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.
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.
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.
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.