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Margaret Walker Biography Essay, Research Paper

Donna Allego

Margaret Abigail Walker was born on 7 July 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her

parents, the Reverend Sigismund C. Walker, a Methodist minister and an educator, and

Marion Dozier Walker, a music teacher, encouraged her to read poetry and philosophy from

an early age.

Walker completed her high school education at Gilbert

Academy in New Orleans, Louisiana, where her family had moved in 1925. She went on to

attend New Orleans University (now Dillard University) for two years. Then, after

acclaimed poet Langston Hughes recognized her talent and urged her to seek training in the

North, she transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, where she received

a B.A. in English in 1935, at the age of nineteen. In 1937, she published "For My

People" in Poetry magazine. Her first poem to appear in print, it became one

of her most famous and was even anthologized in 1941 in The Negro Caravan before

becoming the opening poem of her first volume of verse in 1942.

In 1936, she took on full-time work with the Federal

Writers’ Project in Chicago under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration,

befriending and collaborating with such noted artists as Gwendolyn Brooks, Katherine

Dunham, and Frank Yerby. Perhaps the most memorable of these friendships with fellow

artists was that with noted author Richard Wright,

whose texts Walker would later help research and revise. In 1988, Walker would also write

a book recalling that friendship, entitled Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait

of the Man, a Critical Look at His Work. Involvement in the Writers’ Project offered

Walker a firsthand glimpse of the struggles of her inner-city brothers and sisters who

were products of the Great Migration, a movement that had resulted in hard times and

broken dreams for many southern black immigrants.

During this time, Walker authored an urban novel, "Goose Island," which was

never published.

After completing her tenure with the WPA in 1939,

Walker returned to school, entering the creative writing program at the University of

Iowa, where she earned a master of arts degree in 1940 and, later, a Ph.D. in 1965. In

1941, Walker began teaching at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina; in 1942

she left for one year to teach at West Virginia State College. In that year, she also

published her first volume of poems, For My People, with the title poem quickly

becoming her signature piece and helping elevate her toward success. For this volume,

which served as her master’s thesis at Iowa, she won the Yale Younger Poets Award.

In 1943, Walker married Firnist James Alexander, or

"Alex," as she loving called him, an interior designer and decorator. Following

the birth of their first three children (they raised a total of four during their years of

marriage), the couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1949. Walker began a prosperous

teaching career at Jackson State College in the same year, retiring from its English

department thirty years later in 1979. In 1968 she founded the Institute for the Study of

History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National

Research Center); she directed the center until her retirement. During her tenure at

Jackson State, Walker also organized and chaired the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival.

Following retirement, she remained active as professor emerita until her death in the fall

of 1998.

Jubilee, a neo-slave narrative based on the

collected memories of her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, was published in 1966,

only a year after Walker completed the first version of it for her dissertation. Many

scholars view the novel as an African American response to America’s fascination with Gone

With the Wind (1936). Others recognize the work as an example of the historic

presence that the author commands as a prophet of sorts for her people. The novel has

enjoyed tremendous popularity, winning the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award (1968), having

been translated into seven languages, and having never gone out of print. It has also led

the author into controversy: in 1988, Walker found herself in conflict with the famed

author of Roots, Alex Haley, whom she accused of infringing on her copyright of Jubilee.

However, her lawsuit against him was dismissed. Walker provides further detail regarding

the production of the novel in her 1972 essay, "How I Wrote Jubilee."

Walker followed Jubilee with Prophets for

a New Day (1970), a poetic treatment of the historic civil rights struggle of blacks

in America. It also celebrates the tradition of African American folktales and expression.

October Journey (1973), more personal in tone,

still resonates with Walker’s commitment to uplift the black race’s struggle for freedom

through art. In the collection’s poems, she pays homage to many of her contemporaries,

like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, who also employed their art as a tool of


Walker’s influence on the younger Black Aesthetic poets

of the 1960s and 1970s can be seen in her printed talks with Nikki Giovanni. Appearing in

1974, A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker

exemplifies the common concern for justice that linked the two artists and bridged their


For Farish Street Green, her fourth

poetry volume, appeared in 1986. Pieces in this collection reflect life in the Farish

Street community in Jackson, Mississippi. Walker begins her portrait of the people in the

neighborhood by making their lives testaments to those of their African ancestors.

This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems

(1989) chronicles Walker’s auspicious literary career while proving that she has unrivaled

tenacity and endurance as a poet. In 1990, she published How I Wrote Jubilee and Other

Essays on Life and Literature, coauthored with scholar Maryemma Graham. In 1997, with

Graham as editor, Walker released another collection of previously written essays entitled

On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932-1992. Several

other projects remained incomplete at the time of her death, including "God Touched

My Life," a biography of Sister Thea Bowman, a black nun in Mississippi;

"Black-Eyed Susans," an account of the murders of two students at Jackson State

College; a book on Jesse Jackson’s relationship to black politics; and an autobiography.Among Walker’s numerous accolades are six honorary

degrees, a Rosenwald Fellowship (1944), a Ford Fellowship (1953), a Fulbright Fellowship

to Norway (1971), a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities

(1972), the Living Legacy Award, given by the Carter administration, the Lifetime

Achievement Award of the College Language Association (1992), and the Lifetime Achievement

Award for Excellence in the Arts, presented by William Winter, then governor of

Mississippi (1992).

Walker has been compared to many great writers and

claimed as both personal acquaintances and influences the likes of James Weldon Johnson,

Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Longevity was her friend, and over the course of

her career she earned a place among the best African American poets, many of whom were her


* * * *

"For My People," the title poem in the

author’s first volume, is a timeless piece. The poem poignantly describes the joys,

heartaches, and triumphs of African Americans in the United States. Written in free verse,

the poem chronicles the everyday and often mundane aspects of hard labor and the simple

pleasures of a dispossessed people. Yet it also makes blacks complicit in their own misery

and calls for a new day, a revolution of the masses.

The opening stanzas of Walker’s poem ring with a

particularly lyrical note. She establishes from the beginning a pattern of overflowing

gerunds and participles unpunctuated with the requisite comma, leaving the reader almost

breathless. Perhaps that is the sense the author wishes to convey: a ceaseless and tiring

existence that has come to wear down even the most resilient of black folk, inviting

readers to feel the utter futility of "her people" who are "praying their

prayers nightly to an / unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an / unseen

power." Likewise, we feel the ambivalence of their lives, alternately manifesting

burden and exultation, as she describes them singing "their dirges and their ditties

and their blues / and jubilees." Not only do we hear the songs being sung, but we

also toil literally with those who are constantly "plowing digging planting pruning

patching / dragging along never gaining never reaping never / knowing and never

understanding." The cadence and the rhythm of her words make this shared experience


Walker’s work also celebrates ordinary black life. She

recalls the pleasures of "Alabama backyards" where children played "store

and hair and Miss / Choomby and company." She highlights the joys of urban blacks,

too, whom she spies on as they throng streets like "Lennox Avenue in New York and

Rampart Street in New / Orleans." Yet the author also chastises blacks

for their complacency and for hiding themselves, as she states, "in the dark of

churches and schools . . . and councils and committees," allowing themselves to be

"preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty."

But, finally, Walker envisions the creation of a more

egalitarian society–a society that she hopes will "hold all the people, / all the

faces, all the adams and eves and their countless / generations." She calls for a new

order and offers a fantastic vision of freedom:

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.

"We Have Been Believers," another poem from

Walker’s first collection, follows the free verse form of the title poem, as do many

pieces in the book. It is a poem about the sustaining power of African American belief,

whether it be in "the black gods of an old / land," "the white gods of a

new land," or the "conjure of the humble / and the faithful and the pure."

Walker recognizes that such faith fosters the race’s survival. She says, "Neither the

slavers’ whip nor the lynchers’ rope nor the / bayonet could kill our black belief."

Yet she also criticizes how belief in "greedy grinning gods" has taxed "our

wills" and encouraged "our spirits of pain."

Her final call, however, is not a plea for tolerance

and forgiveness; rather it is an exhortation for protest. She admits a need for answers

and "molten truths" but also enjoins her people to seize the power needed for

spiritual, emotional, and political transformation:

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.

"Sorrow Home," found also in For My

People, is probably Walker’s own response to an earlier piece in the collection

called "Dark Blood" (the first poem included in this archive). While "Dark

Blood" chronicles the ancestral homelands of African diasporal peoples, "Sorrow

Home" establishes the southern United States as the native residence of African


Initially assuming a proud and celebratory tone, the

author boasts that her "roots are deep" in southern culture, "deeper than

John Brown / or Nat Turner or Robert Lee." "Warm skies and gulf blue streams are

in my blood," she proclaims. She denounces the North, scoffing at "steam-heated

flats" and "the music of El and subway," refusing to be "walled in /

by steel and wood and brick far from the sky."

Her pride in the South proves tongue-in-cheek, however.

The "restless music" of the Southland, a "melody beating in [her] bone and

/ blood," prevents her from revisiting or reuniting with her birthplace. The irony of

her beloved "sorrow home," is that the "Klan of hate, the hounds and / the

chain gangs keep [her] from [her] own." Walker indicts the racist attitudes and

practices of the South, a place which rejects even its native daughter.

"I Want to Write," from October Journey,

expresses the deepest desire of the author to record the experiences of African Americans.

A true lyricist, she seeks to capture their dreams, emotions, and very being through her

poetry. "I want to write the songs of my people," she says. "I want to

frame their dreams into words; their souls into / notes." Here, Walker intends to

articulate that which is culturally universal–both apparent and clandestine qualities of

which her readers may or may not be otherwise aware. What translates is a specific,

unparalleled beauty and vibrancy: "a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn."

"Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad," included in Prophets

for a New Day, signifies upon the folk and conjure tales that were integral to

African American oral expression and that served as the cornerstones for subsequent

literary expression. Such tales served as art forms, as entertainment, and as tools for

inverting the oppressive and racist powers of majority rule. In Walker’s ballad,

"Sally Jones" running down the road "with a razor at her throat" and

"Deacon’s daughter lurching / Like a drunken alley goat" are merely background

characters for the real drama of the poem. When the goopher man (a conjurer or root

worker) "[throws] dust around [the narrator's] door," she seeks the help of Sis

Avery. Sis Avery advises, "Now honey go on back / I knows just what will hex him /

And that old goopher sack." When the goopher man sends a horse to run down the

speaker, Sis Avery grabs the horse, which turns into a toad. The goopher man hollers to

her, "Don’t kill that hoppy-toad." Says Sis Avery, "Honey, / You bout to

lose your load." As the toad dies, so does the goopher man.

The ballad is an enjoyable read in itself, yet it also

shows Walker’s versatility as a writer and her deep connection with the culture. She rises

to the challenge of reproducing on paper the wit and vibrancy of African American oral

storytelling, without the benefit of facial expression, vocal intonation and inflection,

and gestures–skills hard enough to master for an oral performance, but even more

difficult to render on paper. Clearly, Walker has demonstrated considerable prowess

in reproducing these forms.

"Love Song for Alex, 1979" is a tribute to

the author’s husband. The new poems in This Is My Century, where this poem

debuted, recall and comment on events occurring over the decades of the twentieth century.

In this poem, as in countless others, Walker maintains beautiful control over the

language, molding it to serve her purpose. She describes Alex in the first line as her

"monkey-wrench man," her "sweet patootie." Her dedication to him rings

clear as she asserts, "My heart belongs to him and to him only." She expresses a

lifetime of joy, claiming that "all [her] days of Happiness and wonder / are cradled

in his arms and eyes entire." She leaves her readers with a sense of her life’s

fullness and completeness, reassuring us that the days spent with her husband have formed

a "yarn of memories," weaving a tapestry of love.

During Walker’s final public appearance on October 17,

1998, at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference at Chicago State University, she was

inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame. On November 30, 1998, after

suffering for some time with breast cancer, Margaret Abigail Walker died at the age of 83,

in the Chicago home of her daughter, Mrs.

Marion Elizabeth Alexander Coleman. She is survived by four children, nine grandchildren,

and two great-grandchildren. Walker continued to write, tour, lecture, and give readings

until her death. Among the most formidable literary voices to emerge in the twentieth

century, she will be remembered as one of the foremost transcribers of African American

heritage. Indeed, she enjoyed a long and fruitful career–one that spanned almost an

entire century. As a result, she became a historian for a race. Through her work, she

"[sang] a song for [her] people," capturing their symbolic quest for liberation.

When asked how she viewed her work, she responded, "The body of my work . . . springs

from my interest in a historical point of view that is central to the development of black

people as we approach the twenty-first century."

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