]

Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not … I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?

(Lola Ridge in an interview, 1920s)1

What's in the men nowadays—the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth.

(Genevieve Taggard in a letter to Josephine Herbst, early 1920s)2

As the Twentieth Century closes out, it may appear odd to epigrammatically draw upon the angry passions that two obscure names express as they vent their attitudes about literary practice in the 1920s. Yet it is the angry passion of a now rather forgotten group of American women poets that allows us to remember the social and political crises of an early part of the century, which the literary historical practices of the latter half of the century have, until very recently, deliberately worked to bury. To have a full understanding of this century as we bid it farewell, we must consider these forgotten and undervalued voices who bore witness to the insurmountable rage, complexity, and horror that accompanied them as they lived, wrote, and worked for change.

The angry passions, as it were, of American women poets writing from the first through the second world wars require their own special category within modern American poetry. A number of poets wrote socially engaged or “political poetry” during the 1930s, an era that produced much “political” art. However, American poets were composing radical verse well before and after the Great Depression gave a multitude of artists radical food for thought. Yet most histories of modern American poetry (including those on women poets) have neglected to inform their readers of an aesthetic practice I refer to as “social poetry.” As post-war criticism, particularly the New Critics with their anti-historical, anti-sociological bent, was successful in rooting out artistic projects that reminded their audience of urgent social meanings, so was that critical attitude successful in silencing women—especially those whose “depth,” “power,” and “ardency” went into constructing a socially conscious aesthetic.3

Some of the socially engaged poetry that found its way into print during the early decades of this century was rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s by literary historians influenced by the New Left and the women's and third world liberation movements.4 It served to remind contemporary readers that the radical lyrics they were encountering within their own movements indeed had precursors. As some of the influence of these revisionist histories and anthologies have waned, the radical lyrics of women poets have been reburied.5 In this article I hope to show that not only is women's social poetry an important component within the history of Twentieth-Century American poetry, but also that such writing leaves us with valuable historical records as we move into the Twenty-First Century. Although the worlds represented in the political poetries of American women poets of the first half of the Twentieth Century are hardly recognizable today, the social injustices—the class, race, and gender oppression—investigated therein, have not disappeared.

The socially conscious verse of radical, feminist women poets and the contributions they made towards a multi-valent poetry of the left is one of many competing poetry projects of the modern period (1910-1945). It is also what Louise Bernikow identified over twenty years ago as “the buried history within the buried history” (45).6 Women poets created socially engaged verse in a variety of forms and venues. None has been thoroughly assessed with the kind of attention and complication the genre deserves: Familiar and unfamiliar names such as Sarah Cleghorn, journalist Anna Louise Strong, Martha Millet, Agnes Ernst Meyer, Laura Benet, Angelina Weld Grimke, Helen Hoyt, love poet Edna Millay, Lucia Trent, the important, long career of Muriel Rukeyser,7 Joy Davidman, the fiction writers Kay Boyle and Tillie Olsen, those accepted by the high-modernist camp—Mina Loy, H.D. and Lorinne Niedecker—Viola C. White, the young Eve Merriam and Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruth Lechlitner, Maria de la Vega Welch, Kathleen Tankersly Young, worker and labor martyr Ella May Wiggins, and three poets about whom I will say much more, Lola Ridge (1873-1941), Genevieve Taggard (1894-1948), and Margaret Walker (1915-), all at one time or another produced poems of protest.

Since I do not have the space to do a more detailed investigation of American women's literary production on behalf of social causes, I look at Ridge, Taggard, and Walker, and their special relationship to poetry as social/political praxis. Their work helps to explain, and forms a foundation for, women's social poetry as a literary genre. These poets may not have necessarily put their own bodies onto lines of protest, yet they did put their radical selves into lines of poetry. Lola Ridge, a Dublin born immigrant and Irish patriot wrote after the 1916 Easter Uprising: “They are fighting tonight in Sackville Street / and I am not there” (“Tidings” 101). She would make up for this absence by infusing her Imagist poetry with chants for and about working class and immigrant America:

Allons enfants de la patrie—
Electric … piercing … shrill as a fife
the voice of a little Russian
breaks out of the shivered circle.
Another voice rises … another and another
leaps like flame to flame.

(“In Harness” 84)

Genevieve Taggard, already celebrated as a New Woman poet on the fringes of Greenwich Village bohemia, found that the Great Depression required a rather different voice for women. In “At Last the Women Are Moving,” written in the mid-thirties, she observes the importance of women's social activism:

Last, walking with stiff legs as if they carried bundles.
Came mothers, housewives, old women who knew why they abhorred war.
Their clothes bunched about them, they hobbled with anxious steps.
To keep with the stride of the marchers, erect, bearing wide banners.


Margaret Walker, just twenty-two years old and a transplanted southerner working on the Chicago W.P.A., faithfully documented her African-American heritage. Its challenges, regrets, triumphs, and failures were source material for her artistic expression:

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people's pockets needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own.

(“For My People” 7)

Ridge's, Taggard's, and Walker's poetry joins the ongoing discussion of American Modernism's contested terrain and responds to Cary Nelson's contention that the canon of modern American poetry tells only one side of a more complex literary history of the poetries of the period. Nelson's Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, published in 1989, created a landmark theoretical base on which to dialogue about the genre from a class perspective. While Nelson's own attention to gender remains underdeveloped, his revisionist approach to literary history is essential to any rearticulation of the cultural and political significance of American women's social poetry. Nelson maintains that literary history ignores diversity when it cannot be conveniently placed into a “coherent historical sequence” (7), and further argues that “[t]he full range of modern poetries is so great that it cannot be persuasively narrativized in any unitary way” (7). Literary history is detached from history in its broad construction—both in terms of national history and the “history of everyday life” (7). With such revisionary practice put in place, the neglected social poetry of American women takes up its residence inside Modernism's conventionally exclusive marble halls. The “history of everyday life” told in their poems takes modernist practice beyond its concerns with the inner life and the fragmented self and connects it to “everyday life in the modern world,” which includes the social and political crises to which women poets like Ridge, Taggard, and Walker responded.

My interest in Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, and Margaret Walker as they form part of a counter-tradition in modern American poetry is centrally concerned with their desire to represent working-class life. Ridge, Taggard, and Walker crossed class lines, lived on the margins as writers, as radicals, as women. Margaret Walker lived on the margins as a black, female academic.8 Lola Ridge, born in Ireland and raised in Australia, was a foreigner, an anarchist; speaking with an accent, she must have stood out conspicuously. Genevieve Taggard was a communist, and she did not stop being a communist after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or after V-J Day. Enough said. All three wrote sonnets, a form disparaged by modernist critics. Not only did they pique certain modernist sensibilities by writing sonnets, but instead of continuing with this tradition as it was employed by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay, these poets followed the pattern set by Shelley in radical sonnets such as “England in 1819” and “To the Republic of Benevento.” Ridge's sonnet “Electrocution” critiques the death penalty through a graphic description of death in the electric chair. Taggard's “Silence in Majorca” honors the Spanish people in their fight against Franco, and Walker's “Whores” examines the traffic in working-class black women. Each poet wrote about race. Ridge wrote about race riots and even identified immigrant Jews as racialized others. Taggard's early poetry and fiction pays homage to multi-racial working-class Hawaii; her later poems honor the cultural products of Harlem. Walker races working-class life and classes black aesthetics.

Much work has been done on the categories of race and gender, but little attention has been paid to class or towards understanding the necessary trajectory of race, class and gender. Most poetry studies that explore female subjectivity as part of poetic practice ignore the social category of class, which interested Ridge, Taggard, and Walker immensely.9 Their own representations of female subjectivity are inextricably tied to their class concerns. In her ground-breaking study Sex, Class, and Culture (1978), Lillian Robinson observed that “the most massive and brutal attempts to deny the existence of an analytic category occur with respect to class” (66). Ridge, Taggard, and Walker were not working-class writers in the traditional sense (all three were educated and “groomed” for a life beyond employment in other people's kitchens, factories, and office buildings). Yet they identified with, lived among, protested alongside, and dreamed their creative acts through disenfranchised, working-class America.

Two generations pass from Lola Ridge to Margaret Walker. The lives of all three poets converge in the 1930s, the most important decade for socially engaged verse in the West. As Cary Nelson has commented about American poetry in the 1930s: “For a brief moment in American literary history, writing poetry became a credible form of revolutionary action. Reading poetry, in turn, became a way of positioning one's self in relation to the possibility of basic social change” (“Poetry Chorus” 32). Ridge, in her sixties, was finishing off a career filled with strong political passions and chronic ill health. Genevieve Taggard was in “mid-career,” to use a term designated by arts funders, in her forties and already possessed of a reputation. Walker had just begun her career by the mid thirties, having published her important poem “For My People” in Poetry Magazine while still in her early twenties. All three poets signed the 1936 “call” for the formation of the League of American Writers. The organization was founded as a support for the Communist Party's Popular Front agenda, though many non-party members were active in the league. The fact that these three women each come from different generations that converge in the 1930s is rather important. Most critical work done on radical culture centers on the 1930s. It is arguably the most important decade for left wing poets and left art in general, yet as Paula Rabinowitz has demonstrated “women have remained invisible in standard accounts of the [period], particularly [in] those written by literary radicals both then and now” (Labor and Desire 3).

To complicate the claim that the 1930s is the representative decade for socially engaged writing, Lola Ridge's work began to appear in the Tens; her most prolific period was the 1920s. Genevieve Taggard became known as a literary radical when she edited Poetry from the Masses in 1925. Taggard's most outspoken decade was the Thirties, but she continued to write important class conscious, anti-fascist poetry up until her death in 1948. Margaret Walker comes of age as a poet during the 1930s, and publishes her first book in the early Forties. Yet Walker, now an octogenarian, and as far as I know still writing, did not publish a second book of poems until the 1960s, a decade also known for its radical art and culture. Walker in fact creates a bridge from the “Old Left” to the “New Left,” and her radical black consciousness is recreated in the 1960s as a new audience and a new African American aesthetic began to appear. All three poets explore, expand, retain, and reinvent modernism's radical terrain. All three poets use the idea of a nation and world in need of transformation as a starting point for their aesthetic practice. All three poets produced poetry within a given political context. To me this “context”—the social and political committedness found in their poetry—is what seals together their different lives, generations, and poetics. All three poets write about and create a poetic discourse out of the intersections of class, race, and gender. Yet insomuch as these poets write gender and articulate feminist concerns, women are not their central focus. All three poets believed that social change was impossible without the communal efforts of both sexes.

Looking at each poet separately we are able to see an important continuum for women's social poetry of the modern period. We are also able to learn something about American social history as we consider the chronological movement of these artists' works. Lola Ridge's poetry began to appear in literary journals in the midtens. She had worked for the anarchist Ferrer Association, and had contributed poems and articles to Emma Goldman's and Alexander Berkman's journal Mother Earth. In the poem “Reveille”10 she urges workers to strike against dehumanizing labor practices and the equally exploitative war industry that would make “a conscript of the workman's son” (“Via Ignis” 45):

Come forth, you workers!
Let the fires go cold—
Let the iron spill out, out of the troughs—
Let the iron run wild
Like a red bramble on the floors—
Leave the mill and the foundry and the mine
And the shrapnel lying on the wharves—
Leave the desk and the shuttle and the loom—
With your ashen lives,
Your lives like dust in your hands.


Ridge creates an alternative to “make it new,” the apolitical chant of the Pound generation, by taking the rhythms of modern poetry and transforming them into a call to arms for American workers. “Frank Little at Calvary,” about a murdered labor organizer and “the frail barricade” that was “his life,” and “Lullaby,” with its postscript “(An incident of the East St. Louis Race Riots, when some white women flung a living colored baby into the heart of a blazing fire),” were inspired by the bloody summer of 1917 when class war and race war mingled on the home front as America entered the war in Europe. “Lullaby,” in particular, which is constructed as a nursery rhyme the white women tell the black child as they prepare to toss into a burning house, complicates Ridge's celebration of labor. While it explores the war-time divisions between white and nonwhite workers, it focuses on the senseless acts of brutality committed by white working class women against their African-American neighbors.

Nineteen-twenties' America, embedded in post-war conservatism, economic boom and conspicuous consumption, found Ridge continuing her artistic campaign in defence of the worker. Her 1923 poem “Morning Ride” reminds commuting New Yorkers, via a newspaper headline, about the lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, in the South ten years earlier. Situating her poem on one of the once popular New York City open-air buses, she asks:

did he too feel it on his forehead,
the gentle raillery of the wind,
as the rope pulled taut over the tree
in the cool dawn?


During the Twenties Ridge was also active in the campaign to free the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were accused of robbery and murder outside of Boston in 1920. Ridge, along with tens of thousands of people the world over, refused to see the two immigrants as criminals but as innocent working men with

                    … hands cognizant
Of the cool feel of fish and of the grains of leathers,
Hands made stiff
In such plain service as men live by, yet despise the servers.

(“Two in the Death House” 36)11

This scapegoating of immigrant radicals during a time of increased anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia in the United States became a cause celebre. (Open immigration, which began in the 1880s, and of which Ridge herself took advantage, had legally come to an end in 1924). While the whole world watched, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed at midnight on August 23, 1927. Ridge was arrested after she crossed a police line, where she was promptly knocked to the ground by a horse being used in riot control. She would mention her encounter with the police horse in the long poem “Three Men Die,” which appeared in her last book Dance of Fire.

Drumbeats of the hooves … so close, so close … that one who had been there (and for some quite
Unbalanced reason did not run … but stood there in the hooves' path) had noted
(Knowing horses) the lead head, straight nose, clean flank,
Line of the onrushing shoulder, brought to this … and feeling the wet foam on
his mouth, glimpsed spread nostrils and the white
Fire of the eye, rolling as in agony …


Yet like “Two in the Death House,” “Three Men Die” places its energies on the heroic ordinariness of the two Italian working men. Ridge's and countless other protester's acts of resistance are, for her, but footnotes to the memory she must construct of (in Vanzetti's words) “a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddlar.” Also written “plain, with Sacco and the fish / monger” (235) was Tom Mooney. Ridge's poem “Stone Face,” published in The Nation in 1932, became part of the defence campaign to free the labor leader who spent 23 years in jail. Mooney was falsely convicted of planting a bomb that killed ten people at a San Francisco parade in 1916. A poster bearing Mooney's worn-out “clenched face” on one side and Ridge's poem on the other was plastered across America to advertise Mooney's cause.

While Ridge's critics and some contemporaries characterized her work as “masculine,”12 women and women's labor are also important features in her poetry. Her brilliant, sorely neglected long poem, “The Ghetto,” probably the first poem about ghetto life published in America, looks at the labors and desires of immigrant Jewish women. While she celebrates foundry workers in “Reveille” and “Song of Iron,” “The Ghetto” profiles the immigrant, Jewish “New Woman” and examines women's sweat shop labor:

Sadie dresses in black.
She has black-wet hair full of cold lights
And a fine-drawn face, too white.
All day the power machines
Drone in her ears …
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch
And the heat—like a kept corpse—
Fouls to the last corner.


Lola Ridge had herself spent time laboring in factories. In 1929 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died in 1941, leaving only five books of poems. Genevieve Taggard, on the other hand, was immensely prolific. She wrote or edited 18 books. Although half of Taggard's literary output was produced in the 1920s—and in 1930 she published a biography of Emily Dickinson—the dark times of the 1930s inspired her most overtly socially conscious lyrics. Between economic catastrophe, the rise of fascism in Europe, and the international Popular Front, poetry, for Taggard, became a collective chant, a mass song “with one refrain: / OUR HOPE'S NOT VAIN” (63). Taggard rejected the quiet lyricism of modern poetry's individualist introspection and transformed it into the lively social music that would unite voices. As she maintains in “Definition of Song:”

Singing is the work of many voices.
Only so when choral mass rejoices
Is the lock sprung on human isolation
And all the many welded into one.


She also hoped to unite voice with body in order to create an active social body in which the people themselves take control through their creative, but collective endeavors:

Body sings best when feet beat out the time.
Translated song, order of bold rhyme,—
Swing the great stanza on the pavement,—use
The public street for publishing good news.


Taggard's interest in the body's creative social movement is also found in “Four Frescoes of the Future,” which suggests the revolutionary utopian moment of “multitude and no tumult: a maze on march” (64). The poem seems inspired by social realist art as it depicts the strong bodies of men and women collectively taking power. Taggard was an uncritical supporter of the Soviet Union in the Thirties and Forties, and one might read in poems like “Four Frescoes of the Future” and “Definition of Song” the Popular Front imagery connected with the largely Soviet dictated agenda of the American Communist Party, although Taggard was not a party member. Her belief in artistic militancy for these times of crisis also appears in the poem “Life of the Mind, 1934,” in which she writes in an epigram: “The words in the books are not true / If they never act in you” (56). Written at the height of the Depression, the poem calls for a unity of “the mind's link with the arm,” as she urges writers and readers to consider the power of poetry to link thought and action. The active body of the writer makes her words act as well: “Now action like a sword. / Now to redeem the word” (57).

Taggard's Depression era militancy was also fueled by the rise of fascism in Europe and the civil war in Spain. The plight of the Spanish people against Franco's fascist insurgency had special meaning for Taggard; she had lived on the island of Majorca in 1931 while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work of the late Thirties and early Forties is in fact altered by the struggle against fascism. The celebratory urgings of collective solidarity found in the work she produced at the height of the Depression are succeeded by poems, such as those written to members of the International Brigades, which praise lost struggles. Poems like “Image,” written in honor of English poet and critic Christopher Caudwell who was killed fighting on the republican side in 1937, as well as “To the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” honor the unsung bravery of the untrained soldiers, male and female, white and black, who defended Spanish democracy while the world powers sat aside:

Say of them
They knew no Spanish
At first, and nothing of the arts of war
At first,
                    how to shoot, how to attack, how to retreat
How to kill, how to meet killing
At first …
Say of them they were young, there was much they did not know,
They were human. Say it all; it is true. Now say
When the eminent, the great, the easy, the old,
And the men on the make
Were busy bickering and selling,
Betraying, conniving, transacting, splitting hairs,
Writing bad articles, signing bad papers,
Passing bad bills,
Bribing, blackmailing,
Whimpering, meaching, garrotting,—they
Knew and acted
                    understood and died

(“To the Veterans …” 39)

Her poems “Autumn Song for Anti-Fascists” and “Silence in Majorca” speak of both resistance and powerlessness, while “Andalucia” written four years after the fall of Madrid, urges memory in the presence of dim realities: “Andalucia, where our dead comrades are young bones, / The color of old rock mountains, bone yellow and white” (45).

Like Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard wrote poetry conventionally identified with the masculine cultures of war and labor unrest, yet women were continually present within these cultures and Taggard put them on the front lines in “At Last the Women Are Moving,” or questioned their passivity in “Middle-Aged, Middle-Class Woman at Midnight.” In an early poem “Everyday Alchemy,” which Taggard republished in the Depression era collection Calling Western Union, she gives voice to the needs of poor women who make “a solace for poor bosom-bended heads” (23). In “Feeding the Children,” from the same collection, she remarks how women “are conservative” until “the lack of milk” leads them to ask “how shall we feed the children?” and then to demand, “Vote the strike!” (54-55). Also like Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard believed that social struggle was something that men and women must participate in together; social transformation was impossible without the collective efforts of both sexes.

Genevieve Taggard died in November of 1948. Her last years were spent in ill health, finding it difficult to publish her radical lyrics in the increasingly paranoid climate of post-war America. Margaret Walker closes the Depression and enters the years of World War Two with her first book For My People, which was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1942. Most of Walker's early poetry pays homage to the black south, yet it is also a product of the Great Migration. Two million blacks came north in the early decades of the century. They would find wages and opportunities unimaginable in their southern homelands, but they would not find racism eradicated. Walker's early talents were nurtured in Chicago's black and white radical literary circles. After she finished her studies at Northwestern University she worked in Chicago before returning to the South for good. She published poems and stories in New Anvil and the black radical journal, Challenge. It is difficult to know whether it was the Migration alone that led her to insist in “For My People” that “a new world be born,” and “a second generation full of courage issue forth,” but the opportunities, disappointments, and changes that the Migration brought allowed her to observe first hand a new cultural formation:

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr, writing about the Migration, summarily characterizes the new world fashioning of Black America that Walker had witnessed first hand: “Just as slavery inadvertently created a new “African” culture—a New World Western, Pan-African culture and ethnicity—so, too, did the Great Migration create a new culture, one northern and urban yet thoroughly southern in its roots” (17).

In For My People, a book made up of modernist meditations, verse folk tales, and sonnets, Walker emphasizes African American labor: she creates a poetic sequence out of the forced toil that created its own cultural narratives. Walker's interest in the essential Marxist concept of how the condition of being determines the ways in which men and women learn to think about themselves and their social circumstances is found throughout this collection. “Since 1619,” a poem of many questions beginning with “[h]ow many years since 1619 have I been singing Spirituals?” reflects upon Black America's hundreds of years of servitude, and the built-up anger that must accompany them. In “We Have Been Believers” Walker recounts the spiritual transformations from faith “in the black gods of an old / land,” to belief in “the white gods of a new land” (9). While faith provides its necessary succor, it is the act of labor that teaches the lessons of self knowledge. Black laborers begin to see themselves as “makers” like those in whom they “have been believers:”

We have been believers yielding substance for the world.
With our hands have we fed a people and out of our
strength have they wrung the necessities of a nation.
Our song has filled the twilight and our hope has
heralded the dawn.


That the American nation could not have grown and prospered without the slave labor of African Americans is the underlying theme in a majority of the poems in For My People. In “Delta” the black laborers who are the planters and makers of the fertile valleys of southwestern Mississippi, sing of their contributions, their desires to reclaim the land in their own names: “If only from this valley we might rise with song! / With singing that is ours” (16). “Delta” is divided into three sections and moves from descriptions of the valley—its “[m]ud and muck and misery,” to the sorrows of labor—“not four ourselves do we sweat and starve and spend,” to a call to arms—“Now burst the dams of years” (18), “with our blood [we] have watered these fields / and they belong to us” (19).

Poems such as “We Have Been Believers,” “Since 1619,” “Dark Blood,” and “Delta,” trace the history of a “[p]eople of unrest and sorrow” (“People of Unrest” 23). The poem “Today” looks at contemporary black experience while world war wages once again in Europe. It is also a radical rewriting of Walt Whitman's “I Hear America Singing” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Rather than celebrating the possibilities of America, Walker focuses on its betrayals: “I sing of slum scabs on city / faces …” (24). She connects these slums of which she sings to the bombing of European cities and the “scrawny children scarred by bombs and dying of / hunger …” Then she returns to America to sing of her people as “wretched human scarecrows strung against / lynching stakes …” “Today” also gives Walker's own credo as a poet: “I sing of Man's struggle to be clean, to be useful, to be free …”

Like Lola Ridge, and Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker also represented the labors and desires of women. She also, like Ridge and Taggard, believed women were only one part of any movement for social change; men were the other part. Walker's poem “Lineage” continues her interest in African-American labor, but this time focuses exclusively on women:

My grandmothers were strong.
They followed plows and bent to toil.
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew.
They were full of sturdiness and singing.
My grandmothers were strong.


Walker makes an ironic testimony of gender power created by unfree women and memorialized by a daughter of freedom. She celebrates the “sturdiness” of women as they labor, yet in connecting herself to this laboring ancestry, she asks later, at the end of the poem's final stanza, “Why am I not as they?” Walker suggests that her own “intellectual” labor pales in comparison to the labor of the women who came before her. She laments her own disconnection from the real work of her ancestors by asking how is it that women with far fewer choices were able to create and maintain unimaginable worlds against unimaginable odds.

Walker would spend the next 25 years of her life immersed in her own intellectual labor, teaching in black colleges in the south and writing Jubilee, a best selling novel, which has been translated into many languages. Published in 1966, Jubilee tells the story of Walker's great grandmother's life as a slave during the Civil War. By the 1960s, Walker is writing social poetry once again, leaving behind the rigidities of canonical modernism, and creating new poems for a new era.

Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, and Margaret Walker, each a generation apart, bore witness to some of the worst atrocities in both national and international history. To ignore the contributions of these three writers, and the social poetry genre that they represent, makes it that much easier for us to forget the important social struggles that have been a defining aspect of American history. We need these voices of resistance now as we move into the next century. We need them to remind us of where we have been and where we are going. We need them to remind us not only how multivalent American aesthetic expression has been, but also how diverse our social experiences have been and—importantly—how tragic. These poets who have written about world wars and race wars, labor struggles and domestic struggles, and composed poems inspired from newspaper headlines and actions in the streets, can also tell us about the buried lives of ordinary women and men who also bore witness: to the horrific and the heroic, to the commonplace and the sublime, to the aesthetically different and the culturally different, to the daring and the mundane. They construct a past that is still useful to us in the present.


  1. Qtd. in Stanley Kunitz, ed. “Lola Ridge.” Living Authors: A Book of Biographies. (New York: H. H. Wilson, 1931).

  2. Qtd. in William Drake. First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. (New York: Macmillan, 1987).

  3. Recent criticism has examined social poetry of the 1930s. Alan Filreis' Modernism from Left to Right (New York: Cambridge UP, 1994) is an impressive rereading of Wallace Stevens' poetry with the work of 30's poets on the left. Unfortunately he uses the same method of critical evaluation for the markedly different radical poetry of the 1930s as he uses for Stevens' work. Walter Kalaidjian's American Culture between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism & Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia UP, 1993) looks at a good deal of radical poetry, reading it together with the visual and political culture of the time. The author questionably links Lola Ridge and Genevieve Taggard with the “Dynamo School,” which centered around the journal Dynamo. Charlotte Nekola's essay “Worlds Moving: Women, Poetry, and Literary Politics of the 1930s” (in Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women Writers [New York: Feminist Press, 1987]) is one of the more recent American essays on women's radical poetry of the Depression. Cary Nelson's essays “Literature as Cultural Studies: American Poetry of the Spanish Civil War” in Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies, eds. Cary Nelson and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar. (New York: Routledge, 1996) and “Poetry Chorus: Dialogic Politics in 1930s Poetry,” in Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, eds. Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996) focus on the revolutionary aims of American poetry during the 30s.

  4. In the 1970s poetry anthologies such as No More Masks, The World Split Open, and Black Poets featured the work of women social poets. Social Poetry of the 1930s, a selection of radical poetry, featured work by a number of women. Since the late 1960s, there has been an out-pouring of radical, class conscious poetry produced by women of color. The writing of Margaret Walker (the grandmother of the group), Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Paula Gunn Allen, Joy Harjo, Mitsuye Yamada, Janice Mirikitani, Jessica Hagedorn, Marilyn Chin, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Aurora Morales Levins suggests that a rich tradition of social poetry by women continues.

  5. Interestingly, a recent “reference guide” dedicated to a chronological and intertextual representation of American women writers, Women Writers in the United States: A Timeline of Literary, Cultural, and Social History, eds. Cynthia Davis and Kathryn Davis, (New York: Oxford UP, 1996) includes the publications of volumes of poetry by Ridge, Taggard, and Walker as part of an historical time-line with far greater scope than what might be gleaned from a purely “literary” guide to women authors. These three poets, whose names, works, and dates, appear more than once, are placed within a complex, social/historical nexus of activity in the United States from pre-conquest and colonial beginnings up to the present. Ridge, Taggard, and Walker also appear in Paul Lauter et al's Heath Anthology of Literature (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1997). This text, now in its third edition, is targeted towards the survey course in American Literature. The work of Lola Ridge and Genevieve Taggard appear in a special section—the section on Modernism entitled, “A Sheaf of Political Poetry.” Margaret Walker's poetry and an excerpt from her novel Jubilee appear in a section, “Issues and Visions in Modern America.” See also Paul Lauter's Canons and Contexts (New York: Oxford UP, 1990) and Lillian Robinson's, In the Canon's Mouth (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997).

  6. See Bernikow's fine introduction to The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950 (New York: Vintage Books, 1974). She adds to the comment quoted in the text: “Women on the left in America have been banished from contemporary consciousness by the slow erosion of neglect” (45).

  7. Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), a poet who wrote socially engaged verse for four decades, should perhaps be discussed along with Ridge, Taggard, and Walker in this article. However, Rukeyser is presently on her way to a full recovery, whereas these other poets have not been nearly as fortunate. Anne Herzog's dissertation, Faith and Resistance: Politics and the Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser (Rutgers University, 1995), devoted exclusively to Rukeyser's leftist, feminist aesthetic, is a major contribution to the recovery of a leading radical and feminist voice of modern American poetry. A line from one of Rukeyser's early poems is indicative of how modern women social poets complicated their concerns about gender: “Not Sappho, Sacco / Rebellion pioneered among our lives / viewing far-off many-branching deltas / innumerable seas” (“Poem out of Childhood,” The Collected Poems 3).

  8. See the essay “Black Women in Academia” in How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (New York: Feminist Press, 1990).

  9. Two recent critiques of Modernism suggest that the neglect of social class in modern poetry is a largely American issue. Jan Montefiore, in Men and Women Writers of the 1930s: The Dangerous Flood of History (New York: Routledge, 1996) devotes an entire chapter to issues of gender and class in British radical poetry of the thirties, not to mention giving voice to “underservedly” (sic) forgotten poets. Margaret Dickie's and Thomas Travisano's Gendered Modernism: American Women Poets and Their Readers (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996) collected a series of essays on Stein, Moore, H.D., Millay, Laura Riding, Bishop, Rukeyser, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Though the collection's aim is to show how these poets augment the social, textual, and political spaces of modernism, all seven poets have received attention elsewhere, and the questions of class and working class subjectivity are secondary at best.

  10. “Reveille,” which appeared in Ridge's second book Sun-Up (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920), was widely anthologized. Of particular merit was its appearance in anarchist Marcus Graham's Anthology of Revolutionary Verse (New York: Active Press, 1927).

  11. “Two in the Death House” originally appeared in the anthology America Arraigned (New York: Dean and Co., 1928). This text, edited by radicals Ralph Cheney and Lucia Trent, was dedicated exclusively to poetry about the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. In fact this trial produced more literary material than any other political trial in this century.

  12. Conrad Aiken, for example, reviewing Ridge's first book The Ghetto and Other Poems in The Dial writes the following: “[Ridge] arranges her figures for us with a muscular force which seems masculine; it is singular to come upon a book written by a woman in which vigor is so clearly a more natural quality than grace” (83). ([italics] mine).

Works Cited

Aiken, Conrad. “The Literary Abbozzo.” The Dial January 25, 1919: 83-84.

Bernikow, Louise. The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Drake, William. The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “New Negroes, Migration and Cultural Exchange.” Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Washington, DC: Happahannock P, 1993.

Kunitz, Stanley, ed. Living Authors: A Book of Biographies. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1931.

Nelson, Cary. “Poetry Chorus: Dialogic Politics in 1930s Poetry.” Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture. Eds. Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996.

———. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.

Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Ridge, Lola. Dance of Fire. New York: Smith and Haas, 1935.

———. The Ghetto and Other Poems. New York: W. B. Huebsch, 1918.

———. Red Flag. New York: Viking, 1927.

———. “Stone Face.” The Nation September 14, 1932. 135: 235.

———. Sun-Up and Other Poems. New York: W. B. Huebsch, 1920.

———. “Two in the Death House.” America Arraigned. Eds. Ralph Cheney and Lucia Trent. New York: Dean and Co. 1928.

Robinson, Lillian. Sex, Class and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Rukeyser, Muriel. Collected Poems. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

Taggard, Genevieve. Calling Western Union. New York: Harper Bros., 1936.

———. Long View. New York: Harper Bros., 1942.

———. Slow Music. New York: Harper Bros., 1946.

Walker, Margaret. This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1989.

Melba Joyce Boyd (essay date November 1998)

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SOURCE: Boyd, Melba Joyce. “‘Prophets for a New Day’: The Cultural Activism of Margaret Danner, Margaret Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker during the Black Arts Movement.” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 37 (November 1998): 55-67.

[In the following essay, Boyd examines the contributions of Walker and three black female writers to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and places them in relationship to one another and to their times.]

The Black Arts Movement (1965-1977) was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, and the impetus of this cultural revolution was the consequence of an artist/activist consciousness that embraced the notion of race pride, self determination and the need to engage in institution building. In the Midwest, Chicago and Detroit were key cities during this era because they contained large and industrious African American populations and housed major cultural institutions. The Du Sable Museum of African American History and Art, The Kuumba Workshop, the Organization of Black Art and Culture and The Negro Digest operated in Chicago; while the Broadside Press, Rappa House, Concept East and the Shrine of the Black Madonna were the loci of much activity in Detroit. Sustained through collective interests and burgeoning activities, interaction between the two cultural communities was largely the result of proximity and personal histories.

The Black Arts Movement is usually associated with those artists whose careers became most visible. The younger writers, such as LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka), Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and Nikki Giovanni are often the focus of discussion and their militant styles delineate what is regarded as characteristic of the literature. However, no era stands independent of previous time periods. Even though the vocabulary of the Black Arts Movement was influenced by the Black Liberation Movement, the leadership responsible for the institutions that provided the forums for literary militancy stood on the shoulders of writers whose expertise and experience were grounded in the preceding decades.

For some undetermined reason, prominent cultural leaders were often poets. Perhaps, as prophets and visionaries they were particularly suited for the role of institutional directors. At any rate, women poets were as critical to the era as their male counterparts and counterpoints. The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Margaret Danner, who died in 1984, and to a lesser extent, Margaret Burroughs, greatly influenced the aesthetic development of the younger poets. Although these women writers embraced the goal of African American freedom and their aesthetic expressions articulated race pride in imagery configured to counter the inhumane stereotypes of black people, there was also a class consciousness that permeated their poetry because their historical development during the Great Depression (1930s) and the Labor Movement (1930-40s) encouraged a deeper understanding of the economics of discrimination.

All of these women poets at one time or another lived in Chicago, and for a very brief period, Margaret Danner lived in Detroit; however, they all frequented Detroit throughout their careers. Their poetry was published by Broadside Press during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they gave readings to enthusiastic crowds in Detroit and Chicago during the Black Arts Movement. But in as much as a romantic recollection would be more satisfactory for the reconstruction of a noble history, a closer examination of relationships revealed the differences and difficulties within the camp. The politics of personalities sometimes strained friendships and created conflicts. Hence, it was a challenging and colorful period when the pretense of race solidarity was the reigning rhetoric, but not necessarily the practice.

As individual artists, Margaret Danner, Margaret Burroughs, Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks had already achieved considerable artistic acclaim during the Post-Renaissance period (the 1930s-1950s). But collectively, their distinct styles and variegated politics sometimes converged and sometimes clashed, as cultural nationalism turned the community inside-out in an attempt to define the new black aesthetic. This discussion will consider the ins and outs of four women writers who exerted considerable influence on the Black Arts Movement as artists and as institution builders.

Because 1965 was the year the term “Black Power” first appeared in the cultural vocabulary and 1977 marked the decline of black arts activities across the nation, this discussion will operate within the premise that the Black Arts Movement was from 1965-1977. But as explained earlier, the cultural activities that took place during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and especially during the Civil Rights Movement (since 1954) will be considered relative to the Black Arts Movement. Indeed, some of the foremost institutions that serviced the activities of the late 1960s and 1970s were founded prior to 1965, and when the paradigm shifted from integration and civil rights to self determination and black liberation, so did the consciousness of these institutions. They demonstrated what to do and how to do it.


Margaret Esse Danner Cunningham was born in Kentucky but spent most of her adult years in Chicago, where she attended Loyola and Northwestern Universities. Danner achieved national recognition as a poet when she was awarded the John Hay Whitney Fellowship for “Far From African: Four Poems,” which was published in the premier publication Poetry in 1951. Of the four, only Margaret Danner Cunningham lived for some time in Detroit (1962-64). During this time, she was the poet-in-residence at Wayne State University and the founder of Boone House for the Arts, which placed her at the center of a burgeoning literary community.

Boone House brought together Detroit black artists for the first time. From these humble beginnings, connections were made which became even more manifest during the Black Arts Movement. Dudley Randall and Naomi Madgett, who first met at Boone House, forged a lasting friendship and a cooperative association that benefited the poetry community. Randall founded Broadside Press in 1965 and Madgett founded Lotus Press shortly thereafter. They published each other's poetry and developed poetry presses that altered the perception and reception of black poetry for the next thirty years.

Poem Counterpoem (1966), co-authored by Randall and Danner, was the first Broadside Press book. Subsequent to that publication, Randall published Impressions of African Art Forms (1968) by Danner. Although the Randall-Danner connection essentially became a poem-counterpoem when she circumvented their joint publishing venture to publish To Flower, her solo collection of poetry through Robert Hayden's Counterpoise Series, Randall resolved to transcend this transgression by focusing on the poetry and thereby managed to sustain a prickly friendship.

When Danner returned to Chicago in 1964, she was deeply disturbed by the politics of the cultural community. She wrote unsettling letters to Hayden, which claimed there was a conspiracy to discredit her work and her reputation. She viewed herself and Hayden as outsiders and as kindred spirits because they disagreed with the racial dynamics emphasized by the movement and because they were both members of the Baha'i faith. The isolation of Hayden and Danner fostered their perceptions of a hostile literary community. But rather than a conspiracy to destroy their literary reputations, the tension and the talk was more the consequence of ideological warfare that was larger than any one or two writers. In her letters to Hayden, Danner reflects an ongoing discussion between them regarding contention in the community and a conflict between Danner, Brooks and Burroughs:

You have such a kind heart and are so sensitive that it bothers you to think they have him [Dudley Randall]. They don't. And when the other day here in Chicago (the home of all devilish activity) Margaret Burroughs had a “thing” for Langston Hughes and Gwen invited Dudley and Don Lee, in order to keep in with them and show Margaret up as not inviting them and the auditorium was filled to capacity which was about 3,000 people … after they had done all that they could to take advantage of everything to push themselves, Dudley Randall, who Gwen had invited got up and told the people how I had struggled at Boone House and how I had been maligned and lied on. I had not mentioned him at all when I read my poem to Langston and so Gwen who thought she had hurt me and Margaret in reality only opened the door for someone to say something good about me and Dudley will be the same way about you if he thinks People are Wronging you.1

The intrigue expressed in Danner's correspondence to Hayden persisted as did her obsessive impressions of her contemporaries. This letter illustrates how the subterfuge contributed to the friction between writers.

That same year Randall published Impressions of African Art Forms (1968) by Danner, a chap book (sixteen pages) that contains poetic responses to various forms of African imagery in artistic expressions and black life. This book, which includes Hoyt Fuller, the editor of Negro Digest in the acknowledgment list (an editor who promoted the ideology of the younger, militant writers) centers thematically around Africanity. Even though Danner is opposed to most of the new black aesthetic, her earliest poetry converges with its Africanist, metaphorical thought. Danner's themes confront issues of ignorance and embrace the new enlightenment regarding the underrated and misrepresented impressions that distort mainstream interpretations of Africanity in art and culture. Despite her opposition to the impetus of the Black Arts Movement, her expertise and exploration in this area anticipated subsequent attempts to adapt authentic African aesthetics into the features of African American expressions and identity:

Africa: I turn to meet
                              this vast land of bitter-sweet.
Africa: whose creviced walls
                              cradle myriad waterfalls.
Africa: where black men stride
                              toward freedom ever inching tide.


Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs' reputation as a writer pales by comparison to her acclaim as a visual artist. Her commitment to the notion of cultural revolution was grounded in her leftist politics; hence, she engaged the Black Arts Movement within a broader political framework, enlisting her socialist ideals to expand the cultural nationalism that dominated the era. As an artist, Burroughs recognized the necessity to bring artists of color together in order to accommodate their special aesthetic and career considerations. This marginalization of black artists made a Black Arts Movement an inevitability, and the need to establish community-based arts organizations was another obvious conclusion. Burroughs was an artist with the historical vision and the unrelenting, tenacity to execute plans to build something tangible.

Her institutions made her a beacon for the black arts community in Chicago. In particular, as one of the founders of the National Conference of Artists (NCA) in 1959, which predates the Black Arts Movement, and as the primary force behind the founding of the Du Sable Museum of African American History and Art in 1961, she had already assumed the responsibility of institution building, a major tenet of the Black Arts Movement. The establishment of the National Conference of Artists, which ultimately grew into chapters throughout the nation, in thirteen different states within ten years, still provides conferences, forums, educational programs and galleries for developing and mature visual artists.

Likewise, the founding of the Du Sable Museum of African American History and Art facilitated even broader concerns. By combining history with art, this institution linked artistic expression to documentation, thereby demonstrating that cultural memory is a critical aspect of African American aesthetics, which draws much of its subject and thought from metaphors grounded in historical narrative. The museum holdings include literature, visual art, audio recordings, and biographical and bibliographical materials on almost all facets of black life and culture.

As a writer, Burroughs entered the genre as a children's author. Jasper, The Drummin' Boy was published in 1947 (Viking Press). She developed an interest in children's rhymes and poems, which she collected and published. For the most part, her poetry did not surface until the Black Arts Movement. In a 1957 article about her that appeared in The Milwaukee Journal, Burroughs revealed that, “she had at least twenty manuscripts that had been rejected.”2

As a major cultural force, she attracted the attention of the younger, aspiring poets, especially Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) who was employed by the museum. It was at the museum that Lee made his acquaintance with Randall, who became Lee's primary publisher during the Black Arts Movement. Many of the young Chicago writers who were members of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) benefited from the institutional vision of Burroughs and the creative support of Gwendolyn Brooks, who sponsored OBAC.

But even before the founding of the museum and the NCA, Burroughs' home was known as a center for intellectuals and artists in Chicago. Brooks relates in her autobiography how important these parties were:

Margaret Goss lived above a Michigan Avenue barn. Triumphantly, Margaret and her second husband later originated what was at first the Ebony Museum [Du Sable Museum] in the Quincy Club, the ancient mansion that fronted the barn. Her home supplied the South Side artist contingent with its most fascinating parties. Parties? But it was always open house at Margaret's. Three people would “fall in.” Then three more. Before evening deepened there might be twelve. There would be your “party.” You might meet any Personality there, white or black. You might meet Paul Robeson. You might meet Peter Pollock. On any night you might meet Frank Marshall Davis, the poet, Robert A. Davis, the actor, artists Eldzier Corto, Hughie Lee-Smith, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett; sculptor Marion Perkins (father of the enterprising young poet Eugene Perkins); once every couple of years you might get lucky enough to run into Margaret Walker.3

Burroughs and Brooks had been life-long friends. According to Brooks, she met her husband, Henry Blakely, through Margaret Burroughs. But this friendship was marred by an accusation of plagiarism when Burroughs wrote the poem, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?,” which begins with:

What shall I tell my children who are black?
Of what it means to be a captive in this skin?
What shall I tell my dear one fruit of this dark womb
When everywhere they turn, they are filled with
abhorrence of black.
The night is black and so is the boogie man.
Black dirt. Black villains with black hearts. A black cow
gives no milk.
A black hen lays no eggs. Bad news bordered in black.
Mourning clothes, black. Storm clouds, black.
Black is evil and evil is black.

According to Burroughs, she consulted Brooks about the title of the poem because she felt the title and theme had arisen so naturally, that it might be the name of a poem she had encountered elsewhere. She phoned Brooks and asked her if she had written a poem by that title. “Mrs. Brooks immediately assured her that she did not had never used such a title nor would she.”4 “Unfortunately, after the work had been presented publicly and had gained fame, her friend called and accused Mrs. Burroughs of stealing the title from her.”5

According to Burroughs, this led to a serious breakdown in their relationship. Perhaps the discrepancy was related to a line from one of Brooks' more famous sonnets, “What Shall I Give My Children?” which opens with the line: “What shall I give my children? who are poor?” Whatever the case, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black” was published with a parenthetical epigraph, “(With apologies to Gwendolyn Brooks).” The tension from this difference manifested itself in the Chicago arts community in subtle and undoubtedly painful outcomes as reflected in Margaret Danner's account of rather tense encounters between Danner and Brooks, and between Brooks and Burroughs at the party for Langston Hughes.

At the Du Sable Museum, Burroughs functioned both as curator and publisher. She would send out subscription forms for proposed book projects. With the subscriptions she received, she would finance the publication of the books. Impressed by Burrough's ingenuity and tenacity, Randall enlisted her as his co-editor for the first book planned by Detroit's Broadside Press, For Malcolm X: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1969), an idea inspired by Margaret Walker's reading of the poem before Randall and Burroughs. Subsequent to the appearance of this work, which includes a poem by Burroughs, “Brother Freedom,” poetry by Burroughs began to appear in noted anthologies, such as Woodie King's The Forerunners: Black Poets in America. But Burroughs never published a collection of her own poetry.

Although situated squarely on the political left, Burroughs was likewise capable of cutting across political lines. To some extent, the poems in For Malcolm display these ambivalent ideological stances, including a poem by Danner. While Burroughs supported and interacted with the more nationalist tendencies of the movement, she also organized a delegation of black artists to visit the Soviet Union in 1966. Moreover, the inclusion of a poem by the Afroamerican Russian poet, James Patterson, in For Malcolm represents their internationalist politics of its editors. Randall, who was a member of the delegation, was so inspired by the tour that he decided to publish Poem Counterpoem as the first Broadside book upon returning to Detroit.

Since Burroughs' institutions were so critical to the developing arts community, she maintained contact with Danner and Brooks, no matter how strained the encounters became. A similar bitter-sweet ambiguity registers with Burroughs' publishing efforts, for most of her poetry resides in manuscript form in her private collection: “Some had been published, some written for special presentations, then filed away. The creations located at this site alone filled six file containers.”6


When the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks shifted from Harper and Row in upscale New York to Broadside Press in blue-collar Detroit, it was a statement that resounded throughout the black and white literary communities. Randall explains the impact of Martin Luther King's death on Brooks' poetry and publishing:

When I started the Broadside Press Series and asked her [Brooks] for a poem, she said “You can use any poem I have.” We used her poem “We Real Cool” in our first group of Broadside. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, she told me she was doing a little book and wished to donate it to Broadside Press. Titled Riot, it was published in 1969. All proceeds from the book went to Broadside. It was followed by Family Picture, and Aloneness, a children's book.7

In a more detailed discussion about Brooks' support of Broadside, he elaborates on Brooks' generosity and financial sacrifice in order to support Broadside as a black cultural institution:

Regarding the need to sign “major” writers, Gwendolyn Brooks has demonstrated how that is done. She simply decided to leave Harper, although they had been fair to her, because she saw the need to help a Black publisher. I remonstrated with her, warned her that she'd lose money, told her that Broadside Press could give her neither the advances nor the promotion that Harper could, but she insisted on giving a major work, her autobiography, Report from Part One, to Broadside Press. When I saw that she was determined, and that if Broadside Press didn't take the book she would give it to another Black publisher, I gratefully accepted it.8

On a more personal level, Brooks hosted writers and intellectuals in her home as Burroughs did:

As for my husband and myself, our own best parties were given at East 623 Street, our most exciting kitchenette. 623 was right on the corner, the corner of 63rd and Champlain, above a real estate agency. If you wanted a poem, you had only to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.9

“We squeezed perhaps a hundred people into our Langston Hughes two-room kitchenette party. Langston was the merriest and the most colloquial of them all. “Best party I've ever been given!” He enjoyed everyone; he enjoyed all the talk, all the phonograph blues, all the festivity in the crowded air. And—I remember him dropping in unexpectedly some years later. His dignified presence decorated our droll little quarters. We asked him to share our dinner of mustard greens, ham hocks and candied sweet potatoes, and he accepted. “Just what I want!” exclaimed the noble poet, the efficient essayist, the adventurous dramatist.10

When the Black Arts Movement began to take hold of everyone's attention, Brooks encountered what she called the “New Black” at the 1966 Fisk Writers Conference: “Here, I was coldly Respected.”11 She relates the discomfort felt at this event, which was also felt by Danner: “All that day and night, Margaret Danner Cunningham—another Old Girl, another coldly Respected old Has-been—and an almost hysterical Gwendolyn B. walked about in amazement, listening, looking learning. What was going on!12

Brooks' response was to embrace the dramatic shift of the movement:

“I—who have “gone the gamut” from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress.

I have hopes for myself.13

Brooks became the queen of the Chicago poets. She availed herself to the needs of the young, Chicago poets in the OBAC and hosted as many black authors at her home as she could manage. Randall's account of the book signing party she gave for him upon the publication of his collection, Cities Burning (1968), is reflective of the nurturing role she played in and for the community:

I met all the Chicago brains—Lerone Bennett; Sterling Stuckey; Ellis, who runs a Negro bookstore; a young sociologist from the U of Chicago. Hoyt Fuller, whom I knew in college, and the novelist Ronald Fair whom I met at Margaret Burroughs', were also there. I met her husband, Henry Blakely a witty and charming host, and her fifteen-year-old daughter Nora. Nora was shy and embarrassed. She said, “Are you really DUDLEY RANDALL?” And I was embarrassed too, at anyone thinking that Dudley Randall was anybody. We were both tongue-tied. Anyway, the brains talked about some article in the N.Y. Times which I hadn't read, and all I could do was listen. Gwen Brooks is a charming hostess, a real, nice person.14

In addition to hosting black writers in her home and supporting the OBAC, she also hosted writers as their editor. Broadside Press published two anthologies edited by Brooks, Jump Bad (1971), a collection of writing from the workshop, and A Broadside Treasury, 1965-1970 (1971), a collection of poetry by Broadside authors. Brooks often times forwarded manuscripts for Randall to consider for publication, and conversely, he often consulted with her regarding editorial decisions. She worked diligently as an advocate of the younger writers, and went as far as to visit poet Etheridge Knight when he was in the Indiana State Prison.

Brooks' artist-activist shift was a major statement to the literary world, which now had to consider black cultural power a factor when negotiating and determining which writers and which literature would be credited. Brooks not only changed publisher, she also changed her vocabulary. Under the influence of the younger writers, she began writing in a style more in sync with a black consciousness audience. As an institution builder, she gave her reputation, her poetry, her skill and her home in the service of the cultural struggle. By reference, the epigraph for the poem, “The Sermon on the Warpland,” which is a quote from Ron Karenga: “The fact that we are black is our ultimate reality,” clearly demonstrates Brooks' philosophical embrace of the Black Arts Movement. Her style shifted from conventional sonnets and intricate metaphors, and subtle understatements into vital, free verse expressions with proud, bold words advocating change:

Build now your Church, my brothers, sisters. Build
never with brick nor Corten nor with granite.
Build with lithe love. With love like lion-eyes.
With love like morning rise.
With love like black, our black—
luminously indiscreet;
complete; continuous.


After graduating from Northwestern University (BA 1935), Margaret Walker Alexander became active in politically conscious writing circles in Chicago. As Jerry Ward, Jr. explains: “In the years between 1936 and 1939, she benefited from her friendships with the novelists Nelson Algren and Frank Yerby, poets Arna Bontemps and Frank Marshall Davis, the artist Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and the playwright Theodore Ward.”15

However, the foremost influence on Walker's writing was Richard Wright. When Walker relayed her frustration as an isolated, struggling writer to Langston Hughes, he introduced her to Wright: “I tried to press my manuscripts on Langston, but when I admitted I had no copies he would not take them. Instead, he turned to Wright, who was standing nearby, listening to the conversation and smiling at my desperation. Langston said, “If you people really get a group together, don't forget to include this girl.” A few months later, Wright formed the Southside Writers Project in the Spring of 1936: “It was under Wright's influence that Walker made the decision to be a writer for the people.”16 It was during this period that she began work on what would become the novel Jubilee. Walker explains: “I felt hopeless about my novel manuscript which became Jubilee and of which I had 300 pages in first draft written at that time. We [Wright and Walker] both decided I should put it away until another time.”17

In 1939, her experience with the Federal Writers Project was terminated and she enrolled in a masters program at the University of Iowa. The poetry that was the text for her master's degree, For My People, received the Yale University Younger Poets Award in 1942, and she became a noted poet of national and international fame. However, in 1943 she married and returned South to teach and to raise a family. It was not until 1966, with the publication of Jubilee (Houghton-Mifflin), that Walker was reissued to the forefront of black literature. This was the same year of the Fisk Writers Conference, where she encountered Danner, Burroughs, Brooks and Randall. Because Walker's home was in Mississippi, her social interactions with other writers were limited. This geographical isolation removed her from the sharp, competitive edges of cultural conflict.

Randall's comments on Walker's contribution to the innovative adaptation of the sonnet form to subjects dealing with folk culture confirms her pre-eminence in black poetry:

In her only volume of poetry, For My People, published in 1942 in the Yale University Series of Younger Poets, there are ballads or rural southern folk of the witch Molly Means, of “Bad-man Stagolee” and “Big John Henry.” And that “the most famous of these is the title poem, “For My People.” This poem gains its force not by tropes—turns of language or thought—or logical development of a theme, but by the sheer overpowering accumulation of a mass of details delivered in the rhythmical parallel phrases. “We Have Been Believers” is another powerful poem in a similar form and on a racial theme.18

“For My People,” with its terse imagery, riveting, rhythmical phrasing and thematic embrace of the black masses, anticipated the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement. Although her novel was published by a mainstream, New York press, the poetry movement was happening in the community. Prophets for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973), as well as poems that appeared as broadsides, reiterated the significant presence of mature poets such as Walker, whose breadth and depth, substance and consistency, undergirded the cultural revolution. With uncanny skill, Walker's powerful civil rights poems, such as “For Andy Goodman—Michael Schwerner—and James Chaney (“Three Civil Rights Workers Murdered in Mississippi on June 21, 1964”), exalted this historic moment in the freedom struggle and provided aesthetic direction for aspiring poets:

Three faces turn their ears and eyes
to see the solemn sky of summer
to hear the brooding cry
of the morning dove
Mississippi bird of sorrow
O mourning bird of death
Sing their sorrow
Mourn their pain
And teach us death,
To love and live with them again!

Other poems, such as, “Street Demonstration” and “Girl Held Without Bail,” focus on the activities of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in particular and the South in general, whereas. “Prophets for a New Day” and “Malcolm X” illuminate the radical shift in political thought and action as the Black Liberation Movement takes hold.

As an institution builder, Walker made a lasting impression with the establishment of the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People at Jackson State University (renamed the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center); and in 1973, she organized the Phillis Wheatley Festival, which was a provocative pronouncement in support of an eighteenth century poet whose poetry came under fire by many of the younger, more militant poets and critics.


Margaret Danner, Margaret Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker were all directly or indirectly influenced by the leftist politics of the 1930s and 1940s, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The interconnectedness of the decades is personified by the presence of Langston Hughes (1902-1967), whose career spans the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s. Hughes was a symbol of affirmation for the second renaissance as he published with Broadside Press and collected the poetry of the upcoming era in New Negro Poets: U.S.A. (1964). Likewise, a sense cultural community was first nurtured in house parties, where personalities mingled and cultural thought flourished. Institutions conceived in these settings captured the enthusiasm of poets who laid the foundation for successful cultural enterprises that followed.

This progressive consciousness, which preceded the Black Arts Movement, affected artistic expression and a strong sense of community responsibility. Conversely, the various cultural activities in which these women poets participated, benefited them individually and collectively. As writers, the Black Arts Movement enhanced their visibility; as editors of books and directors of institutions, they made significant contributions to burgeoning, cultural activities. For Malcolm, which was inspired by Walker's poem, co-edited by Burroughs, and contains the poetry of Danner, Burroughs and Walker as well, is an example of this synergistic effect.

Although the green-eyed monster finds much fodder in the competitive field of American social and political conflict, the ongoing quest for African American civil and human rights conversely inspires the spirit of freedom in artistic and cultural expression. Indeed, if the spirit of freedom is a woman, her vision is realized in the voices of Danner, Burroughs, Brooks and Walker. Their reach was deeper than their personal misunderstandings and minor, social digressions. Their lives inscribed powerful messages that will grow with meaning as the next generation of writers discover what these four women writers already know.

And the dark faces of the sufferers
Gleam in the new morning
The complaining faces glow
And the winds of freedom begin to blow
While the Word descends on the waiting World below.

Margaret Walker, from “Prophets for a New Day”


  1. Margaret Danner, Letter to Robert Hayden, dated March 30, 1968, in the Robert Hayden Papers, National Baha'i Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.

  2. Marilyn Gardner, “Author Collects Rhymes, Rejection Slips,” The Milwaukee Journal 17 (February 1957).

  3. Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974) 69.

  4. Carline Williams Strong, Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs: Educator, Artist, Author, Founder, and Civic Leader (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services, 1996) 160.

  5. Strong.

  6. Strong 170.

  7. Dudley Randall, “Black Publisher, Black Writer: An Answer,” Negro Digest 24.5 (1975): 35.

  8. Dudley Randall, Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975) 5.

  9. Brooks 69.

  10. Brooks 70.

  11. Brooks 84.

  12. Brooks 85.

  13. Brooks 86.

  14. Dudley Randall, “Letter to Etheridge Knight,” dated 15 January 1967, the Etheridge Knight Papers, Canaday Collection, The University of Toledo.

  15. Jerry Ward, Jr., “Margaret Walker,” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (New York: Oxford UP, 1997) 753.

  16. Margaret Walker, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (New York: Amistad Press, 1988) 75.

  17. Walker 76.

  18. Dudley Randall, “The Black Aesthetic in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties,” The Black Aesthetic (New York: Doubleday, 1971) 40-41.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 752-753.

Bailey, Leonead, ed. Broadside Authors and Artists. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974. 25-53.

Boyd, Melba Joyce. Dudley Randall: Wrestling with the Muse. (unpublished manuscript).

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. 69-86.

Burroughs, Margaret and Dudley Randall. For Malcolm X: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968.

Danner, Margaret and Dudley Randall. Poem Counterpoem. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1966.

Danner, Margaret. Impressions of African Art Forms. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1968.

Etheridge Knight Papers, Canaday Collection, University of Toledo.

Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Doubleday, 1971.

———. The Negro Digest, Vol. XII-IX, 1963-1970; Vol. XXIV, 1975.

Randall, Dudley. Poets I Have Known. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975.

Robert Hayden Papers, Box 5, National Baha'i Archives, Willmette, Illinois.

Strong, Carline Williams. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs: Educator, Artist, Author, Founder, and Civic Leader. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1996. 154-161; 166-170.

Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad Press, 1988. 75-76.

Jacqueline Miller Carmichael (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Carmichael, Jacqueline Miller. “The Struggles and Journeys of the ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ Woman.” In Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker's Jubilee, pp. 37-48. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

[In the following chapter from her full-length study of Jubilee, Carmichael discusses recent critical re-evaluation of the novel and a brief history of critical trends in relation to Walker's work.]

Our birth and death are easy hours, like sleep
and food and drink. The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist;
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There 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.

—Margaret Walker, “The Struggle Staggers Us”

Whether Margaret Walker is writing poetry or prose, she evokes the bitterness and despair of her people and calls for a “union of the two worlds,” black and white. Within this ethos, she writes specifically of black women in America, a story of subjugation and marginalization, but also, in her view, a story of courage, perseverance, and personal triumph. This dramatic story, which is the main focus of Jubilee, has only lately begun to receive its due as an early and bold reconsideration of the roles women may play in both history and fiction.

The portion of Vyry's story that is a slave narrative, for example, reflects, like countless others that have been recorded and analyzed, the potential of the slave system to abuse and destroy the female self, but also the will and personal strength of individual women to overcome the horrors of the system. As William Andrews has written, as early as the story of Mary Prince, “female slave narrators portrayed the enslaved black woman as a person of near-indomitable dedication to the highest principles of human dignity and individual freedom.”1 This is one source of a tradition of writing by later generations. In From Mammies to Militants (1982), Trudier Harris surveys stories by black Americans about a range of black women in literature, observing that “their paradigmatic effort is to hold on to an essence of self against forces that would stereotype them, force them to conform, or dehumanize them.”2 Harris demonstrates this point with a roll call of black women in American literature who suffer under the weight of prejudice and domination: William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853) is barely able to realize her self, Charles Waddell Chesnutt's Rena Walden (1900) lives a life of divided selves, Nella Larsen's Helga Crane (1928) adjusts to others' conception of self, Zora Neale Hurston's Janie (1937) battles stereotypes to achieve what her self wanted, and Toni Morrison's Sula (1974) succumbs when expressions of her self are denied.3 Margaret Walker's Vyry (1966) is not on Harris's roll. Perhaps this is because, though Vyry's self is repeatedly denied in the abuses she endures at the hands of the slave mistress and the slave driver (while her father, the slave master, watches benignly), Vyry's self-will and self-giving allow her to dream of and to find fleeting moments of freedom and self-discovery.

Research shows how much Walker was ahead of her time in her portrait of Vyry. She portrays not only the hypocrisy and inhumanity of slavery in the South—at a time when it was still often sentimentalized—she also accurately depicts what the slaves did, in bondage and later in freedom, to gain control over their own lives and culture, to found families that have lasted through the generations, and to bequeath essential values to their descendants. The nineteenth-century actress Fanny Kemble, who married Philadelphian Pierce Butler and lived with him for a time on his family's Georgia plantation on St. Simon's, had, of course, reported in her journal about slave life much of what Walker presents in Jubilee. According to Kemble, the house servants sometimes fared much worse than the field hands and lived in torment, for they had little chance to avoid the constant observation and wrath of their superiors.4 Eugene Genovese, reporting from Kemble's Journal, wrote that white women became the aggressors more often than did their husbands, in part because of sexual jealousies and frustrations.5 Kemble's fate for writing these truths in the nineteenth century, at least in terms of her marriage to Butler and the raising of her daughters, was not unlike the fates of the women about whom she wrote; she was rebuked and legally separated from her children. Even her writing was for many years marginalized, her observations supplanted by a quaint and stereotypical view of the life she had tried to portray truthfully. By and large, then, it was not until Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), eight years after Walker's novel, that what black families and black historians had long known began to be part of even general academic knowledge in the United States.

In his chapter on “Life in the Big House,” Genovese draws on personal journals and firsthand accounts from Norman R. Yetman's Life under thePeculiar Institution” (1970) to show how house servants really lived on slave plantations. Mingo White, an ex-slave from Alabama, recalls that his mother served as maid to the master's daughter, cooked for all the field hands, carded and spun four cuts of thread a day, and then washed. There were 144 threads to cut. If his mother did not get all this done, she got fifty lashes that night. Jacob Branch of Texas reports that every washday, old Missy gave his mama a beating, because she never thought that the washing was good enough.6 Genovese concludes from Frederick Law Olmsted's A Journey in the Seaboard States in the Years 1853-1854 that the black and white women of the big house needed each other and that they lived as part of a single family, although by no means always a happy, peaceful, or loving one.7

Interestingly, initial reviewers of Jubilee in both southern and northern publications did not react perceptively or sympathetically to Walker's deconstructive treatment of the legend of the beneficent plantation, the kindly slave owner, and the paternalistic peculiar institution. What they did write, however, were general descriptions of Vyry's strong will to survive. Sheila Maroney in Crisis magazine wrote that “it was Vyry's indomitable spirit and dignity and pride that made her a woman.”8 Lester Davis, in Freedomways, credited Walker with presenting Vyry as “a woman of exceptional moral and physical strength with an innate capacity for logical reasoning.”9 In the New York Times Book Review, Wilma Dykeman accused Big Missy Salina of wreaking revenge on Vyry for her loveless marriage and sexual humiliation. However, wrote Dykeman, “the girl has hidden resources, a tough spirit that insists upon survival.”10 Finally, Abraham Chapman, in the Saturday Review, saw Vyry as a slave “who distills out of her life … a hard realism, a fierce spiritual force and hope.”11 From the writings of Genovese and the women and men after him who have documented the “world the slaves made,” we know much more now about such women with hidden resources and tough spirits, some of whom often, if not always, succeeded in surviving the constraints of slavery and the imposed poverty and vicious racism of the postemancipation period. Moreover, they left many legacies—material, spiritual, and anecdotal—to their daughters, granddaughters, and other kin.

Jeanne Noble, in her aptly titled Beautiful, also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters (1978), rightly perceived the importance and singularity of Walker's portrayal of Vyry: “What is unique about it is the view from the inner world of a black woman as written by a black woman … and it develops the character of Vyry as a model of female strength.”12 Noble called on the reader to watch Vyry at work, and she cautioned the casual reader not to make the easy assumption that Vyry is in the tradition of all the frontier women of America. Noble countered that women did help settle the West, played a variety of roles, and even assumed masculine tasks, but that these roles were generally temporary and in consort with the social values of their times. The roles played by Vyry, Noble pointed out, were never intended to be temporary ones in America. “There never has been a time of settlement for black people,” she postulated, “when black women could assume any other role.”13

In From Mammies to Militants, Trudier Harris observed that “whether victims of sexual exploitation during slavery, or tragic mulattoes who tried to escape their blackness by passing, or extremely dark-skinned black women who suffered inter- and intra-racial prejudice, or matriarchs, or welfare recipients, or the new superblack women of the 1960s, black women have been treated as types.”14 Harris presented Maya Angelou's summaries of the easy evaluations and categorizations of black women in America: “Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.” Angelou recognized—and Harris confirmed with the evidence of her wide reading—that the categories “leave little room for realistic individualistic treatment of black women.”15

Walker would agree. In an interview with Claudia Tate, Walker pulled out an unpublished manuscript that addressed Tate's question on images of black women in black American literature. Walker read some of it to Tate: “The image of black women in American literature has portrayed the black woman as she is seen in society, exploited because of her sex, her race, and her poverty. The black male writer has largely imitated his white counterparts, seeing all black characters and particularly females as lowest on the socioeconomic scale: as slaves or servants, as menial, marginal persons, evil, disreputable and powerless.”16 Walker pointed out that Leslie Fiedler's well-accepted book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) is a typical study that equates black with evil and the black woman as loose and amoral, while the blue-eyed blond woman is portrayed as virtuous and of virginal purity.

Among works that present black women with sympathy, Walker cited W. E. B. DuBois's Dark Princess (1928) and Sam Greenlee's Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969). In James Weldon Johnson's only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1955), Walker observed, the white woman is favored over the black woman. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, she said, did a little better; in general, “The positive view of women in Afro-American literature is only portrayed by black women.”17

Walker supported her argument by citing Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) as an early novel that creates a woman who is intelligent, attractive, human, and forceful in her personality.18 Harper was a poet, essayist, and novelist who was interested in the abolition movement, women's rights, and temperance. Iola Leroy is her only novel, once thought to be the first published by a black American (that distinction now belongs to Harriet Wilson's Our Nig). Iola Leroy is an account of an octoroon who refuses what would be very easy passage into white society, choosing instead to devote her energies to uplifting the black race. Walker referred to Harper's black woman as being very much like Harper herself, possessing strong moral character, an indomitable will, perseverance, and a determination to overcome all obstacles and handicaps. Walker further contended that Zora Neale Hurston, whom she knew personally, had created an immortal love story in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Hurston's black couple, Janie and Teacake, Walker argued, demonstrate a love that is readily recognized by black women as typical of their affairs with black men. “Black women have received such cruel treatment in the literature,” Walker summarized. “Only when the author is a black woman does she [the black female character] have half a chance.”19

Gloria Naylor's discussion of community, class, and patriarchy in The Women of Brewster Place (1982) affirms Walker's point of view, noting the significance of “the culture of sharing and nurturing in Brewster Place as one based on a black tradition in this country that harkens back to slavery.”20 Naylor singles out several contemporary novels written by African Americans who depict female characters in mutual support of one another. Margaret Walker's Jubilee reminds us that “it was such values that allowed the ordinary slave to survive.”21 Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973) share the common concerns of raising children and defending against sexism and racism, abuses inflicted on black women. “Although these women are independent,” Naylor argues, “it is an independence designed to fend off attack. Since the women have not chosen this independence, they prefer not to have it.” She elaborates, “In all of these novels, the women do not or cannot change their condition but learn to cope with their condition as best they can.”22

Walker's Jubilee has the scope, by virtue of its historical sweep, to tell a complex story of degradation overcome and hardships surmounted. The first part, as slave narrative, portrays the cruel and ambitious tensions between the white masters, male and female, and the people they presume to own. The second part concerns a more subtle set of interactions between the white and black women who are left on the plantation as the white men leave to fight the Civil War. These interactions include the sometimes contradictory bonding of black and white women in the face of common hardships. As Minrose Gwin has argued, when white female control is stripped away, “this midsection of the saga becomes the black woman's ascendancy. Vyry moves from the frightened slave child who ducks behind corners to avoid Big Missy, to the mainstay of what is left of the white family. Her endurance is the thread which knits this section—and the whole novel—together into a rendering of the indomitability of the Afro-American heritage.”23

Walker's portrayal of Vyry's successful application of her own inner strength contains another element that first reviewers of the novel, even sympathetic ones, missed. As critic Adrianne Baytop notes, “Walker allows Vyry to pass simultaneously from slavery to freedom and from girlhood to womanhood. Thus Walker frees her epic from the traditional male-oriented sense of the heroic, structuring her novel around Vyry … Vyry's first husband [a free and literate Negro], functions only in a supportive role to underscore Vyry's heroism.”24 This heroism is not, however, as Eleanor Traylor observes, “the movement of an epic conqueror who requires an army. Vyry's is neither a sentimental journey nor romance but a continuous process of dissolution, absorption, conversion, and realignment.”25

Given Walker's achievement, it is remarkable that Jubilee did not, when it appeared in 1966, receive more credit as a feminist and African Americanist reconstruction of both a type of the American novel and the history on which such novels had previously been based. As Charlotte Goodman points out in “From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Vyry's Kitchen” (1991), “Despite the current interest in fiction by black women writers, Jubilee has been far less frequently discussed even by feminist critics than, for example, the novels of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and a number of other contemporary black women writers.”26

Temma Berg adds, “On the surface Jubilee looks like a conventional bestseller and therefore, politically inert, [but] it can be seen as a postmodern revision of a modernist text, which gives voice to what is seldom heard—the voice of an anti-hierarchical acceptance and dismissal of difference, the voice of the feminine.” Berg uses a Chodorow-Dinnerstein-Gilligan line of argument to demonstrate that “while men value separation, integrity, hierarchical ordering, and righteousness, women value interdependence, caring, collaboration, and responsibility toward others.” Berg argues, “If we apply this dialectic to [William Faulkner's 1936 novel] Absalom, Absalom! and Jubilee, we can see Walker's book as an affirmation of the feminine ‘voice’ in all its manifestations and as a wonderfully subversive reading (whether consciously or unconsciously) of the unequivocally masculine Absalom, Absalom!” She submits that “while a story of fathers and sons must end in despair, defeat, frustration, and hopeless self-hatred, when a story of mothers and daughters is told it is able to end with hope, joy, assurance of continuity, and an ethic of caring.”27

In Render Me My Song: African-American Writers from Slavery to the Present (1990), Sandi Russell's contrasting views of Jubilee and Gone with the Wind also support such an argument. Russell writes that “by revising the stereotype of mammy and mulatta, Walker corrects the false myths that flourish in epic novels of the Civil War, and where a white writer like Mitchell sees humiliation and defeat, the black writer records triumph of Emancipation.”28

Why, then, has Walker had to wait so long for credit for her achievement? Deborah E. McDowell's essay “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism” contends that “early theorists and practitioners of feminist literary criticism were largely white females who, wittingly or not, perpetrated against the Black woman writer the same exclusive practices they so vehemently decried in white male scholars.” “Seeing the experiences of white women,” McDowell argues, “particularly white middle-class women, as normative, white female scholars proceeded blindly to exclude the work of Black women writers from literary anthologies and critical studies.”29 McDowell cites Patricia Meyer Spacks's The Female Imagination (1976) as the most flagrant example of this kind of chauvinism. McDowell also points the finger at black scholars, most of whom are males, who have excised black women writers from the African American literary tradition. As an example, she cites Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (1979): Stepto omits the names of black women writers from the table of contents and gives a “two-page” discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. McDowell offers Robert Bone's The Negro Novel in America (1958) to demonstrate that author's “partisan and superficial” reading of Jessie Fauset's novels. Although David Littlejohn's book, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (1966) praises black fiction since 1940, McDowell maintains that Littlejohn denigrates the work of Fauset and Nella Larsen. She concludes that “when Black women writers are neither ignored altogether nor merely given honorable mention, they are critically misunderstood and summarily dismissed.”30

It is remarkable that anyone could assume that because Walker often expresses a genuine humanism and positive attitude, she is unaware of such difficulties. As a woman, Walker says, she has come through “the fires of hell” because she is black, poor, lives in America, and is determined both to be a creative artist and to maintain her inner integrity and instinctive need to be free.31 She has ample evidence to agree with the assessment of Barbara Smith that “any discussion of Afro-American writers can rightfully begin with the fact that most of the time we have been in this country we have been categorically denied not only literacy, but the most minimal possibility of a decent human life.” Smith uses Alice Walker's “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens” to demonstrate this same notion of how the political, economic, and social restrictions of slavery and racism have historically stunted the creative lives of black women.32 Walker, of course, remembers well the racial injustices she experienced before being considered eligible for the Yale Younger Poets award. This is what she had to say to Kay Bonetti in 1991:

The first book For My People, I tried the Yale Younger Poets competition off and on about five years. Even when I wrote Stephen Vincent Benet and he encouraged me I wrote him in 1940 and the book was awarded in 1942. You see, it was rejected in 1940 and rejected in 1941, and I was not even going to send it in 1942, and he asked me about it. So then I sent it, and he immediately gave it the—but I learned that the publishers were not anxious to have a black woman published at Yale. I had not expected to find that kind of prejudice there. But I did discover there was strong prejudice and racism all over this country. I am like most black people who are honest and who want to achieve, you know what's out there and you strive to rise above it and overcome and achieve regardless.33

Charlotte Goodman posits another reason that Jubilee has received so little critical attention: “The novel does not focus on sexism within the black community as the novels of other contemporary black women writers frequently do.” Furthermore, she postulates, “Margaret Walker's espousal of the doctrine of Christian humanism in Jubilee, her endorsement of the principles of nonviolence, and her affirmation of the bonds between black and white women may have antagonized the more militant writers of the seventies and eighties.” Nevertheless, Goodman argues, “Jubilee deserves to be much better known than it is at present, because Walker has succeeded in representing what no other American writer has represented with so much skill or authority.” She calls the work “a compelling picture of the community of black women during the Civil War period.”34

According to Goodman, if a case can be made for including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the canon of American literature—and rightly so—then Margaret Walker's Jubilee should also be included. Because Jubilee is a fine historical novel, Goodman suggests that it can serve as an important countertext to Stowe's. Both writers present the bonding between black and white women, but Walker takes it a step further by dramatizing the ways in which women within the community are interconnected.35

Minrose Gwin adds, “the peculiarly female connection in Jubilee between natural creative principles of life and spiritual creativeness synthesizes much of what is positive in women's relationships in the earlier novels and autobiographies from the South.” Gwin argues that “Walker associates womanhood as it is personified in Vyry with burgeoning growth and fertility.” She further contends that “Vyry's nurturance of white women is part of Walker's concept of creative physicality and humanism.”36 In her essay “On Being Female, Black, and Free,” Walker suggests that the key to humanism lies in the traditional sphere and in the woman writer who values that sphere: “The traditional and historic role of womankind is ever the role of the healing and annealing hand, whether the outworn modes of nurse, and mother, cook, and sweetheart. As a writer these are still her concerns. These are still the stuff about which she writes, the human condition, the human potential, the human destiny.”37 Gwin agrees that Vyry is such a woman and such a symbol.

In the pivotal role of the “then” and the “now” woman, this is what Walker had to say about black women in the 1980s to Kay Bonetti, 1991: “I'm very refreshed with the knowledge that Black women in the 1980s were really the key to the best literature in the country. That we had a whole group. I don't know that these women were that much influenced by Wright, because I think Wright was very chauvinistic. And I think most of the Black writers up to his time were chauvinistic. Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Sterling Brown belonged to the Harlem Renaissance, but so did Zora Neale Hurston. And she was a wonderful writer—great imagination, marvelous storyteller, and just as talented as the men, but they gave her a hard time.”38

Maryemma Graham offers that “Walker is among the generation of men and women who teach and write about African-American life and culture with great pride, but whose thinking about American life and culture bear the unmistakable mark of a nascent radicalism, steeled in the Depression years, the heyday of American communism.” Graham points further to the fact that “Walker earned a reputation for her anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist sentiments, which anticipated the emergence of the New Left in the United States and Europe.” According to Graham, “Walker has an almost purist disdain for the crass materialism and societal disorientation that have become the mark of post-industrial America, remaining firm in her belief in basic human values and the intrinsic worth of man- and womankind.” Graham concludes, “I suspect it is the contradiction between Walker's adherence to certain ideals that are traditionally American and her own social radicalism that makes her critics uncomfortable with her aesthetic vision.”39 Graham deduces that this may be the very reason for Walker's exclusion from the standard literary canon.

Barbara Christian in Black Women Novelists (1980) commends Walker for revising her stereotypical characters to offset many of the false myths attached to them. Christian also compares Walker's presentation of the slave culture with that of Frances Harper's Iola LeRoy,40 which Walker could hardly have acknowledged since it was unavailable. Nevertheless, Christian credits Walker with “emphasizing the practical slave culture which, in most instances, assured survival, rather than dramatizing one of shame and humiliation or great acts of heroism.” Christian further acknowledges the content and the style of Walker's Jubilee as reflecting the many stages in the development of a tradition of black women novelists. She thinks that Walker, in essence, makes space for younger novelists to create character versus type and to explore the varied dimensions of their consciousness and craft.41

Writing authoritatively about Walker's personal achievement, Jane Campbell, Valerie Smith, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz, editors of African American Writers, believe that Jubilee and How I Wrote Jubilee, “taken as companion volumes, accentuate Walker's identification with womanhood, mothering, and healing; these two works further demonstrate how Walker's life and art are of a piece.” Campbell writes, “Celebrating her great-grandmother, Jubilee is simultaneously a paean to Walker herself, who—despite lifelong discrimination on the basis of race and gender, despite relative critical neglect, despite a negative self-image engendered by cultural animosity to diversity—has steadfastly refused to alter her vision or her image to conform to fashion.”42

The history of the debate over Jubilee is something that Margaret Walker also has transcended. She has claimed her space in the United States, where she says success is spelled with a capital S and is measured by fame and fortune. As an artist, Walker writes in “Willing to Pay the Price,” she is not concerned with this kind of success. She believes that a creative worker dealing with the fiery lightning of imagination is interested in accomplishment, and she has spent her life seeking this kind of fulfillment. “As long as I live, this will be my quest; and, as such, the superficial trappings of success can have no real meaning for me. I do not really care what snide remarks my confreres make nor how searing the words of caustic critics are. Life is too short for me to concern myself with anything but the work I must do before my day is done.”43


  1. William L. Andrews, introduction, Six Women's Slave Narratives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) xxx.

  2. Trudier Harris, From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982) xiii.

  3. Ibid. See William Wells Brown, Clotel; Or the President's Daughter (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1853); Charles W. Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900); Nella Larsen, Quicksand (New York: Knopf, 1928); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1937); Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Knopf, 1974).

  4. Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1864; Chicago: Afro-American Press, 1969) 66-67 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

  5. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974) 333.

  6. Norman R. Yetman, Life Under the “Peculiar Institution”: Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) 40, 312.

  7. Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States in the Years 1853-1854 with Remarks on Their Economy, vol. 1 (New York: Putnam, 1856; New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904) 20.

  8. Maroney 493.

  9. Lester Davis 258.

  10. Dykeman 52.

  11. Chapman 43.

  12. Jeanne Noble, Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978) 177.

  13. Ibid. 178.

  14. Trudier Harris, From Mammies to Militants 3-4. Permission granted by Maya Angelou for use of this quotation.

  15. Ibid. 4.

  16. In Tate 202.

  17. Ibid. 203-4.

  18. Ibid. 204.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, eds., Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993) 119.

  21. Ibid. 119-20.

  22. Ibid. 120.

  23. Minrose C. Gwin, Black and White Women of the Old South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985) 161.

  24. Adrianne Baytop, “Margaret Walker,” in Lina Mainiero and Langdon Lynne Faust, eds., American Women Writers (New York: Ungar, 1982) 316.

  25. Eleanor Traylor, “Music As Theme: The Blues Mode in the Works of Margaret Walker,” in Mari Evans, ed., Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984) 513.

  26. Charlotte Goodman, “From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Vyry's Kitchen: The Black Female Folk Tradition in Margaret Walker's Jubilee,” in Florence Howe, ed., Tradition and the Talents of Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991) 335-36.

  27. Temma F. Berg, “Margaret Walker's Jubilee: Refocusing William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!Women's Studies International Forum 10.5 (1987): 31.

  28. Sandi Russell, Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990) 57-58.

  29. Deborah E. McDowell, “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism,” in Angelyn Mitchell, ed., Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) 428.

  30. Ibid. 428-29.

  31. Margaret Walker, “On Being Female, Black, and Free,” in Janet Sternburg, ed., The Writer on Her Work, vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 1980) 97.

  32. Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” in Angelyn Mitchell, ed., Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) 411.

  33. Quoted in Bonetti.

  34. Goodman 336.

  35. Ibid.

  36. Gwin 156-57.

  37. Walker, “On Being Female, Black, and Free,” 106.

  38. Quoted in Bonetti.

  39. Maryemma Graham, ed., preface, Margaret Walker, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays, viii-ix.

  40. Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition 1892-1976 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980) 72.

  41. Ibid. 73.

  42. Campbell 464.

  43. Margaret Walker, “Willing to Pay the Price,” in Stanton L. Wormley and Lewis H. Fenderson, eds., Many Shades of Black (New York: Morrow, 1969) 119.

Amiri Baraka (essay date 4 January 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188

SOURCE: Baraka, Amiri. “Margaret Walker Alexander.” Nation 26, no. 1 (4 January 1999): 32-3.

[In the following essay, delivered at New York University following Walker's death, Baraka emphasizes her unique contributions to American literature.]

You cannot even spell here without her. First, Margaret Walker, Margaret Walker Alexander. She was one of the greatest writers of the language. She was the grandest expression of the American poetic voice and the ultimate paradigm of the Afro-American classic literary tradition. Margaret Walker Alexander was the living continuum of the great revolutionary democratic arts culture that has sustained and inspired the Afro-American people since the middle passage.

Hers is an American art, but an art deeply rooted in the actual life and history and feelings of the African chattel slaves, transformed by the obscene experience of slavery, from human to “real estate,” as DuBois shocks us into understanding in Black Reconstruction in America. Many were suffering throughout the world, the good doctor said, but “none of them was real estate.”

It is from this basement of the human repository of recall and emotional registration that our lives in the Western torture chamber began, and it is out of this ugliness and oppression that we have, still, made our judgments and created our aesthetic. So it is, like Douglass, Harper, DuBois, Hughes, the high-up near heaven thundermouth preachers, laboring in the darkness of our willed salvation, that Margaret Walker Alexander reaches us. Carrying our will and our history, our pain and our precise description of what it is, what it was and who was the great beast rose smoking from the Western sea, snatched us way from home and brought us here to be et, what ghost and pirate. What did this?

Margaret came from the way back. She has clearly been touched by Douglass, at the July 4 speech … that modernism post-Shakespeare and contemporary with Melville and pre-Whitman, you will find that same chronicling of pain and place that Margaret immortalizes in “For My People.” It is no accident that that poem has touched so many. Because it comes from so far back, so way before ourselves, that when we open our eyes, our minds, she is telling us what we had up in us and never not understood but could not find the words again to say, so perfect were it said.

Margaret was the human speech itself, raised like DuBois or Langston to reach past itself. To be itself, simple and open and daring to be paraphrased. She needed no hocus pocus, no abstractions, save language, full open, itself. For Margaret, like those others in the tradition, the language itself was the monster. The sounds we make everyday, stirred up, rolled around, these are the what-nots and what-it-is-es of what we slur as literature.

Margaret took the highest of the oral tradition: the oracular divinity of high religious speech. The Preacher. But not just the preacher, like Jimmy B. for instance, she reaches past the preacher to where the preacher spose to be getting his stuff from, the all-the-way-out, past the Waygonesphere. At that point, just before your eyes roll up in yr head and you screaming hallelujah, or death to slavery, there is that place, it's moving—of high-up sequential reasoning. Where Perception have took us to meet Rationale and we have persisted past that to Use and that use has rose us up from On to reach Dig, before we see Serious. As the Dogon would say.

Margaret took the Douglass mode, the grand sermonic speech form, as Bible and as Prophetic hymn, which both Blake and Kit Smart and Melville and Whitman copped on that other side, and rises up through the intense self-consciousness of the Harlem Renaissance re-expressions of assaulted humanity, wailing its beauty from under the Beast's foot, no matter, “Beast, Beast, I'm from the East” … what DuBois's Zulu grandmother chanted in the kitchen. That music from way back, as the preacher carries, as oral, as old Bible and the cap of Revelations. The symbol and metaphor—but straight on out, not dry as a bone meditatious over the paper word, while your boy up the street murdering peepas for they oil or whatever they got (check that white skull branded on your Black “Flag of skin”). But Margaret carries the flesh and blood of the oral as the written, making the page rage, the type sing, the form animate.

The reason Margaret Walker Alexander was not as rich and famous as she was beautiful is because if you tells the real life of the living peepas you is gonna, minimally, get hid, covered, as the slicksters in Warner Brothers said, as they draped the hid-cloth over Big Joe Turner, making dollars heave out Elvis (The Pod of Jackie Wilson) Presley's mouth. Because after the great Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, the twin headlines of literary divinity were Richard Wright and Margaret Walker Alexander. Both come from Mississippi, like William Faulkner (the Hunchback of Notre Dame). But Wright, finally, alas, turned quite right, or as I see it, very wrong, and Margaret always upheld the mass history and experience, the mass emotional recall from the solid viewpoint of singular clarity.

From the time she says in her first published work (published by DuBois in The Crisis), “I Want to Write,” at 19 years old, “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,” through the great “For My People.” The panoramic drama of her novel Jubilee, until her last book of poetry, This Is My Century, from the title poem to the bluntly revolutionary “I Hear a Rumbling,” Margaret stayed on the case. She always stood up. From her earliest WPA days, even though, like many of us who are whipped and 'buked and scorned for telling the truth, still, Margaret always stood up. She always spoke with the open recognizable voice of the people, a tradition she carries as strongly as Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown.

Margaret's work is always an expression of creation from a deep knowledge of Afro-American, especially Southern Afro-American, culture, as deep as Zora Neal Hurston's. But Margaret never despaired or was turned, in her words or her vision, around. She remained clear and beautiful, moving and prophetic.

Margaret Walker remains part of our deepest and most glorious voice, dimensioned by history and musicked by vision. What she tells us in her books, with that voice of sun and sky, moon and stars, of lightning and thunder, is in that oldest voice of that first ancestor, who always be with us. That is what we people have, inside, to reach where Orpheus goes each night-end to raise day again. That voice to keep us live and sane and strong and ready to fight and even ready to love. Like our mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mother and our wives and sisters and our daughters and our comrades and our mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' mother, Margaret Walker Alexander.

Maryemma Graham (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5945

SOURCE: Graham, Maryemma. “Margaret Walker: Fully a Poet, Fully a Woman (1915-1998).” Black Scholar 29, nos. 2/3 (summer 1999): 37-46.

[In the following essay written after Walker's death, Graham offers an overview of her life and work, placing Walker in the context of her literary times.]

Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915, into a family of storytellers and musicians, ministers and teachers. The Walker family—three sisters and a brother, parents and maternal grandmother—lived as a closely knit group during her early years in Alabama and Mississippi, and finally Louisiana, the place that Walker always called home, the South of her memory before and after leaving it for the first time. Strong advocates of education as a means toward racial progress and individual development, her parents nurtured and encouraged each child's individual talents. The first-born in the family, she was her father's favorite child. He gave her a daybook at age twelve; it was her first writer's journal, giving her a way to record her thoughts and the images that formed the basis for her poetry. The daybook quickly filled with numerous “ditties” and the details of the stories of slavery that were her grandmother's forte. While her father pastored churches and taught school and her mother finished college and taught music in New Orleans, Walker completed her elementary and high school education and began college.

As Walker has reported many times, it was a visit by Langston Hughes to New Orleans University (now Dillard University) that gave her the first opportunity to meet a famous “living Negro poet.” Not only did Hughes comment upon and encourage her talent, but he also stressed the importance of formal training, which in his view could only occur outside of the South. A few years later, in 1934, Walker's first published poem appeared in Crisis magazine.

Two years after moving to Chicago, Walker graduated from Northwestern University. She was 20 years old and already had a collection of poems along with the 300 pages of Jubilee she had drafted in her first college creative writing course. Breaking from the mold of young women of her time, especially for young black women, Walker elected to remain in Chicago to pursue her writing career. She found work with the Federal Writers Project, which gave her access to an active literary community and sustained her financially during the middle years of the Great Depression. More importantly, she found herself in the midst of a renaissance among a growing group of black writers. With the Harlem Renaissance having waned some few years earlier, Chicago writers now developed a new, distinctly modern style of writing influenced by the proletarian literature of the Communist left and the populist realism of the midwestern writers Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters. New fictional urban heroes and heroines emerged for whom life in the “Promised Land” had turned into a nightmare. In contrast to the Harlem Renaissance, images became less romantic and the sounds more conflicted. The rhythms of black life had changed, and new writers were needed to capture these rhythms in prose and poetry. The core of a group—led by Richard Wright—who defined this new literature began meeting as the South Side Writers Group, and included most often Margaret Walker, Frank Marshall Davis, Edward Bland, Ted Ward, Marian Minus, Fern Gaden, and St. Clair Drake. Walker's strong Christian ideals and family values that stressed a life of sacrifice and service made her sympathetic to the socialist ideas about equality that influenced the group, and further intensified her disdain for all forms of discrimination and exploitation. Like many artists and intellectuals of the 1930s, Walker became familiar with Marxist thought and regarded herself as a “fellow traveler,” although she was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Almost always the youngest member of the left front organizations she associated with and often the only black woman participant, she earned an early reputation for her inquisitive nature, her intelligence, and her remarkable talent.

Between 1936 and 1939, working with the WPA, attending regular meetings of the South Side Writers Group, affiliating with left politics, and publishing in black periodicals and mainstream journals—at a time when most young women were either looking to marry and begin their families or settle into more conventional careers—Walker established herself as a leading literary voice of her generation. She completed her signature poem “For My People,” after forming friendships with writers from Poetry magazine and working closely with Wright.

Walker returned to school in 1939, this time to complete her masters degree at the University of Iowa, where For My People became a full manuscript, which she completed to satisfy the degree requirements. After teaching at Livingstone College (North Carolina) and West Virginia State College, she received the Yale Younger Series of Writers Award. Less than a year later, she met and married Firnist James Alexander, settling down in High Point, North Carolina to begin a family. The Alexanders moved to Jackson, Mississippi with three children in 1949, where she would teach for thirty years at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). After the birth of her last child, Walker became increasingly active as a pioneer in promoting intellectual and professional ideas about education and the teaching of literature and culture, just as yet another shift was occurring in the social order. Walker's work became critical in articulating the ideological concerns of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond: her 1966 novel Jubilee was one its most important markers; and her 1973 Phillis Wheatley Festival of Black Women Writers signaled the birth of the black women's literary renaissance. The years between 1970 and her death in 1998 were her most productive. In addition to the published volumes, speeches and readings, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of Black Life and Culture, one of the earliest Black Studies formations in the nation and the first in the South. By the end of her life, Walker, a woman born of Victorian ideals, who had left the South and returned to it as one of its most radical black thinkers, had become a widely-known artist whose finely crafted prose and poetry left an indelible mark on the modern age. It is impossible to think about the Chicago Renaissance, the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement or the Women's Movement without giving acknowledgement to her work. Perhaps her greatest legacy lies in her creative struggle as a highly conscious individual who found a way to balance a demanding professional life and full engagement as a wife and mother, challenging our contemporary conceptions of seemingly contradictory domains.

In fifty-two years, Walker published eleven books, including For My People (1942), Jubilee (1966), Prophets for a New Day (1970), How I Wrote Jubilee (1972), October Journey (1973), A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974), For Farish Street (1986), Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), This is My Century: New and Collected Poems by Margaret Walker (1989); How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990), and On Being Female, Black and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker 1932-1992 (1997). An untold number of poems, short stories, reviews, letters, and speeches remain to be collected. When Walker retired from teaching in 1979 at age sixty-four, she did so with the intention of continuing an active career as a writer, public speaker, and community reformer. It was at this time that she began the biography of Richard Wright, only to have the book interrupted by illness, a lengthy court battle, the death of her husband, and repeated publication delays.

Walker's two collections of essays, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays, and On Being Female, Black and Free, published in the last decade of her life, best illuminate her importance to the history of ideas that has been reflected in black writing in America for half a century and to contemporary developments in literary and social thought. With the lead essay recounting the thirty-year journey to Jubilee, the remainder of How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays comments upon the culture of America and the ideas so central to it—religion, family, racial consciousness, the role of women—thereby serving as a useful introduction to Margaret Walker's thought. As much as any individual artist, Walker reflects the fusion of ideas that she inherited from the radical 1930s, tempered by her own cultural and social background, one that was rooted in a strong religious faith and belief in the ultimate goodness of humankind. In her essay “Willing to Pay the Price,” Walker points out her major concerns as a writer:

As a Negro I am perforce concerned with all aspects of the struggle for civil rights … Civil rights are part of my frame of reference, since I must of necessity write always about Negro life, segregated or integrated … I believe my role in the struggle is the role of a writer. Everything I have ever written or hope to write is dedicated to that struggle, to our hope of peace and dignity and freedom in the world, not just as Black people, or as Negroes, but as free human beings in a world community … I do not deny, however, the importance of political action and of social revolution … I believe that as a teacher my role is to stimulate my students to think; after that, all I can do is guide them.

Walker's comments bring to mind the works of three early Afro-American women, Ann Plato, Anna Julia Cooper, and Frances Harper. Like Plato, the earliest known Afro-American essayist, Cooper, a feminist intellectual, and Harper, the renowned antislavery poet/activist, Walker pursued her own sense of individual identity while at the same time committing herself to the stream of collective history. Like Cooper and Harper, Walker represented a small number of college educated women whose choice to develop and define a career put her at odds with the majority of women in her time. On the other hand, unlike her predecessors, Walker became a “working mother” who encountered throughout her life the typical social and economic hardships: poverty and unemployment, racial and sexual discrimination, and consistently poor health. The unevenness of her own personal history attests to the negative impact of race and gender prejudice in the lives of even the most talented African Americans. Nevertheless, Walker's voice broke through the silence of women's lives, her life always modeling the ideas she believed in so firmly. Frances Harper appears to be Walker's closest literary ancestor in her preoccupation with social issues while at the same time maintaining her reputation as a leading poet of her day.

The second collection of essays, published a year before Walker's death, is decidedly more autobiographical than the first. On Being, Female, Black and Free is conscious of shaping an image of a writer as a feminist and radical thinker. The volume tells what Walker learned as an artist in her sixty-year career and contains unabashed critiques of racist politics in her home state of Mississippi and the nation at large. Although Walker never traveled outside the continental US—she turned down her only Fulbright fellowship in 1971 for family reasons—she existed within a tradition that linked the local, national, and international concerns. Derived from some of her most popular speeches, the volume is written in Walker's characteristic apocalyptic and prophetic tone, one that is immediate and accessible. Both volumes together affirm how Walker saw herself at the end of her career: a woman who had begun to review the past and predict the future, calling a nation to order lest it fear Armageddon.

While the essays are useful for identifying the major strands of Walker's thoughts as a radical thinker and activist from the very beginning of her career, Walker's literary reputation rests primarily upon the four volumes of poetry that she published in her lifetime, and Jubilee, the historical novel that she had begun writing in college but did not complete until mid-life. For My People, completed as her Master's project at the University of Iowa, became the 1942 selection for the Yale Series of Younger Artists series. In introducing the collection, Stephen Vincent Benet spoke of the Walker's poetry as “controlled intensity of emotion and language that, even when most modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry.” Composed of poems which Walker had worked and reworked since her days at Northwestern, the volume brought to the reader an understanding of the past together with her sense of the rhythm and “feeling tone”1 of black life. She wanted the poetry to have its own distinctive voice, one that was steeped in the folk tradition, but which could express itself in both vernacular and conventional literary forms. Although her training at Northwestern had been in classical English forms, Walker learned the forms of modern poetry in Iowa, a tradition that emphasized the work of Walt Whitman, Randall Jarrell, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as well as the experimentalism of e.e. cummings.

This training, along with her apprenticeship with the WPA and the South Side Writers Group, resulted in the twenty six poems of For My People, where Walker demonstrated her unique talents as a lyricist and modernist innovator who would not abandon her roots in the folk tradition. For My People took the reader on a psychic journey into the past, conjoining despair and hope, pride and pain, destruction and creation, separation and reunion. In the volume, the sacred and the profane merge as the reader grasps the profound and subtle significance of racial memory. Each poem becomes part of a “collective narrative of memory” as told through a black vernacular matrix which emphasizes the flow and rhythm of the myths, folk tales, legends, ballads and narratives as well as free verse forms, sonnets, odes, and elegies. Structurally, the volume emulates the call and response pattern inherent in traditional African American expression. Part I includes ten verse poems that explore the historical terrain of African American history: each stanza introduces a montage of scenes relating various historical moments in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Part II provides a vernacular response to the more discursive first section. Ten more ballads, folk tales and black hero/heroine exploits change the tone of the volume entirely. The effect is to give the “folk” an opportunity to speak for themselves in their own voice. Walker returns to traditional poetic forms in a third part, containing six poems which begin with a personal memory of childhood. The collection ends by emphasizing the importance of struggle in the physical world—a struggle that, historically, neither overshadowed nor diminished an African American spiritual sensibility bounded by love and compassion, one that connects us all through space and time. The call-and-response structure is complemented by the way in which Walker uses voice to establish a shift in her own poetic identity. Dramatically intense imagery utilizing contrasting metaphors is presented in the first person singular when Walker wants to define herself as part of the stream of history, seen, for example in this excerpt from “Lineage”:

My grandmothers are full of memories
Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay
With veins rolling roughly over quick hands
They have many clean words to say.
My grandmothers were strong.
Why am I not as they?

The knowledge of that history becomes the individual poet's song, which “Today” illustrates:

I sing of slum scabs on city faces, scrawny children scarred by bombs and dying of hunger, wretched human scarecrows strung against lynching stakes, those dying of pellagra and silicosis, rotten houses falling on slowly decaying humanity.

The first person plural form is reserved for those moments when the self and history are completely merged, when Walker wants no separation between time and place in the collective memory, stressing instead the continuity of experience, the facts of history. “Delta” makes this shift in its second section:

We tend the crop and gather the harvest
but not for ourselves do we labor. …
here by this river we dare not claim
Yet we are an age of years in this valley;
yet we are bound til death to this valley.
We with our blood have watered these fields
and they belong to us.

Finally, Walker is at her best when adopting the representative persona of her people: she symbolizes their voice, writing for all those who are silenced through hunger, despair, hypocrisy, and death. The human spirit is never crushed, evidenced by their “dirges and their ditties, their blues and their jubilees … their prayers … their strength,” which Walker rhythmically announces, mindful of the need for this ceaseless faith to build a bridge to the future. By consistently offering before us a catalog of images that rush before us at a dizzying pace, Walker makes the volume visual and dramatic. The oft quoted final stanza of “For My People,” represents the emotionally charged climax that we have been waiting for. The tone is assertive and uplifting; we are witnessing a world emergent, a new work-in-progress.

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; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.

Even though Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen had produced distinctive poetry that had claimed the attention of mainstream audiences, no one before Walker had approached African American poetry with the single-minded intensity and concern for craft as Walker had. In this sense, “For My People” was a coming of age for African American poetry, as it was for the author herself, signifying the dynamism and continuity of African American poetic expression that would extend through the emergence of the Black Arts Movement and performance poetry of the 1990s. “For My People”—by far the most widely anthologized poem in the African American canon—celebrated and commemorated the past in such a way that its continuous readings for over sixty years have helped to sustain the historical identity of the African American community.

The four succeeding volumes, October Journey, Prophets for New Day, Farish Street, and the new poems in This is My Century continue to be songs of her people written in various keys corresponding to the social and historical movements of the 20th century: the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the Women's Liberation Movement. Walker's ability to provide heavily nuanced portraits of black life in her ballads and folk poems and in her odes to black heroes and heroines dignify and value a people who “had to develop compassion out of suffering.” In her poems about the South, the beauty of the natural landscape is juxtaposed with the horrors of the social landscape. This is the “voice of the South” that she inherited, growing up in a highly self-conscious and intellectual environment tempered by a strong folk sensibility. Walker believed that poetry was the ultimate humanism: poetry gives us images of who we are, what we feel and know; it is that creative source that allows for a unique interplay between our past, present and future.

Jubilee is Walker's family chronicle and a further demonstration of her humanistic philosophy. Like the poetry, the sources for the novel are folklore and history, through which Walker captures the vitality of black life in the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The first novel to challenge the distorted and romanticized depiction of black life popularized by Gone With the Wind. Jubilee brought a female voice to a story of significant complexity. It asked the critical questions of slavery as it showed the survival of a woman and her family, due primarily to the strength of her character and spirit. Jubilee is Vyry's story—modeled after Walker's maternal great-grandmother. Desperately desiring her freedom, Vyry makes one unsuccessful attempt to escape. One of the most dramatic scenes in the novel is Vyry “with the baby in her arms and Jim pulling on her stuffed pantsleg, … [starting] out to make it to the swamp.”

While Vyry's flight to freedom is delayed until the war is over, Walker's real achievement in the novel is its celebration of black women's lives. As such, Jubilee helped to pave the way for black women's voices in fiction and the new literary renaissance that followed the publication of the 1966 novel. The autobiographical significance of the novel goes beyond the correspondences between the author's story and historical facts about Randall Ware and his descendants. Because Walker combined the format of the slave narrative and the historical novel, she was free to alternate between versions of family history and the fiction that she created herself. Moreover, Walker made Jubilee a record of her own journey as a woman and mother who was vocal both inside and outside of her home and community. The novel allowed Walker and Vyry a context for participating in the emerging political debates of the Civil Rights Movement, which were more intense in Mississippi than in any other state in the South. Vyry's values are driven by Christian humanism and compassion, as she says “God knows I ain't got no hate in my heart for nobody. If I is and doesn't know it, I prays to God to take it out. I ain't got no time to be hating. I believes in God and I believes in trying to love and help everybody, and I knows humble is the way” (406, Jubilee).

The novel's political message is shaped about the domestic novel plot, Vyry's continuing search for a place she could call home. Amid the torrid violence, the dehumanizing conditions of slavery and the devastation of war, Walker placed a love story between a black man and woman. This human side to slavery that is neither sentimental nor exaggerated forces the reader into dialogue with a struggling black community trying to make sense out of their post-slavery existence. Migration out of the South is surely an option, but Walker chose to present a Southern black perspective, to present options as they evolved out of the “souls of black folk” tied to a land and a heritage which they were unwilling to abandon. Vyry's rise from degraded bastard child of slave owner Jim Dutton to virtual head of the Dutton plantation parallels her belief that she must remain, after the war's end, to care for a hateful former mistress, whose loss of body and soul signify the spoils of war.

Vyry's departure from the Dutton plantation is further delayed by months of waiting for the return from the North of Randall Ware, the free man that she married during slavery and who is the father of her first two children. Having few options, Vyry eventually gives up waiting for Ware, who, tragically, returns to the Dutton plantation too late to reunite with his family. Just before leaving Georgia for Alabama, Vyry marries Innis Brown, the ex-slave who is committed to her and her children, and to the black community's search to find the road forward. The couple, with Vyry's children, moves to Alabama in search of a homestead. Together they go through five years of struggle, persecution, and wandering in Reconstruction Alabama before finally finding a safe place on which to settle down and farm. It is then that Randall Ware, having learned of their location, makes the journey to their home.

Randall Ware's reappearance forces Vyry to make a decision; her choice between two husbands—one who is on his way to becoming the black representative in a Reconstruction government and another who is content to seek his economic independence as a farmer—is a unique rendering of the Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois debates concerning the means toward black political power and equality, ideas which were immediately relevant to the 1960s generation. During the late 1960s, the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was challenged by both the radical political action in the South—in the form of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—and in the North—in the form of Malcolm X. Vyry's decision is to remain a farmer's wife, but she is content to give her son to the movement—by letting Randall Ware take him away to raise and educate him. Jubilee re-voices the theme from “For My People”: “Let a new earth rise and a new world be born / Let a generation of men now rise and take control,” as Vyry gives her son to the movement. As a middle-aged woman living in the wake of a tumultuous social movement in Jackson, Mississippi, Walker, through Jubilee, presented the African American perspective on slavery and its aftermath at the same time she dramatized the relationship between gender and ideology in a previous historical period that had significance for the present. Jubilee, like For My People, was her way of using culture to speak about the complex social and historical position of blacks in an era of cataclysmic change.

According to the critics, Walker's least successful book is Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. The book clearly achieved its main objective, to present a psychological profile of a man with “bitterness and hatred and anger festered inside of him … he was full of rage—and rage boiled up inside into a raging flood out of control. It … drove him to write.” That it might be viewed as “awkward, pedantic, and repetitive,” or “appears to have been hardly edited” may have as much to do with the conditions of its publication as with Walker's abilities as a biographer. The book came out five years after it was originally scheduled for release, was sued for copyright infringement by Wright's widow Ellen and was orphaned by several publishers. It finally appeared when editor Charles Harris took the galleys with him to found a new imprint of Warner Books.

There is no question that Daemonic Genius is different from the kind of biographies that had previously been written. As an artist, Walker questioned the very possibility of “objectivity” at the outset and was more concerned about how the mind works to create and fulfill its passion, its longings, its desires. The uniqueness of the book is to show aspects of Wright's personality, one she knew well as a result of their close relationship during the 1930s. When Walker met Wright, she was a college-educated, but naive young poet from the South; Wright, a self-educated, black artist-intellectual also from the South. She had come to Chicago because her parents had listened to Langston Hughes's advice to “get her out of the South.” Wright had come, like thousands of blacks before him, to find a better life away from the violence and repression that would have condemned him to a life of eternal hunger, both physical and intellectual. Their mission, therefore, coincided; their talents blossomed in the fertile intellectual and political climate of the Chicago Renaissance. Walker quickly realized Wright to be a genius and a troubled soul, the sources of a passionate and committed art. For the book, she created her own prose style, as had been her custom. Combining a psychological approach with a historical one, personal impressions with critical ones, she wanted to show how Wright sought to ameliorate his inner conflicts through fiction and nonfiction; he was successful because he could turn “anger, ambivalence, alienation and aberration” into expressions of art. Walker did not write the book that critics wanted, and her emphasis on Wright's psychological profile as a “daemonic genius” together with the public perception that she had been rejected by Wright made her an easy target. Few critics took the book seriously. Hers was a creative biography of a creative individual, and as such, yet another literary accomplishment for Walker as a major writer.

Walker's initial appearance in the late 1930s and 1940s, her resurgence in the late 1960s and 1970s, and again in the late 1980s seems to contradict the inherent dualism common in the lives of many creative women. She celebrated her role as a reproductive woman, but she also fulfilled her need to create and assume authority outside of the domestic sphere. She would not, could not remain silent, despite lack of access to the mainstream literary establishment. Eleanor Traylor interprets Walker's continual resurgence as deliberate, suggesting that her life and work form a poetic biography of the 20th century. As Walker became increasingly more conscious of investing time and historical events with political and symbolic significance, it became more important for her to reemerge at periodic and critical moments that corresponded with the major social and cultural developments in this nation. By stepping in and out of public attention as she did, and by maintaining an extraordinarily stable home and family life, she could maintain a singular commitment to speaking in her own voice without fear of reprisal from the popular establishment.

When Margaret Walker began to write as a child, influenced by the legacy of an extremely protective middle class family whose intelligence, creativity, and innovativeness crafted for her a unique Southern education, she located the basis for a synthesis of her creative and intellectual powers. She left home for the first time to be educated into the talented tenth, but wanted most to be a poet, fulfilling her dreams before she turned thirty. But for the majority of the fifty-three remaining years, she lived quite a normal life as a woman, and a paradoxical one as a poet and writer. Recognized as gifted and given access to the mainstream at an early age, one necessarily questions why she disappeared from public notice for twenty three years, or why she took thirty years to write her single novel. The answer does not seem to lie in the simplistic explanation that her marriage put an end to her successful career or at least delayed her creative potential, as it did for many nineteenth-century women. Walker's aggressiveness seems to refute such a claim, especially since she refused the hand of one suitor who did not believe women should work and chose instead another who respected and supported her professional ambitions.

In retrospect, it appears that Margaret Walker viewed her life as part of a poem that was constantly evolving. Because she respected the values of her own era—that defined womanliness primarily in terms of first a romantic, then a nurturing, maternal love—and transcended them at the same time, her story exemplifies the importance of authorial agency for a writer whose greatest gift was her capacity to imagine possibilities where none existed. That story is more textured than most because Walker's desire for voice, for agency and for visibility operated within the multiple contexts in which she claimed her existence.

In carrying out her mission as a black woman, Margaret Walker forged a singular discourse in relationship to the multiple dialogues she engaged: first as a child, growing up in a highly self-consciousness and intellectual environment tempered by a folk sensibility; then as a young adult, finding her voice in a Depression-era Chicago dominated by labor activism and Marxist ideology; and finally as an established Southern writer and educator, whose writings anticipated as much as they mirrored the Civil Rights Movement and the tragedies that followed. Her work was very diverse, the poetry and novel followed by personal essays and scholarship and a biography of a major figure. This multi-layered vision expressed a unified voice, one that emerges by her own statement, from “an unbroken tradition of humanistic values that did not spring from Renaissance Europe but developed in Asia and Africa before the religious wars of the Middle Ages.” Walker's conscious effort to revise and expand the definition of humanism, to deconstruct humanism, if you will, allowed her to synthesize many meanings and elements. Fundamentally, this humanistic vision “embodies a recognition that we are part of nature and the historical process … that life must be richly developed in spirit rather than mere matter.”2 Being part of nature not only had symbolic meaning for her writing, but for her life as well. Her family was the ultimate test of her humanity, the highest symbol of her existence.

But critics found Walker's humanism to be a limitation on her voice. The Yale Review in 1943 commended For My People as a collection of poems that “reflect the individual and a race … in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity,” but criticized the “loosely rhetorical … and commonplace sonnets” and the “dialect verses,” calling them “faltering imitations of gutter blues, swaggering ballads, and hearty folkstuff.”3 On the whole, establishment critics opposed Walker's efforts to combine literary forms such as sonnets, lyrics, and odes with “flawed” folk poetry, while reviews of Jubilee were generally favorable. The synthesis that Walker tried to achieve and represent as her aesthetic vision, the conscious fusion of popular and literary forms, of spiritual and material reality, of psychic and physical worlds, was seldom explored by her critics. That which brought ideological clarity impeded her acceptance by critics. Part of the criticism derived from Walker's effort to move outside of the genre of poetry for which she had seemingly been destined. The literary establishment granted her a status as a young poet with an award-winning volume, but someone whose professional career did not necessarily live out its promise.

Margaret Walker saw herself as a creative person who was always transforming the text of her own life, synthesizing and experimenting within each genre she elected to utilize. She had an uncanny ability to pinpoint and to respond to new cultural needs—responses which often challenged accepted forms. In her later years her being ignored by mainstream critics may well have turned out to be a blessing. The Black Studies and Women's movements and the accompanying interest by publishers in promoting literature arising from them brought increased attention to her work. Those who came to know her in the last years of her life were students in the schools and colleges of the nation who found “For My People” in a standard anthology or who were lucky enough to hear her read as she carried out her role as a people's poet. This seems appropriate for a woman who had spent so much of her life in school. Margaret Walker was born 15 years into the century; she died a year before the turn of that same century whose troubled past had made her its most ardent chronicler. She had lived, fully a woman, fully a poet, and true to her own voice, wrote her final poem as a meditation on her own approaching death. She called it appropriately, “Fanfare, Coda and Finale.”

Grant me one song to sing, America, out of my hurt and
bruised dignity; let notes confused and bursting
in my throat find melody. Reprieve the doom descending on
my life. Remake the music stifling in my throat.
my song is lost resound the tune and hear my voice.
Out of my struggle I have sung my song; found hymn and
flower in field and fort and dungeon cell. Yet now I
have constriction in my heart where song is born.
bitterness is eating at my vocal chords the bells within
me, hushed, refuse to ring. Oh lift this weight of brick
and stone against my neck, and let me sing.


  1. A term frequently used by Walker to denote the unique sound and rhythmic quality informed by a collective historical consciousness that characterizes African American written and oral expression.

  2. How I Wrote Jubilee, p. 124.

  3. Louis Untermeyer, “New Books in Review,” Yale Review XXXII:2 (Winter 1943), p. 371.

Nancy Berke (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15328

SOURCE: Berke, Nancy. “The Girl Who Went to Chicago: Political Culture and Migration in Margaret Walker's For My People.” In Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker, pp. 123-56. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2001.

[In the following chapter from her book on three poets, Berke deconstructs the text of For My People, suggesting that the themes of black northward migration and the economic and social conditions of the 1930s are important to an understanding of Walker's work.]

This is my century—
Black synthesis of time:
The freudian slip
The Marxian mind
Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith
and DuBois prophecy: the color line.
These are the comrades of Einstein,
the dawning of another Age,
new symphony of Time.

—Margaret Walker, “This Is My Century,” 1983

Looking back over fifty years of writing poetry from the vantage point of a black woman, Margaret Walker paradoxically names her “black synthesis of time” through conflicting, totalizing ideologies of the white male thinkers: Freud, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Einstein. While crossing DuBois's prophetic “color line,” Walker, a celebrated novelist, poet, essayist, and teacher, engages the discourses of class, psychology, religion, and science. Yet an important feature missing in her synthesis is gender. The gender consciousness that is absent from the twentieth-century equation that Walker sets up is more a problem of her Depression-era influences, to which the above names belong, than of her development as a black woman writer. How Walker uses these influences, and into what remaining spaces she places her gendered articulations, is the focus of this particular discussion.

Margaret Walker was twenty-seven years old when she published her first book of poems, For My People. It was the first by an African American writer to receive a national literary prize—the 1942 Yale Younger Poets Award.1 To come of age as a black woman poet during the Depression required a peculiar sense of awareness of the social, political, and economic structures that shaped the artist's manner of seeing. Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915. She went north to attend Northwestern University and spent the decade of the 1930s working and writing in Chicago. In 1949 she became a professor of English at Jackson State University in Mississippi and later founded the black studies program there. Critical attention to Walker's work focuses almost exclusively on her evocations of southern life. She is perhaps best known for her important best-selling novel Jubilee, which she worked on for nearly thirty years, based upon her great-grandmother's experiences as a slave during the Civil War.2 The critical work on For My People has tended to emphasize the text's geographical aspects, its connection to the landscape of the American South as well as its articulation of myth and ritual within the contexts of the African diaspora.3 Though it would be inaccurate to de-emphasize the centrality of the tropes of the South in her work, Walker's participation in the northern migration—her early years in Chicago—had a significant impact on her construction of southern life in For My People and needs to be more thoroughly engaged.4

During her years in Chicago, Walker was exposed to the proletarian literary tradition through her close associations with Richard Wright, her participation in the South-Side Writers' Project (affiliated with the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration), and her membership in the Chicago chapter of the League of American Writers. Reading For My People should be informed by both South and North, the journey and the arrival, the rural and the urban, Walker's Chicago years, the marxist influence upon her work, and her infusion of working-class politics into African American myth and ritual. The dual importance of the Great Migration and the Depression on Walker's movement from southern “petty bourgeois” black society into the social and cultural spaces of northern cities is also noted, including her discovery “that people who worked with their brains were also workers” (How I Wrote Jubilee 7). Walker's letters to Richard Wright, written in the late 1930s, offer a glimpse of the kind of activities that she immersed herself in at the time. She attended classes and lectures at the worker's school on dialectical materialism, Marxism-Leninism, art and society, the proletarian novel, and proletarian poetry.5 She promoted and enlisted subscriptions for the black radical literary journal, Challenge, which Wright, Dorothy West, and others were editing on the East Coast. She wrote a novel, Goose Island, about the shattered hopes of a talented female musician from Bronzeville.6 She was a poetry editor of and contributed fiction to Jack Conroy's refurbished New Anvil, which he put out with Nelson Algren. Walker organized meetings in support of loyalist Spain at a local black church and was active in the union chapter formed by members of the South-Side Writers' Project. Yet in her letters she complains to Wright that her writing remained her top priority and that her organizational commitments would have to be sacrificed in order for her to get her creative work done. More closely linked to her writing than attempts at activism, Walker occupied herself by reading the white male and largely European canon of socially conscious literature: Zola, Malraux, Gide, Gorky.

As a black woman, Walker's experience of the Depression was decidedly different from and often more difficult than the realities faced by her white contemporaries. The radical culture of the 1930s encouraged Walker to struggle to represent the contemporary concerns of her people, while providing a historical record of her reading of black structures of feeling. This chapter follows Margaret Walker's journey across the color line in literary forms. As Cary Nelson suggests, For My People, with its urban laments and odes of slavery and its trickster ballads and sonnets of protest, shows “how a plural textuality can articulate the fragmented, conflicted subcultures of the social formation” (Repression and Recovery 178).

A tacit feminist awareness can be found in several important poems in For My People, even if gender is not the predominant focus in the developmental stages of Walker's career as a social poet. She does interweave gendered articulations within the more central categories of race and class. In various places throughout For My People, Walker shows interest in the complicated movements of African American women. In fact, her own fascination with the stories her maternal grandmother told of her own mother's experiences in slavery gave her an early understanding of the significance of women's labor. Many of the poems in For My People depict the strength of working women and men in the face of adversity, with their muscular bodies, knowing only exploitation. Such representations of the strong, impassive, yet exploited working-class body invoke the Depression-era tropes found in the proletarian realist manifestos of Mike Gold as well as Walker's Chicago compatriot Jack Conroy. Important to note, however, Walker's characterizations of black female labor are subtle; she is cautious of feeding the stereotyped representation of the black female laborer's superstrength. Such a line is drawn in “Lineage,” an ironic testimony of gender power created by unfree women and memorialized by a daughter of freedom:

My grandmothers were strong.
They followed plows and bent to toil.
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew.
They were full of sturdiness and singing.
My grandmothers were strong.
My grandmothers are full of memories
Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay.
With veins rolling roughly over quick hands
They have many clean words to say.
My grandmothers were strong.
Why am I not as they?

The poem explores the writer's regret at the divide created between her life as a black female intellectual and the laboring history of her female ancestors: “Why am I not as they?” she asks. Although Walker composed the poem as she discovered that intellectual labor was also “labor,” she projects an inferior status upon her manner of toil to the far superior physical work performed by her grandmothers who “moved through fields sowing seed.” The grandmothers, with their “many clean words to say,” reverse the idea of physical labor as dirty; mental labor in its distance from sweat and earth becomes dirty; it is, in a sense, ineffectual; it yields nothing. In fact Walker refigures a popular proletarian trope and writes black women into proletarian literature by subordinating intellectual desire and angst to the laboring black woman who “followed plows and bent to toil.” Indeed, with “Why am I not as they?” Walker laments her own disconnection from the real work of her ancestors and asks: How is it that women with far fewer choices than the poem's speaker were able to create and maintain unimaginable worlds against unimaginable odds?

“Lineage” restores a history to black women and anticipates the early demands for inclusion that feminists of color advocated in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of liberal and cultural feminism's failure to see race as a central problem within the women's movement.7 Walker does not entertain a separate struggle for black women in For My People as a whole. Yet in several of her poems, representations of black female experience as distinct from black community experience are clear examples of her awareness of gender difference, even if such differences remained untheorized in Depression-era black communities. Yet it is most likely that Walker hoped poems like “Lineage,” which address issues unique to African American women's experience(s), and “For My People,” which describes African Americans' historical and collective movements (and named through the masculine linguistic sign, “men,” as was standard at that time), would be understood as representations of community rather than as explorations of gender identity. Additionally, as suggested in the beginning of this chapter, Walker also filters her representations of community and gender through dominant cultural tropes such as class, psychology, and religion, which seem to play an even larger role in her articulations of African American life.

For My People is very much a text of discovery, and Walker's realization “that people who worked with their brains were also workers” allowed her to place herself within the discourse of race and class consciousness as these began to infuse African American writing in the 1930s. Whereas the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s exemplified race pride at the level of cultural trope, the radical lyrics that Walker and other African American poets began to produce in the 1930s called for a more militant expression, a demand for lyrical evocations of the need for social transformation: “Let a race of men now rise and take control” is how Walker closes “For My People.” This poem depicts the immensely complicated and arduous movements African American men and women have made through immutably hostile terrain, while searching in these movements for the possibility of social change.

The volume For My People challenges the modernist poetics of the American male left by bringing to it a black, gendered vision. The book is divided into three parts, each exploring distinct African American cultural, social, and historical tropes. The first section contains stylistically varied, experimental poems about black social history, with emphasis on the southern landscape. The second section contains rearticulations of African American folklore, from the labor hero John Henry to the infamous trickster bad boy Stagolee. Walker's insistence on representing black female social and communal agency presents some feisty heroines who refigure the folklore genre's male-centered biases. The third and final section is comprised of sonnets. Though these sonnets were criticized by several of the book's reviewers, and, as Walker claims, her friends “the black male scholars and critics” (This Is My Century xvii) also maligned them, they resist and collapse the associations that the sonnet has had in traditional discussions of the form. Like the other two poets in this study, Lola Ridge and Genevieve Taggard, Walker wrote “political” sonnets. Perhaps to emphasize the formal interventions she hoped these poems would make, she gave them blunt titles such as “Whores” and “The Struggle Staggers Us.” As Ridge desired with “Electrocution” and Taggard with “Silence in Majorca,” Walker attempted to turn the form on its head. The tension and resolution found in the first and final sections of the sonnet form, conventionally concerned with love or honor, get quite a jolt as they convey the effects of the death penalty, of fascism, and of racism.8

The title poem that opens For My People is perhaps the best introduction to the book as a whole, particularly in a reading that emphasizes the cultural and historical material that informed its production.9 As Walker would tell Alferdteen Harrison fifty years after the book's publication:

I wrote these poems … in the decade of the 1930s. It was a period of depression—black people suffered along with everyone else from lack of jobs, from lack of standard housing, from lack of appropriate schooling. We were literally outcast from the general society. But then there were poor white people too, and poor working people. It was a time when unions were struggling to have collective bargaining, to have a forty-hour week.


“For My People” is a powerful, mantralike prose verse testimonial on the experiences of African Americans. It moves chronologically from the culture of slavery to the author's bitter present of “hypocrisy and misunderstanding” to, finally, a militant resolution in the closing stanza calling for “another world to be born” in which “martial songs” replace “dirges” and a “new earth” unfolds for a new generation of people fully shaped by a revolutionary black consciousness.10 “For My People” captures an important American historical moment as the black South moves north; it is a text of migration and rural dislocation.

The poem's opening emphasis is on the cultural products of slavery—“dirges” and “ditties,” “blues” and “jubilees”—it also explains Walker's more general attraction to folk ritual, which permeates the entire book. She presents the aesthetic practice of “slave songs,” however, in contradictory fashion, creating a tension between musical settings: lamentations, devotionals, and popular balladry. Yet behind the powerful spiritual intensity created through song is the tacit reminder that such tropes are also products of domination, of a subduing of spirit and will. As the stanza closes, the songs are rounded out by “knees” bending “humbly” in prayer to an “unseen power.” Walker fuses the attitudes of her Methodist upbringing with the marxism of Chicago radicals: if resistance is to be created it must be done through an understanding of one's surroundings. As the poem proceeds, it explores the variance and incongruities of developing and maintaining race, class, and gender consciousness, keeping alive folk traditions while yearning for all the forms culture can take.

The poem's momentum is best characterized by a vocabulary of activity, while each stanza replicates a stage in the life cycle from birth, to adulthood, and finally toward regeneration. Walker laments the “strength” of her people being spent “washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending / hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching / dragging along.” The present continuous tense used in the second and seventh stanzas suggests the exhaustion of labor without any of the romanticization that certain types of proletarian poetry have used to mute the grim realities of working-class life. Walker spares us the commas; these tasks run one into the other. Endless and mindless, they describe a people “never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding.” Again no commas: and even then, out-of-breath readers will not know the half of it. This straining toil, evoking southern labor on the land, is matched in the seventh stanza's evocations of displacement, probably to metaphorize the disorientation caused by the northern migration: “For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when burdened, / drinking when hopeless.” In fact the poem's sixth stanza, which just precedes the above lines, speaks directly of dislocation, whether caused by the move north in which so many African Americans took part, or the equally disordering move from country to city:

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New 
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people's pockets needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own.

The wants and needs and desires that are evoked by the use of the conjunction “and,” always a grammar of continuation, characterize the sense of being “lost disinherited dispossessed.” Yet Walker is careful to construct contradiction within the interstices of movement: “lost disinherited dispossessed and happy / people” fill “cabarets and taverns.” There is desire even in dislocation, the search for something “all our own,” a people who, in the penultimate stanza, try to “fashion a better way / from confusion”; they attempt to refashion themselves within their new surroundings.

Two million African Americans migrated from the South to the North between 1900 and 1930. Postbellum life for southern blacks continued to be limiting in every conceivable way—socially, politically, personally, and most evident, financially. Historian Jacqueline Jones provides a more concrete explanation for the migration:

[There was] … the oppressive sharecropping system, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, a plague of boll weevils working its way toward the Cotton Belt. When World War I opened up employment possibilities in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, mass migration began in earnest: the lure of high wages and a freer life proved irresistible to a people limited to agricultural and domestic service in the land of neoslavery.


A prominent visual image that appeared during the period of the Great Migration was the newspaper photograph of African Americans—men, women, and children—boarding trains by the hundreds for the great northern cities: Chicago, New York, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia. Chicago's preeminent black newspaper the Defender advertised jobs in hopes of luring young black men to the booming industrial city. These ads screamed opportunities that would have been inconceivable in the South. One such ad read: “Laborers wanted for foundry, warehouse and yard work. Excellent opportunity to learn trades, paying good money. Start $2.50-$2.75 per day. Extra for overtime” (quoted in Takaki 343). Although black men would benefit far more than black women in terms of job choice and financial reward, women were no less anxious to be part of the migration. In fact, men who migrated along with their wives looked forward to seeing them treated fairly—not only as workers but also as shoppers. Yet as Jacqueline Jones maintains, “[f]ew migrants, male or female, abandoned the South totally or irrevocably” (159). Individuals made frequent returns, relatives were sent for, money and goods flowed south, but southern goods were also sent north, along with the culture and lore people brought with them. One positive, irrevocable change that the northern migration affected was the cultural contact between the black South and the largely white North. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes of the important cultural significance of the migration: “Just as slavery inadvertently created a new ‘African’ culture—a New World Western, Pan-African culture and ethnicity—so, too, did the Great Migration create a new culture, one northern and urban yet thoroughly southern in its roots” (17).

Margaret Walker claimed her coming north in the early 1930s to attend Northwestern, her father's alma mater, was based on Langston Hughes's advice. Hughes, whom Walker had met while living in New Orleans as a teen, felt her writing talent could never be nurtured in the South.11 Yet the North as a place of opportunity was not without its own incongruities. The discrimination she assumed would be reversed in the North, she soon discovered was an everyday reality for her northern sisters and brothers. In the essay “Growing Out of Shadow” first published in Common Ground in 1943, Walker notes her surprise that the expectations she had about northern opportunities and promises were proved wrong. She quickly understood that racism did not disappear once one crossed the Mason-Dixon line. “In the South,” she writes,

I had always thought that, naturally, white people had more money than colored people. Poor white trash signified for me the lazy scum of the marginal fringe of society with no excuse for poverty. Now I discovered there were poor white working people exploited by rich white people. I learned that all Jews were not rich. I discovered that all Negroes were not even in the same economic class. While there were no Negro multimillionaires, there were many wealthy Negroes who made money by exploiting the poor Negroes, who had some of the same attitudes toward them that rich whites had toward poor whites and that prejudiced whites have toward all Negroes.12

She also writes about being “refused service in restaurants in Evanston and Chicago time and time again” (6). Though this is but one of many instances of northern racist practice, it had a symbolic resonance for African Americans that would eventually give birth to actions such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee lunch-counter sit-ins during the nascent years of the Civil Rights movement.

The “people thronging 47th Street in Chicago,” the image that begins the sixth stanza of “For My People,” signifies the poet herself as witness to the migrating bodies creating a new community in the Midwestern metropolis. The need and desire, the sense of dislocation, and the urgency evoked by Walker's descriptions register a lament and longing for the South as home. However, there is also a sense of vibrancy; cities like Chicago still offered hope. “47th Street in Chicago” was a hub of African American community and must have surely given Walker a sense of identity, albeit complex and contradictory, even if she saw herself as a transplanted southerner.

The contradictions Walker found in the crowded streets of Chicago's black belt might be better understood by considering an important study of the city, which examines both the resignation of Chicago's black community and its pride and fortitude. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton provide an exhaustive analysis of Chicago's black belt in their Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. Richard Wright, who wrote the introduction to the first edition published in 1945, describes the book as an important “scientific report upon the state of unrest, longing, hope among urban Negroes” (xxv).13 Drake and Cayton describe “Bronzeville,” the name given to Chicago's South Side with 47th Street as its main thoroughfare, with a liveliness in sharp contrast to the white world surrounding and enclosing it. A “continuous eddy of faces—black, brown, olive, yellow, and white” (379) circulates through a neighborhood filled with its own newspapers, professionals, clerks, and policemen. Theaters and billboards announcing black art and entertainment, and a plethora of churches, steady streams of shoppers, agents, “irate tenants,” job seekers, and picketers create a vital atmosphere of heterodox enterprise. Yet like Walker, Drake and Cayton are aware of the temptation to romanticize the ghetto and pointedly avoid doing so. The thronging bodies of 47th Street are casualties of a Jim Crow system, and their separation and their enforced poverty are ever present and reminders of a people “preyed on by a facile force of state and fad and novelty,” as Walker tells us in “For My People.” Richard Wright, in his introduction to Drake and Cayton's book, also expressed a sense of the city's contradictions. His dialectical response was no doubt something he was able to share with Walker during the years of their friendship in Chicago:

Chicago is the city from which the most incisive and radical Negro thought has come; there is an open and raw beauty about the city that seems either to kill or endow one with the spirit of life. I felt those extremes of possibility, death and hope, while I lived half hungry and afraid in a city to which I had fled with the dumb yearning to write, to tell my story.


A sense of despair, of crampedness, of wonder and discovery, the contradictions and confusions that make up the bemused quest of a people cut off from their past and determined to fashion a future, set the pace for Walker's final message in “For My People.” In her forecast looms “a bloody peace written in the sky,” the birth of a “second generation full of courage,” and a “beauty full of healing and [a] strength.” But these requisites belong to a hope predicated upon a belief, shared by many radical writers of the 1930s, in social transformation: “let a new race of men now rise and take control.”14

Walker's militancy in these last lines reflects her education as a black intellectual together with her Chicago 1930s' marxist education.15 Yet it is interesting to see the dichotomy created in the radical desire of “For My People” when reading it with a later poem like “Today.” This poem, written in a similar style as “For My People,” with its enjambed, unpunctuated lines, calculates race intolerance in America with the “international” fight against racial oppression in fascist Europe. The black nation as it rises in America must gaze across the Atlantic to see a new “race” of men arising and taking control in Europe—the white “Aryan” race calling for the obliteration of the “other.” “Today” was written just as war was commencing in Europe. Like “For My People,” it transcends yet remains a creation of the Chicago years. Ideologically, Walker embraces a tacit left internationalism with an implicit prompt that racial oppression has fueled war in Europe. The poem juxtaposes “Middle America” with “Middle Europe,” and a contradiction takes shape. Because the poem was written before the United States entered the war, instead of containing images of homefront pride, the poet creates a linguistic surface on which to convey indignation at the nation's apathy in the face of world problems.

“Today” is also a radical rewriting of Walt Whitman's “I Hear America Singing” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Yet it is closer to the pessimism and outrage expressed in the late Whitman of Democratic Vistas. Rather than celebrating the possibilities of America, Walker begins her song using Whitmanesque prose/verse form to cast a shadow of doubt on the future of humanity: “I sing of slum scabs on city / faces.” Her lamentations, in fact, reach far beyond the ghettos she has walked through, to draw a line that will connect them to the cities of Europe as they anticipate and experience bombing: “scrawny children scarred by bombs and dying of / hunger.” Then she reminds us again of the American landscape dotted with her people as “wretched human scarecrows strung against / lynching stakes.” And of course workers, black and white, “dying of pellagra and silicosis.” Their “houses” are “rotten” and “fall on slowly decaying humanity.” Whereas Whitman “sings” his “body electric” as a praise of the human body in its social engagement with the luscious body of its rich, capacious land—America—Walker sings that body struggling against decay, overwork, and exhaustion, where praise must be mediated through unrelenting pain and sorrow:

                                                                                I sing of Man's struggle to be
clean, to be useful, to be free; of need arising from our lives,
of bitter living flowing in our laughter, of cankerous mutiny
eating through the nipples of our breasts.
                                                                                I sing of our soon-to-be-dead,
of last escape: drunkard raising flasks to his lips never
tasting the solace, gambler casting his last die never
knowing the win, lover seeking lips of the beloved never
tasting fruit of his kiss, never knowing the languorous sleep.

Contradicting Whitman's texts of American abundance, the singing of “Today” represents American lack. “To be clean, to be useful,” the body here is hardly replete; its “laughter” is the “bitter” gall of living. To be human in Walker's “Today” in the U.S.A. is to be half-living or “soon to be dead”: to be drunk, but without consolation. It is wager without potential prize and romantic love without consummation. The American body which she sings has been exploited beyond pleasure. The Depression that encloses her words has paved its way to war. She ends the first section with a biblical foreboding: “I sing these fragments of living that you / may know by these presents that which we feared most has / come upon us.”

While the specter haunting Europe in Walker's “Today” is fascism, it also haunts America, as indicated in the poem's second section. The poet discontinues the Whitmanesque sorrow songs; she represents America “complacently smug in a snug somnolescence” by suggesting its removal from Europe's theater of bombs. She even points a finger: “You walking these common / neighboring streets with no disturbing drone of bombing / planes.” Though it appears the sense of desperation described in the poem's first section attempts to unite a common degraded humanity, the poem as a whole suggests how distant are those Americans from the fact that they are “fearing no severed baby arms nor naked / eyeballs hurtled in [their] hands.” Instead Americans have unappreciated advantages “riding trolley and jitney / daily, buying gas and light hourly.” Moreover, they have the distracting pleasures of popular culture (a theater without bombs): “Wild West Indian and Shooting Sam,” “Mama Loves Papa,” and “Gone by the Breeze.” The fate of Europe's war victims might also be a tacit reminder about America's denial of its own history of racial hatred and violence. Walker seems to suggest, with her representations of complacency and her attack on a certain “it can't happen here” mentality, that war in Europe stemmed from the very race hatred that is also a pernicious American disease. Although Walker's poetic critique chides complacent attitudes before the United States entered the war, a comment by her friend Richard Wright written sometime after is perhaps not far from Walker's own imaginings: Would America, when “brought face to face with the problem of the Negro, collapse in a moral spasm, as did Europe when confronted with the problem of the Jew” (xxxi)?

As Walker juxtaposes Europe's war-ravaged body with a “Middle America / distantly removed,” she upbraids the American body for busying itself with “petty personals.” She lists consumer goods unavailable to allied women in Europe such as: “eyemaline,” “henna rinse,” “dental cream.” She reproves America for its privileges and records the guilt-filled inactivity of the white middle class “washing your lives with pity, smoothing your ways with vague apologies.” The cleansing suggested by the list of personal care products and the “washing” and the “smoothing” of “lives” and “ways” tacitly represents America's isolation from the rise of fascism across the Atlantic, reflecting the apathy and denial that is placated by trivialities in a time of crisis.

In the poem's final stanza, Walker alludes to the structures of belief that appear to shelter individuals from a wider understanding of the social disenfranchisement and dislocation she sees at the center of oppression, both on the national and international scale:

                                                                                Pray the Men of Mars to
descend upon you. Pray Jehovah to send his prophets before
the avenging fire. Pray for second sight and 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.

Here Walker seems to take on the role of preacher and prophet to curse the lukewarm. She both borrows from and challenges the religious language of black culture. She also equates the trope of Armageddon as it is preached in black churches with the bombs falling on Middle Europe. The “buttressing iron” hints at the manufacture of war; the biblical plagues of “locust and flies” ask the audience to acknowledge that war might be a wake-up call. To close “Today” with the language of religious foreboding links Walker's social consciousness to the consciousness of African Americans decidedly shaped by the Christian church.

It should be noted that religion played an important role in Margaret Walker's upbringing. She believed in religion, which sets her apart from a good many other writers on the left while it connected her to black people and many white Protestants. Both her parents were deeply religious, and her father was a biblical scholar as well as a Methodist minister. Yet two critiques of religion are prevalent in For My People: the palliative role that religion plays in communities where prayer replaces social action and political resistance, and the forcing of the white man's religion onto the slave communities in the new world. In “Since 1619,” for example, Walker, referring to the year the first slave ship reached North America, laments: “How many years since 1619 have I been singing Spirituals? / How long have I been praising God and shouting hallelujahs?” The collective voice, the poem's construction as a series of self-defining questions, speaks of a weariness and anger that the “hallelujahs” in thrall to the “money-gods” cannot quite penetrate; these are, after all, epochs of misdirected voices. Thus she asks “[w]hen will I burst from my kennel an angry mongrel. / Lean and hungry and tired of my dry bones and years?” This questioning trope, the desire to see her people develop the necessary consciousness to take action, is an important feature echoed throughout the first section of For My People. Yet Walker is also concerned here with the complicated nature of the battle to free the self from superstition, from pie-in-the-sky platitudes, and from all forms of indoctrination connected to slavery's rhetoric—its institutionalization and its aftermath.16

Walker writes the complicated nature of belief and its contradictory role as a trope of resistance in the poem “We Have Been Believers.” The poem also explores how Africans in America created a new cultural body by assimilating “the black gods of an old land” with “the white gods of a new land.” With this conflation of old and new she renders belief as dichotomy: “we have been believers / believing in the mercy of our masters and the beauty of / our brothers.” Each stanza of “We Have Been Believers” exposes the contradictions inherent in the integration of black belief into the white man's world, and it is important to see that this belief is both tenacious and transformative. For example, stanza three begins: “Neither the slave's whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the / bayonet could kill our black belief,” and ends by evoking the book of Revelations (also a radical Puritan creed): “we have been believers in the new Jerusalem.” Yet Walker is perhaps most concerned here with the relationship of faith and labor. As “silent and stolid and stubborn and / strong” as black belief has been, there is behind it the tacit question of whose new Jerusalem will be built. Black labor has certainly a tradition of building, but not a Jerusalem of its own. That the American economy could not have survived and grown as it did without the slave labor of African Americans is a fact that cannot be ignored.

We have been believers yielding substance for the world.
With our hands have we fed a people and out of our
strength have they wrung the necessities of a nation.
Our song has filled the twilight and our hope has
heralded the dawn.

Walker became quite interested in the plight of contemporary black labor during her years in Chicago. Her interest in labor issues and worker militancy seems to have been shaped by her contact with radical writers in the WPA. In letters of the period that Walker wrote to Richard Wright after he had left Chicago for New York, she discusses union matters concerning the Federal Writers' Project. By becoming an “organized” intellectual worker she was able to feel empowered in ways the generations she speaks of in her poems were not. Though Walker's participation in the Writers Project in Chicago brought her in contact with various forms of radical practices, the Communist Party being the most prominent, Walker has claimed that it was the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the CIO—rather than the party that spoke to her and other members of Chicago's black community. As Drake and Cayton write of the CIO's influence on African Americans in Chicago: “Belief in racial equality was a component part of its ideology, and was kept constantly before the membership by a vigorous left-wing minority within the CIO. Formerly skeptical of the white man's union, both the Negro workers and the Negro community became pro-CIO” (313).17 Black skepticism of unions had been traditionally maintained by companies using black laborers as strikebreakers. Employers also used race hatred and fear consistently to divide workers. As the CIO became identified with class solidarity, it also became one of the first arenas in which black workers could question and condemn racial inequality. The CIO's organizing tactics to attract African Americans were not only centered on fighting discrimination in the workplace but also in protesting segregation as well as campaigning for fair housing practices and overall improved living conditions. Of course the CIO could offer no absolute guarantee that discrimination would fade from the workplace, but as one worker admitted contemplating “the former role of [African Americans] as strikebreakers,” “[r]ace prejudice will only be overcome through a sustained campaign of education. It will take years to do this. We need the universities, the radio, the press to help us” (339).

One strike of major importance in the annals of CIO militancy in the 1930s that included the participation of African Americans, was the Republic Steel Strike. In May of 1937, twenty thousand workers at the South Chicago-based plant walked off their jobs. They struck for “union recognition and a wage increase” (321). Margaret Walker's memory is closely connected to an incident of the strike that made national headlines, the Memorial Day Massacre. In fact she confessed to Richard Wright, in a letter written a month after the event, that her attempts to produce a poem on the subject did not prove “effective.” As Drake and Cayton describe the massacre:

On Sunday, May 30, 1937, a crowd of some 5,000 people [white and black]—strikers, their wives and children, and union sympathizers—were assembled near the plant for purposes of mass picketing and demonstrations. During the afternoon a disturbance occurred and the police fired into the crowd. Ten workers were killed, and nine more persons were injured. The police were severely and widely denounced for unprovoked and excessive brutality. They claimed they were “attacked,” but impartial evidence assembled at the time contained nothing to justify their conduct.


Walker may have been unable to produce a poem that could satisfactorily represent the anger induced by the massacre. Her belief in industrial organizing that might successfully integrate blacks into American political and economic life suggests, however, a turn from a false set of hopes to acknowledging a new, albeit violent, struggle for freedom. One might read these beliefs into the strident ending of the poem “We Have Been Believers”:

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 bleeding fists transform a passive faith connected to “burdens” and “demigods” into an active body capable of moving forward. Like the “race of men” (and women) that will “rise and take control” in the finale of “For My People,” belief becomes an insistent cry to resist both acquiescence and the oppression that has produced it.

Walker's representation of the culture of belief embedded in African American life reflects the strong spiritual influences of her southern background. It is not surprising that the South, and the conflicting set of images associated with it, permeate For My People. It is important to consider how, as a radical poet, she imagines and shapes the South's problematic history. The location of the writer is another important consideration. Walker's poems are products of the northern migration, and in their scripted distance they present a dichotomy in terms of representation. They reproduce the migration as a text, much the same way Jacob Lawrence's paintings did in his series “The Migration of the Negro.” These aesthetic documents record the experience of many.18 Moreover, they speak both longingly and angrily of the South. They also contain a sense of militancy familiar to Depression-era readers of poetry. As angry indictments of slavery and the continuation of racial exploitation in its aftermath, they concretize social and economic injustice. Walker often uses the angry linguistic codes of the labor chants from the radical literary circles in which she traveled while in Chicago, but she exchanges the northern industrial setting for the rural south. The North has always represented more relative freedom for African Americans, yet the South is kin. A kind of schizophrenia develops. The South is a place longed for, at the same time its need for transformation is acknowledged. Thus Walker finds herself creating from two places: the material realities that dictated the northern migration and the southern homeland that resides inside her heart.

The poem “Sorrow Home” exemplifies this sense of displacement. Its title alone suggests it could be an anthem for the two million African Americans who went north in the first three decades of the twentieth century. As she speaks for her people in this poem, Walker takes a glance backward. She confesses, “[m]y roots are deep in southern life. … I was sired and weaned / in a tropic world.” She continues to remind readers of the lushness in stark contrast to “steel and wood and brick far from the sky” that is Chicago. “Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood. I belong / with the smell of fresh pine, with the trail of coon, and / the spring growth of wild onion.” In fact Walker identifies her distance from this familiar territory through a trope of organicism. “I am no hothouse bulb to be reared in steam-heated flats / with the music of El and subway in my ears.” Geography for Walker is more than just the binarisms of rural and urban; it is the source of her conflict and alienation. The contradictory elements that name both the South and the North as problematic residences keep the poet above romanticizing either place. Yet as she faces homesickness for her Southland, she must always be conscious of the historical price tag sewn into the “cotton fields, tobacco and the cane.”

Perhaps Walker's most penetrating look at the southern landscape is in the long poem “Delta.” In “Delta,” Walker imagines the homeland reclaimed by those who created both its economic and historical significance. She describes a people who move “beyond your reach O mighty winnowing flail! / infinite and free” through their ability to recognize themselves as historical agents. While “Sorrow Home” possesses a resigned terseness, a South constructed through a history of racial oppression, its “Klan of hate,” its “hounds,” and its “chain gangs,” “Delta” reveals Walker's attempt to denaturalize the desire for the South as home through the left ideological perspectives she learned in Chicago. Yet, however important it is to reflect upon social being as mediated through material conditions, the acknowledgment of class conflict and class consciousness does not adequately explain the institutionalized racism endured by the people of the “Delta.” The frustrations and desires of a people whose social being is so inextricably linked to both class and race antagonism require a more complicated analysis. The marxism that influenced Walker during her Chicago years, with its European industrial origins and blindness toward gender concerns, could hardly theorize the lot of most delta women, although some women benefited from the Share Croppers' Unions that the Communist Party helped organize in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana in the early 1930s.19 The question of race most certainly complicates an ideological framework structured to unite a working class consistently at odds with the contradictions of its own racial privileges in the case of white workers, or lack thereof, in the case of black workers. Moreover, the sexual division of labor that existed in northern working-class communities was radically different for black women of the delta; traditionally, women and men worked side by side in the fields—a phenomenon that few white workers would experience or understand. What is more, however, both black and white women shared the burden of the double shift: work in the fields or the factories, and work in the home.20 Perhaps Walker did not foresee the complicated relationships black workers in the South encountered through the narrowly conceived marxist pedagogy at her disposal in Chicago; yet the poem “Delta” itself grounds such contradictions surprisingly well.

“Delta” conveys, through the lusciousness of its language and its rhythmic verse cadences, a sorrowful history that makes the poet's problematized territorial desire for the South all the more powerful. The poem lovingly renders the South as a fertile, voluptuous body, while also portraying it as a tormented and enslaved body that has cultivated itself in its own chains. “Delta” is not only a travelogue told by one of its homesick exiles but also a survey of the political economy told in verse by the offspring of its laborers. The poem constructs its South through the trajectory of birth, labor, and rising consciousness. This triad commences in the first person with the speaker being (“a child of the valley”), watching (“rivulets flow”), listening (“lullabies,” “blues”), and thinking of convergence: “If only from this valley we might rise with song! / With singing that is ours.” The poem's second section moves into the plural, the collective, the laboring body that defines itself through generations who moved in alienating similarity “in this low valley.” That “[d]aily we fill boats with cargoes of our need / and send them out to sea” is Walker's message, contained within the verdancy of the place, the richness of the soil: “We tend the crop and gather the harvest / but not for ourselves do we labor.” Walker is resolute in representing estranged labor as it rests fitfully in its haunted valley:

Out of a deep slumber truth rides upon us
and we wonder why we are helpless
and we wonder why we are dumb.

In the poem's third and final stanza, to keep with the language of the landscape, the earth, the “delta” as the poet describes it, Walker interjects the possibility of forces that will disrupt acquiescence and naturalness. Home, where the southern valleys quake with a desire for an insurrection of consciousness, begins with the sleep-shattering questions of the above lines. Seasonal metaphors, eclipsing winters and regenerative springs, are used as linguistic fortifications of a regional restructuring of consciousness. This is evidenced in the way Walker opens the section:

Now burst dams of years
and winter snows melt with an onrush of a turbulent spring.
Now rises sap in slumbering elms
and floods overwhelm us
here in this low valley.

With the “years” of servility bursting and spring a “turbulent” rather than calming season, elms sapping and “floods” overwhelming the historically docile valley, the poet attempts to denaturalize the longing for home—which in actuality has been a place of degrading hardship, dehumanizing labor, and enforced poverty, as well as ignorance. The valley is not just ripe for growing and harvesting but for “thundering” sounds that will disturb the thought process, with “cannons boom[ing] in our brains / and there is a dawning understanding / in the valleys of our spirits.” Walker contrasts the valley's growing season with the awakening of those who make it grow, while the traditionally fertile crescent continues to be represented as a site of intervention: “Into our troubled living flows the valley / flooding our lives with a passion for freedom.” What is more, as in “Sorrow Home,” she plays linguistically with the idea of organicism. The oppressed bodies of those who have made and are thus the land must reclaim it: “We with our blood have watered these fields / and they belong to us.”

While I have articulated Walker's representations of the laboring black body in the black South in poems such as “We Have Been Believers” and “Delta,” it is also important to explore the cultural material woven from laboring life, which had also influenced the way Walker saw her southern home. As Walker was writing poems in the vein of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, she was also looking to southern oral traditions such as folktales and folk songs as sources of poetic inspiration; these were also traditions from which to borrow in order to reinvent modern poetry from her own perspective as an African American woman. Walker's letters to Richard Wright indicate that she struggled to perfect a series of “folk tales.” Although she does not provide any specific examples in these letters, she was most likely referring to the poems that appear in the second section of For My People. In these particular poems Walker rearticulates the legacies of familiar folklife characters. Her lyrics describe the exploits of tricksters, conjurers, gamblers, bootleggers, pimps, and laborers, accentuating the nuanced lives of African American folk heroes and heroines.

Walker grew up in a household where the word was sacrosanct. Her maternal grandmother's storytelling no doubt introduced her to the rich and varied folklore produced in the antebellum South that would resurface later in the pages of the novel Jubilee. Additionally, the African American folktale is an important literary form for Walker, the poet, to be working with in the 1930s. If For My People challenges the “Anglo-Saxonness” and class biases of high modernism through its exploration of black consciousness and racial oppression, its appropriation of folk forms is central to this challenge.21

In his engrossing study of black culture-building in America, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Lawrence Levine examines the development of the folktale tradition from slavery times through and beyond the period of emancipation. In the twentieth century, he notes, black communities throughout the United States were captivated by “supernatural tales, moral and didactic tales, human and animal trickster tales, tales centering on both real and apocryphal personal experiences … the entire range of tales that slaves had told and retold” (368). Storytelling, as art as well as entertainment, remained a significant source of cultural continuity. As Levine also points out, the folk heroes that surfaced after emancipation underwent a significant change from the narrow range of heroes represented in the antebellum period. “[N]ew figures appeared and old ones were frequently altered in aspect or significance. … Neither the heroes nor the consciousness that molded them remained static in the century following emancipation” (369-70).

Walker retells ten folk lyrics, including two tales, “Bad-Man Stagolee” and “Big John Henry,” whose immense popularity (though as legends they are at odds with each other) have crossed over into mainstream American popular culture.22 Walker's particular telling of “Bad-Man Stagolee” and “Kissie Lee” suggest important connections to Walker's raced, classed, and gendered poetic articulations. With the poem “Bad-Man Stagolee,” Walker reinscribes the Stagolee legend with a complicated twist coupling the policing of black communities with the hero's popularity. Then with “Kissie Lee,” Walker rewrites the folktale genre's androcentric bias, as well as the black community's identification of the trickster archetype as male, by answering the Stagolee story with the tale of a knife-wielding female tough.

As legend tells it, “Bad-Man Stagolee” (pronounced Stack'-a-lee, as Walker informs readers in a footnote) shot a man called Billy Lyons after losing to him at cards (or craps). Date, place, and stakes all vary, but in a blues version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in 1929, “Stagolee shot Billy … [for] a five-dollar Stetson hat” (Marcus 76-77).23 Additionally, according to folk-song collector Alan Lomax, Stagolee is generally arrested for his crimes, executed in some fashion, and sent down to hell.24 Yet like the many renditions of the Stagolee tale that have circulated, Walker's version also differs. It contains a twist that refashions it for its contemporary urban audience.

That Stagolee was an all-right lad
Till he killed a cop and turned out bad,
Though some do say to this very day
He killed more'n one 'fore he killed that 'fay.

By transforming Stagolee into an “all-right lad” who kills a cop, Walker conflates a number of the versions of the tale into one that identifies Stagolee with violence as an everyday reality for African American communities throughout the nation. The cop, assumed to be white, suggests a fantasy of revenge for the police brutality that black communities have historically had visited upon them. Perhaps the resituated Stagolee was inspired by real events happening in Chicago at the time Walker appears to have worked on the tales. While helping Richard Wright reconstruct the events of the Nixon case (a young black man on trial for murder) on which much of Native Son was based, in a letter that included clippings on the trial from the local papers, she comments on the state of affairs between Chicago's black community and the police department:

You may not know all the brutal attacks of the Chicago Police since last memorial day. Police history in Chicago since that time has been one succession of brutality and intimidation after another. The Maxwell Street Station has become famous for getting confessions by the third degree method and today one Negro boy is permanently paralyzed because of police doings. These rape cases appear annually about this time to increase circulation and I know personally that 56 Negro boys were picked up on the North Side in connection with a murder last fall committed by the woman's sweetheart.25

Remaining the stuff of legends, and fashioned with irony in the poem, the figure of Stagolee is a resituated metaphor for what social ills create. Walker's Stagolee contains the same invincible curiosity that all the previous tellers have given him, and she informs us “the tale ain't new,” but she stretches the legend from its celebration of Stagolee as mean individualist, to a tale with political undertones. In Walker's telling, Stagolee, after his “bullets made holes no doc could cyo,” is able to disappear without being apprehended, eluding the racist taunts and torments which then lead to lynching:

But the funniest thing about that job
Was he never got caught by no mob
And he missed the lynching meant for his hide
'Cause nobody knows how Stagolee died

To highlight Walker's retelling as seemingly political, one must see that the Stagolee story maintained its importance in the black community through its radical symbolism. The myth presents a man whose outlandish and wholly autonomous antics signify the ultimate in freedom in a nation in which that freedom has been most brutally curtailed. Walker's reinterpretation of Stagolee's transgressions further inscribes the story with a hegemonical challenge. Stagolee doesn't just kill a fellow hood, a compatriot gambler, as he does in other versions of the tale: he kills a cop. (He messes with authority; he messes with white America, and he gets away with it.) This is how he becomes a legend.

Bad-Man Stagolee ain't no more
But his ghost still walks up and down the shore
Of Old Man River round New Orleans
With her gumbo, rice, and good red beans!

Yet there is a problem in politicizing the Stagolee tale as well. The legend, apparently built around the careers of two actual turn-of-the-century criminals, Morris Slater and Railroad Bill, is not, according to Lawrence Levine's reading, one that lends itself to romanticization or sentimentalizing.26 Though Walker's rendition celebrates Stagolee's elusiveness in the face of white authority, he is not Robin Hood nor even Pretty Boy Floyd; his actions never lead to any acts of genuine goodwill within the black community, and the tellers of the tale seem to have been generally conscious of this fact. As Levine maintains, “[these folk heroes] were not given any socially redeeming characteristics simply because in them there was no hope of social redemption” (419). More important, to romanticize folk legends such as Stagolee would be to play with the important dose of reality that Walker, under the tutelage of Wrightian naturalism, perhaps wanted to convey with stories about the more sordid figures of African American folklife, thus reminding her Depression audience of the complicated nature of literary representation.

If “Bad-Man Stagolee” is a tale known far and wide, whose influence has even crossed over into mainstream popular culture, Walker's tale of the female tough “Kissie Lee” recollects a folk hero from the margins. Yet mainstream popular culture, while it is able not only to tolerate but idolize a “bad man” like Stagolee, is apparently not ready to meet his female counterpart in the ballad Walker tells of this good girl turned bad.

Toughest gal I ever did see
Was a gal by the name of Kissie Lee;
The toughest gal God ever made
And she drew a dirty, wicked blade.

As in “Bad-Man Stagolee” violence in “Kissie Lee” is treated matter-of-factly. What's more, the violence depicted (but not demonized) in these tales is always connected in larger terms to the complex structures of powerlessness found in the communities of their tellers. However, where Walker depicts Stagolee's end in slippery terms as a conscious effort to problematize his legendary import, Kissie Lee lives a life of violence and dies violently as any bad man might.

She could shoot glass offa the hinges,
She could take herself on the wildest binges.
And she died with her boots on switching blades
On Talladega Mountain in the likker raids.

Perhaps what is most striking is that like the woman of another tale Walker retells, “Yalluh Hammah,” in which a female trickster outsmarts a guy who likes to “lay his jive,” Kissie Lee's story is about the fierce independence of the female folk hero in a tradition in which the “mens” seem to get all the attention. As with the poem cited in the beginning of this chapter, “Lineage,” Walker takes the unsung strength of African American women and provides a space for their recognition inside a literary genre and cultural context in which questions of black women's oppression remained as yet unarticulated. Rather than creating a separate text in which the voices of black women emerge, she acknowledges their labor alongside the men, as well as their legendary transgressions in the case of Kissie Lee, as part of a total dialogue on black structures of feeling that she has attempted to record in For My People.

Black folktale culture is decidedly masculine in outlook. Maintaining masculine heroes such as Stagolee and John Henry has been traditionally important in resisting a white racist culture, one determined if not to destroy, at least to stereotype black men through emasculation. The emergence of a folk figure such as Kissie Lee challenges the existing framework in which the bad male folk heroes appear representative.27 According to Walker's telling, Kissie Lee's abuse at the hands of “a no good shine” is what shapes her character as “the toughest gal God ever made.” What is equally striking about Walker's interest in this tale is that like the poem “Lineage,” Kissie Lee's turn from victim to agent appears part of a dynamic process controlled by women. Kissie Lee is not the first in line of bad-girl heroes. Her “Grammaw,” tired of Kissie's “whinin',” offers the insight that “[p]eople don't ever treat you right,” and urges her to do as she has done:

“Whin I was a gal wasn't no soul
Could do me wrong an' still stay whole.
Ah got me a razor to talk for me
An' aftah that they let me be.”

Not only does Kissie, within the ironic boundaries of the bad folk hero convention, receive advice through a matrilineal history, but such a historical line suggests the badness of women as a form of self-preservation and pursuit of female agency en suite. Kissie Lee, taking her grandmother's advice, takes this malfeasance a step further: “‘Cause when she learned to stab and run / She got herself a little gun.” As Kissie graduates from mean gal to “[m]eanest mama you ever seen,” she also (in keeping with the superpower suggestions of the bad-man folk legends) loses her status as victim, attains the status of “woman,” while at the same time appears to maintain an independence that collapses both stated regions as sites of negotiation: “She could hold her likker and hold her man / And she went thoo life jus' raisin' san'.”

The climax of the tale is Kissie's revenge on a man who “done her dirt long time ago / [w]hen she was good and feeling low.” Not only does Kissie shoot him “to the floor,” but to reveal the determination of her vengeful spirit, she flashes her blade so that “[e]vvy livin' guy got out of her way.” Walker tells us that Kissie dies “with her boots on switching blades.” As with the other tales, we are given no moral; such is inconceivable in a community that cannot realistically hope that its acts of revenge will not provoke even graver retaliations. Thus as much as Kissie's story invokes female agency, it is not a tale of uplift for black women. Just as judgment on the activity of the men is reserved, so is such judgment reserved for the equally bad women. Walker creates with “Kissie Lee” a presence for black women as tricksters and evildoers as much as she creates a presence for those women (and men) who dared tell their stories.28

“Kissie Lee” as transgressor tale bears relation to another important African American aesthetic genre that Walker would have been aware of as she worked on these tales. Blues music, which made much use of African American folktales, was also a cultural phenomenon that women not only participated in but also greatly enriched. Hazel Carby and Angela Davis have lamented the scant scholarship in the area of “women's blues.”29

The predominant themes in women's blues are related to romantic and domestic preoccupations and therefore seem miles away from the independent individualism portrayed in “Kissie Lee.” Yet Angela Davis contends in her essay “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama” that the romantic and domestic attitudes represented in the blues of pioneers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey complicate “the prevailing idealization of romantic love in the dominant culture” (237). Blues music, like the transformed African American folklore genre, is a phenomenon of postbellum freedom and celebrates that freedom to the extreme. The ability to work, love, and travel where and how one pleased, for the first time in the history of black America, became the signifying trope of the blues genre. The rough antics Walker describes in “Kissie Lee” are decidedly kin to this exploration of freedom. In many ways Kissie's tale is the reverse of the disheartening tunes of betrayal and abuse that Davis examines in her reading of women's blues. Yet Davis also points to the complex sexual awareness of Smith's and Rainey's music. In fact their frank knowledge and exploration of sexuality and domestic violence are some of the first glimpses we have of the cycle of abuse that women have had historically visited upon them. As previously suggested, Kissie Lee becomes the hero she is because she avenges her own (implied) physical abuse at the hands of a “no good shine.” As Davis remarks, with some relevance to Walker's reconstruction of “Kissie Lee”:

What is most significant about women's blues as they suggest emergent feminist insurgency is that they unabashedly name the problem of male violence, ushering it out of the shadows of domestic life behind which society dictated it be hidden.


The blues lovingly given to us by Smith and Rainey “allude to rejection, abuse, desertion and unfaithful lovers,” but they also persistently explore “independence … assertiveness, indeed defiance” (245). “Kissie Lee,” though not a tale that directly confronts sexuality or domestic disharmony—the predominant tropes of women's blues—embraces the celebration of a precarious freedom and places “independence,” “assertiveness,” and “defiance” above all else.

While “Kissie Lee” remains a tale of black female agency, even if from the social margins, Walker leaves her readers with a less sanguine view of black working-class female subjectivity in the poem “Whores,” which is part of a sonnet sequence that closes For My People. Whether intentional or coincidental, “Whores” represents a closing commentary on black women that is rather different from the representations found in the text's first and second sections. If “Lineage” characterizes black women's contributions to labor history as represented in the first section of For My People, while “Kissie Lee,” in the second section, entertains readers with the legendary power of the bad female folk hero, “Whores” suggests black women's powerlessness as it depicts real, not mythical, female transgressors.

When I grew up I went away to work
where painted whores were fascinating sights.
They came on like whole armies through the nights—
their sullen eyes on mine, their mouths a smirk,
and from their hands keys hung suggestively.
Old women working by an age-old plan
to make their bread in ways as best they can
would hobble past and beckon tirelessly.
Perhaps one day they'll all die in the streets
or be surprised by bombs in each wide bed;
learning too late in unaccustomed dread
that easy ways, like whores on special beats,
no longer have the gift to harbor pride
or bring men peace, or leave them satisfied.

As a poem by a young black woman, “Whores” is full of contradictions. The prostitute, as she is depicted as a “fascinating sight,” is subject to the poet's scrutiny. Yet she is also put under the watchful scrutiny of the social order that demands and purveys her services. The poem's form is important as well. Walker deconstructs the sonnet as it is conventionally associated with the romance tradition by writing about black working-class women's sex work. Walker reappropriates the Petrarchan sonneteer's convention of assessing and praising the attributes of an exalted figure (most notably a lover) by describing sympathetically in the opening octet, and then more judgmentally in the closing sestet, the woman made spectacle by the degrading and exhausting machinations of her trade.

Before analyzing the sonnet at greater length, it is important to look at the historical context that informed the poem's creation. Walker's inspiration for “Whores” came from her work on a WPA-sponsored recreation program for which she volunteered during her senior year at Northwestern. As Walker explained to poet Nikki Giovanni many years later:

They gave me a group of so-called delinquent girls to pal around with in order to see what kind of influence a person with my background and training would have on them. They were shoplifters, prostitutes, and who knows what else? It wasn't a time when you had a widespread problem with drugs, so the two main problems were shoplifting and prostitution. Division Street was the street for prostitutes. … They walked Division Street and … jangled their keys.

(Poetic Equation 90)

Not only did Walker's experience with the young prostitutes inspire her to write “Whores,” it also gave her background, and later a stipend, to start work on the unpublished novel Goose Island. The novel deals with a talented, promising young woman who eventually ends up a Division Street prostitute. The title is the name of the Italian and black neighborhood in which Walker worked with the young “so-called delinquents.”30 Yet the woman of Walker's “background and training” has much to learn from her subjects. The abhorrence of prostitute life that can be gleaned from the poem suggests that the educated young poet may indeed be taught something about social imbalances within patriarchal society by her contact with the Division Street prostitutes. The details of her early attempts at social work that Walker supplies to Nikki Giovanni suggest her naiveté, which might explain the fascination turned to disdain and judgment evoked in the sonnet. Walker explains that her southern, “more provincial” background aroused her curiosity as she began to observe prostitute life in Chicago. “That's when I learned that prostitution and gambling were vices tied up with city politics” (90). Additionally, her introduction to urban social vices was linked to the very program on which she worked, as she implicates her employers: “[o]ne of the straw bosses on the project was a man who was a pimp; his brother was a smuggler dealing in narcotics and everything” (90). Yet while Walker's understanding of sex work appears limited to her work on the WPA recreation project, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's discussion of prostitution in Chicago's Bronzeville sheds some additional light on the traffic in black women articulated in “Whores.” During the period in which the poem was probably composed the district's “reputation as a vice area was reinforced by the prevalence of streetwalkers in certain areas” (596).31 The opinions of social workers and policemen concurred. Race discrimination made the women of Bronzeville more obvious targets for arrest. While young girls without opportunity became more susceptible to the “trade,” black women who were not prostitutes were picked up because of their close proximity to it. As Drake and Cayton observe:

During the Depression years the boldness of [prostitutes'] solicitations drew bitter comments from lower-class women who were trying to maintain stable relations with their men or raise children right. Thus one lower-class housewife, when asked about the building in which she lived, replied: “Honey, this place is full of whores. They are the cheapest, nastiest set in Chicago. If I could get me another place I wouldn't be here.”


A close analysis of “Whores” suggests that Walker's sympathies lay with Drake and Cayton's disgruntled housewife. The poem maintains a sharp distance from its subject, connected, as previously suggested, to Walker's southern, middle-class, educated perceptions of the northern urban prostitute. Her religious upbringing perhaps instilled in her a sense of judgment about the uses of sexuality. Yet Walker may also be limited in her understanding of the contradictory elements at stake with regard to sex work by the rampantly uncomplicated attitude toward the prostitute she would have been exposed to in Chicago leftist circles at that time. For example, stridently accusatory tropes that linked prostitution with capitalism were popular features in Depression-era radical reportage and proletarian writing. Indeed, rather than revealing an understanding of African American social and economic disenfranchisement, “Whores” reads as a pitying response to black women's transgressions. As historian Kevin Mumford notes in his work on black/white sex districts in Chicago and New York in the early twentieth century, “Racism in the market—black women's relegation to domestic service, their vulnerability to sexual harassment, and segregated service in brothels—combined to increase the probability that African-American women would enter prostitution.” As Mumford adds to this already discouraging scenario, “[a]t the same time racism operated within the markets of commercialized sex, forcing women of color to negotiate yet another set of racial stigmas and hierarchies” (96). While Walker would most certainly have gathered that the prostitute's underemployment was due to race and gender prejudice in the North and was inextricably linked with her decision to work as a prostitute, the sympathetic gaze she gives to workers in her other poems is decidedly absent from “Whores.”

Like a number of the other sonnets in this final section, “Whores” is constructed as a memory. Not only are these prostitutes removed from the poet because of differences in lifestyle and opportunity, they are described from a historical distance—a past memory. Thus interesting ambiguities arise in the speaker's voice. The poet's naiveté makes these women “fascinating sights”; she is encountering the northern prostitute for the first time, and her work on the recreation project requires her to tune into the concerns and desires of young women whose lives and hers would not otherwise intersect. Yet the gaze Walker constructs in this poem also suggests the male gaze the prostitute receives as she presents her wares in the marketplace. “Their sullen eyes on mine” with their “keys hung suggestively” describe them the way they are seen by their potential purchasers—men whose race and class are unknown to us. The poem's disengaged tone suggests more than one possible speaking voice; however, imagining the young, college-educated Walker as speaker, we are offered an interesting contrast between the poet's intellectual work and the belittling sex work performed by the Division Street prostitutes. After all, the poet's work with young delinquent girls who have, among other things, been picked up for prostitution, prepares her to see “whores” through the eyes of a reformer. She represents, ironically in the midst of Depression, the world of real work—social work. These women are also removed from the speaker by age and class: “Old women working by an age-old plan / to make their bread in ways as best they can.”

The poem's closing sestet is more ambiguous, while retaining its judgmental tone. Walker imagines her subjects dead “in the streets” or “surprised by bombs,” which suggests a call for their destruction. To rearticulate an important point, in the poems previously discussed in this chapter, Walker explores the complicated relations of her subjects to the social praxis inscribing them. This particular poem rather dispassionately observes the labor of black women without spending much energy on the alienated confines in which they have been scripted. However, the reference to “whores on special beats” suggests an important dichotomy of prostitute life, the body that is negotiated between the police and the pimp. Walker reflects upon the complicated relationship between prostitution and the economic and social surveillance of black women by connecting the illegal trade of prostitution with the law itself. The police, those other beat walkers, become “whores on special beats”; thus Walker alludes to police involvement in the city's underworld activities, in which these women and their pimps are also intimately linked.32 These “special beats” also suggest the prostitute working the turf controlled by her pimp. She does not control her own means of employment (and production), her body. Whether on the police or pimp's “special beats,” these women “no longer have the gift to harbor pride / or bring men peace.” These final lines, which in the traditional sonnet are executed to suggest a resolution about love, negate such a possibility: the traffic in (black) working-class women continues; black intellectual workers like Walker can only observe.

If “Whores” settles upon a bleakness of experience symbolized through the prostitute and her marks upon the pavement, two poems that close For My People suggest a kind of dialectic between resignation and struggle that is also signified in the text as a whole. “Our Need” and “The Struggle Staggers Us” are sonnets of hope, even as they embrace the dismal reality of a world moved out of Depression into war. In “Our Need,” Walker hopes for “a wholeness born of inner strength,” and “the friendly feel of human forms.” Thus the humanity stripped from “Whores” returns even if, as she laments in the title of the collection's final poem, “the struggle staggers us.” For My People is a book about struggle. Given the larger social questions that Walker's years in Chicago provided her with, the struggle she acknowledges may be collective, but it is also one of daily survival and the personal, ordinary claims that inscribe the “struggle between the morning and the night.” This need and this struggle that Walker hopes to see fashioned into a “journey from the me to you” and a “journey from the you to me,” in fact anticipates the conscious rumblings of the Civil Rights era. It is rather significant that For My People appears in 1942, toward the close of a historic period that has been characterized as the end of European dominance (1492-1945). It is a text about domination, about the resistance to domination, and about the possibility of transcending domination even as “the struggle staggers us.” For My People is a collection of poems that has named and claimed a history and a movement for African American struggle before a large-scale agenda had been inaugurated. It is interesting, though not surprising from an author who was also a working mother, that Walker did not follow For My People with another book of poems until the mid-1960s. Like the 1930s and early 1940s, the period in which Margaret Walker began to publish her first important social poems, the 1960s was a time of social passion and protest. It seems that Walker's writing ground, her place to articulate the aesthetics of race and class, not to mention her interest in rearticulating the tropes of psychology, religion, and science mentioned at the opening of this chapter, were to be once again inspired by what was happening in the streets of America's cities (like Chicago) in the 1960s.


  1. As Walker told Claudia Tate in an interview published in 1983, it actually took her three tries to win the award and get Yale to publish her manuscript: “Stephen Vincent Benét [himself an award-winning, neglected poet], the editor at that time, wanted to publish it the first time I sent it to him from the University of Iowa.” Walker completed a master's degree at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1940. In 1965 she completed a doctorate there. Her thesis was Jubilee, which was published a year later. Walker also informs Tate that Benet had to stage a virtual coup in order to get her book published; he refused to nominate any other book. What is more, Benet came to edit the series no doubt because of the success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning, book-length Civil War poem, John Brown's Body. “I think [Benet] felt they were refusing [to publish For My People] purely on the basis of race” (192).

  2. Walker's thirty-year struggle with Jubilee is exemplified in Tillie Olsen's feminist classic, Silences: “It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write” (209). By quoting Walker's experience writing her novel, Olsen depicted one of the many “silences” belonging to women writers as part of a shared history. It is only fitting that a creative work detailing the life of a female slave should have faced so many obstacles on its road to completion.

  3. An unpublished essay by Jim Werner, “Let a New Earth Rise: Landscapes of Mystery, Sorrow and Hope in Margaret Walker's For My People,” focuses upon the landscape. Eugenia Collier explores the influences of Southern black folklife and the natural world in her essay “Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker,” in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Marie Evans (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984). Richard K. Barksdale's “Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy,” in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960, ed. R. Baxter Miller (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986) details myth and religion in For My People. All three essays focus on Walker's evocation of racism, but do not emphasize the ideological influences of the Great Migration and the Depression on her work. A new collection of essays edited by Maryemma Graham and devoted to Walker's work is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. It is hoped the collection will include new readings of Walker's work within the context of race, class, and gender politics.

  4. Obviously to ignore the segregated South is to deny Walker a sense of place in both the literal and figurative sense. As she wrote in the late 1980s: “The South is my home, and my adjustment or accommodation to it—whether real or imagined (mythic and legendary), violent or non-violent—is the subject and source of all my poetry. It is also my life” (This Is My Century xvii).

  5. In a letter to Richard Wright dated October 9, 1937 (Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University), Walker excitedly remarks that a friend won a scholarship to the Workers' School and gave it to her. (Walker appears to have participated in the organizing of its “Writers and Artists” unit.) The scholarship enabled the young poet, seeming to be constantly without means, to take two courses, fundamentals of political education and political economy.

  6. Walker discusses Goose Island in her book-length conversation with Nikki Giovanni, Poetic Equation, as well as in her biography of Richard Wright, The Daemoniac Genius of Richard Wright. A copy of the manuscript is housed in Walker's archive at the Margaret Walker Alexander Center for Black Studies at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

  7. A fuller articulation of this argument can be found in the anthologies, This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, eds. (Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981); and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, Patricia Bell-Scott, Gloria T. Hull, and Barbara Smith, eds. (Old Westbury: Feminist Press, 1982).

  8. It is important to mention the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, a Chicago poet whose first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), is an important evocation of black Chicago. It is not clear how well Walker and Brooks knew each other in those days, and whether any rivalries existed between them as young, talented black women. Brooks's second book, Annie Allen, published in 1949 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, contained a number of sonnets, and according to Walker herself, the technical polish of these poems evidenced “racial vindication” for black poets under the scrutiny of white critics who thought their work lacked “form and intellectual acumen” (110). See Walker's essay originally published in Phylon in 1950, “New Poets of the Forties,” in How I Wrote Jubilee.

  9. To suggest the importance of this book of poems to the African American community, this interview accompanied photographs taken by Ronald Freeman in honor of the text and its author.

  10. Walker claims that it was Nelson Algren, whom she knew from the Chicago Writers' Project, who suggested the urgency of the last stanza and urged her to state her vision of the future. The use of the word earth to begin the final stanza also merits mention, for it is a word connected to people's fights for land, for resistance to domination. Thus Walker suggests with it a kind of self-determination for African Americans. One might also recall texts like Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, about the plight of Chinese peasants, or Joris Ivens's cinematic portrait of the Spanish Republic's resistance to Franco, The Spanish Earth.

  11. For a discussion of Walker's friendship with and admiration for Langston Hughes, see her essay “A Literary Legacy from Dunbar to Baraka,” in How I Wrote Jubilee.

  12. Walker continues with an important contradiction:

    Imagine my amazement to hear a white girl tell me she was forced to leave Northwestern because she had no money. But I, a poor Negro girl, had stayed even when I had no money. They never threatened me with expulsion. Yet I did not find a white school in the Middle West free of prejudice. All around me was prejudice. To understand the issues out of which it grew became my life's preoccupation.

    (“Growing Out of Shadow,” How I Wrote Jubilee 7)

  13. Richard Wright's ethnic construction of Chicago is examined in Carla Capetti's Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). The book also explores the ethnic identification of two other Chicago radical writers, Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell.

  14. Because she is writing in an age before a specific consciousness about inclusive language had developed, Walker uses “men,” though she implies women too. Walker was certainly aware of the sexism within her own community, but was also fully aware of the improbability of making any social gains without the full participation of both sexes. Yet it is also worth noting again that the influence of the white male left and the absence of an articulated feminist consciousness amongst its female members may have led the poet to disregard whether the new race of “men” in control would be willing to share its power with women, particularly black women.

  15. In the early 1930s, during the Communist Party's Third Period dedication to the revolutionary working class, calls for a new black nation in the South influenced a number of pro-party black intellectuals and workers. For differing views on blacks and the Communist Party see the revisionist histories of Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, and Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983). For an anticommunist perspective see Harold Cruse, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: William Morrow, 1967).

  16. Horace Cayton remarks to Studs Terkel, years after he co-authored Black Metropolis, about the significant impact the black church had on sustaining its community. He claims the Communist Party “raised issues that Negroes were interested in,” but they “made very little inroads.” According to Cayton, “[o]ne of the reasons the Communists flopped is they didn't know how to deal with the Negro church. The church was the first Negro institution, preceding even the family in stability” (quoted in Terkel 434-38). While Cayton is critical of the Communist Party in Black Metropolis, he maintains the important role the communists played in promoting black leadership within the CIO and pushing the organization's commitment to racial equality.

  17. Race politics and the industrial unions have been a subject of much debate, especially in reference to the United Auto Workers. See Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics (New York: New Press, 1997). And on meatpackers in Chicago, Roger Horowitz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); and Rick Halpern and Roger Horowitz, Meatpackers: An Oral History of Black Packinghouse Workers and Their Struggle for Racial and Economic Equality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999). (I am indebted to Ethan Young for these references.)

  18. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), only a few years Walker's junior, also began his artistic career with the help of the WPA's Federal Artists' Project. “The Migration of the Negro” series was completed in 1943. In many ways it is a complementary artistic testimony to For My People. It might be argued that Langston Hughes's proletarian poetry of the 1930s (that, under pressure, he later renounced in a 1949 article in Phylon) serves as companion testimony to these two previously mentioned black cultural projects. And all three should be “read” together.

  19. For a discussion of African American militant labor politics in the South, see Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe. His chapter on the Share Croppers' Union, in particular, discusses gendered aspects of working-class life and struggle in the black South.

  20. Jacqueline Jones notes the important distinction between black and white female workers. Even as white women were disproportionately represented on the shop floor in comparison to white men, after their migration north, black women found most factory jobs completely closed to them. Instead, most black women found work in laundries or as domestics in the homes of middle- and upper-class white women.

  21. Folklorist Roger D. Abrahams has commented upon how most African American folktale collecting has been done by whites, with notable exceptions such as Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men. He does not explore, however, how African American poets such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Margaret Walker, writing at the same period in which much of the tale collecting occurred, were also responsible for disseminating much of these same folk materials. It is also important to note that Hughes, Brown, and Walker challenge the modern poetry canon as it has evolved with work that questions the canon's emphasis on Western “erudition” with the “folkways” important to black structures of feeling. See Abrahams's preface to Afro-American Folk Tales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). See also Sterling A. Brown, Southern Road (1932; Boston: Beacon Press, 1974); and Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (New York: Knopf, 1926).

  22. Lawrence Levine characterizes these two seminal figures respectively as “the bad man who transgressed totally all of the moral and legal bounds of society and the strong, self-contained hero who violated not the laws or the moral code but the stereotyped roles set aside for black people in a white society” (407).

  23. A plethora of musical renditions of the legend exist from the country blues of performers like Hurt in the 1920s to rhythm and blues performers like Lloyd Price in the 1950s. Even white performers such as Johnny Cash sang about “Staggerlee,” as he was also called, in addition to Stack-a-lee, after its proper pronunciation, and Stacker Lee. In the early 1980s a white, British punk band, The Clash, opened a reggae-inspired tune, “Wrong-em Boyo” with the Stagolee legend. Rock music's indebtedness to black cultural tropes no doubt found inspiration for its own bad boy, outlaw images with the Stagolee legend. For a discussion of the Stagolee tale and its connections to American popular music see Greil Marcus's Mystery Train.

  24. Lomax's interest in the Stagolee story focuses upon its use in the blues music idiom, which appropriated antebellum material and adapted it to this musical genre as it developed in the postslavery period. See his The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Delta Books, 1993).

  25. Walker's mention of “memorial day” is of course a reference to the aforementioned Memorial Day Massacre. Letter dated June 6, 1938, Richard Wright Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

  26. For discussion of these two figures see Levine as well as John W. Roberts, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).

  27. Since folktales told about women seem overwhelmingly to detail domestic issues and romantic problems, it has been difficult to locate a possible source for “Kissie Lee.” However, Lawrence Levine cites a fragment sent to Alan Lomax from a woman named Willie George King of Louisiana. This fragment is interesting not only because of its articulation of female agency, it also contains elements of prowess associated with the hypermasculinized rock and roll music inspired by black performers such as Bo Diddley:

    There is nothing in the jungle is any badder than me.
    I am the baddest woman ever come out Tenisee;
    I sleep with a panther till the break of day;
    I caught a tiger-cat in the collar and I ask him what he had to say;
    And I wore a rattlesnake for my chain,
    And a Negro man for my fob.


  28. Another interesting “womens” text is “Molly Means,” about a conjure woman. The conjurer tale has, however, received more critical attention, so I have chosen to reserve my space for the female outlaw whose exploits, for the most part, have been overlooked.

  29. Zora Neale Hurston's collection Mules and Men contains prose narratives in which women's exploits are at the center. One tale does celebrate a female tough named “Ella Wall,” but her “legend” appears to be filtered through the lyrics of masculine desire: “If you want good boody / [o]h, go to Ella Wall” (146). In this tale Hurston describes Ella pulling a blade inside a gambling house. For a discussion of women's blues see Hazel Carby, “It Jus' Bes that Way Sometimes,” in Feminisms, ed. R. Warhol, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997); Angela Y. Davis, “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama,” in Sexy Bodies; and also Davis's Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon, 1998). Davis cites as “trailblazing” Daphne Duval Harrison's study Black Pearls: The Blues Queens of the 1920s (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Harrison's text is the first full-length study of women blues performers.

  30. Walker commented a number of times that her “black” American Tragedy, Goose Island, prefigures Richard Wright's Native Son.

  31. Kevin Mumford suggests the importance of “interzones,” black/white sex districts in Chicago and New York in the early twentieth century. He connects them to a variety of sex and gender issues, including prostitution as part of the social impact of the Great Migration. He discusses racial difference within “commercialized sex,” as he refers to it, but these “interzones” were greatly changed by the Depression. Cayton and Drake examine prostitution in the context of the impact of the Depression on Chicago's black belt.

  32. Kevin Mumford also maintains that historical data suggests the existence of racial bias in the policing of prostitutes: “[B]lack women were easy prey to police, who possibly were under pressure to inflate the number of arrests. Black prostitutes were more likely to be convicted and, after conviction, more likely to receive maximum sentences. After serving their sentences, black prostitutes were less successful on probation than were white women and more likely than white women to return to prostitution. Indeed, their rates of recidivism were higher” (94).

Further Reading

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Bell, Bernice L., and Robert A. Harris. “Selected Bibliography of Works by and about Margaret Walker.” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker, edited by Maryemma Graham, pp. 319-40. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Complete list of primary and secondary works.

Brookhart, Mary Hughes. “Bibliography for Margaret Walker.” In Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora, pp. 511-14. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Extensive list of primary and secondary works.


Debo, Annette. “Margaret Walker.” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 469-74. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Overview of Walker's biography, major works and themes, as well as the critical reception to her works.

Freeman, Roland L. Margaret Walker's “For My People”: A Tribute. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, 36 p.

Photographic tribute to Walker on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of For My People.

Miller, R. Baxter. “‘To a Place Blessed’: For Margaret Walker.” African American Review 33, no. 1 (spring 1999): 5-6.

Brief, laudatory review of Walker's life and works following her death.

Pettis, Joyce. “Margaret Walker: Black Woman Writer of the South.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond, pp. 9-19. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Bio-critical look at Walker's career, emphasizing her Southern connections.


Fabré, Michel. “Margaret Walker's Richard Wright: A Wrong Righted or Wright Wronged?” Mississippi Quarterly 42 (1989): 429-50.

Discussion of Walker's book on Wright.

Graham, Maryemma. Introduction to On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1921-1992, p. 246. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

Graham places Walker's work in the context of her times.

Harris, Trudier. “Black Writers in a Changed Landscape, Since 1950.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, pp. 66-77. Baton Rouge, La.: Lousiana State University Press, 1985.

Background information on the literary milieu in which Walker worked.

Hill, Roy L. “Margaret Walker: For My People—A Folk Analysis.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association (1990): 117-20.

Analysis of Walker's affinity for the Southern oral-poetry tradition.

Traylor, Eleanor. “‘Bolder Measures Crashing Through’: Margaret Walker's Poem of the Century.” Callaloo 10 (fall 1987): 570-95.

Discusses Walker's “For My People.”

Walker, Margaret, and Patricia Grierson. “An Interview with Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander on Tennessee Williams.” Mississippi Quarterly 48 (fall 1995): 587-88.

Walker's comments on her contemporary, Tennessee Williams.

Additional coverage of Walker's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 172; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 54, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 6; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 76, 152; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; Exploring Poetry; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 20; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and 20th-Century Romance and Historical Writers.

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