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A writer whose career spans five decades, Margaret Walker experienced firsthand two of the most exciting periods in the history of black American literature: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Aesthetic Movement of the 1960s. She began her career under the guidance of Langston Hughes in the 1930s, and she emerged as a ”literary mother” to a group of young writers, including Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Sonia Sanchez. Walker’s reputation as a writer rests chiefly on For My People (1942), Jubilee (1966), and Prophets for a New Day (1970)—three works that reflect Walker’s longstanding devotion to the heritage of black American culture.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Child of the Harlem Renaissance
”I was born on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year,” Walker told an interviewer in 1988. ”My mother was her mother’s seventh child, and my father was his mother’s seventh child…. [M]y grandmother said, ‘You are born lucky.”’ Margaret Abigail was born in 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Reverend Sigismund C. Walker and Marion Dozier Walker. Sigismund emigrated from Jamaica to study for the ministry; he attended Tuskegee Institute for a time, but he left because of his disagreement with Booker T. Washington’s conservative philosophy that industrial and vocational education was the best that African Americans should hope to attain. In 1913, he received a degree from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Both he and Walker’s mother, a music teacher, propelled their four children toward the highest academic achievements possible.
As a child, Walker developed a deep and abiding interest in books and literature. In the 1920s, she began reading the works of the Harlem Renaissance poets— particularly Langston Hughes—and started writing her first poems when she was twelve years old. According to Walker herself, Hughes had a profound influence on her early development as a writer: ”I saw him first when I was about sixteen years old and halfway through college. He read my poetry and encouraged me to write.” Walker maintained a friendship with Hughes for the next thirty-five years. W. E. B. Du Bois further encouraged Walker by publishing her poem ”I Want to Write” in the Crisis, the magazine he founded when Walker was nineteen years old.
Walker attended Northwestern University and, in her senior year, became involved with the WPA Writers’ Project—a program instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide employment to writers during the Great Depression—where she developed a friendship with Richard Wright. Both writers benefited greatly from the relationship; Walker helped Wright do research for his novel Native Son (1940) and Wright, in turn, helped Walker revise and refine her poetry. In 1939, however, Wright abruptly ended his relationship with the poet. In A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974), Walker recalls: ”Some mutual ‘friends’ told him some kind of lie. They said that I had said something. I don’t know what they told him, but he became inarticulate with rage.” Wright later wrote to Walker, but she refused his letters.
The Poet and the Author
After leaving the WPA, Walker returned to school and obtained a master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Two years later, in 1942, she published her first collection of poetry, For My People. Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Series Award, the poems in For My People honor ordinary blacks facing terrible odds.
Walker followed For My People with Jubilee (1966), a historical novel about a slave family during and after the Civil War. The novel took Walker thirty years to complete. During these years, she married a disabled veteran, raised four children, taught full-time at Jackson State College in Mississippi, and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. The lengthy gestation, she asserted, partly accounts for the book’s quality. As she told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, ”There’s a difference between writing about something and living through it . . . . I did both.” The story of Jubilee’s, main characters, Vyry and Randall Ware, was an important part of Walker s life even before she began to write it down. As she explained in How I Wrote “Jubilee” (1972), she first heard about the ”slavery time in bedtime stories told by her maternal grandmother. When old enough to recognize the value of her family history, Walker took initiative, ”prodding her grandmother for more details and promising to set down on paper the story that had taken shape in her mind. Later on, she conducted extensive research on every aspect of the black experience during the Civil War.
In 1977, eleven years after the publication of Jubilee, Walker accused Alex Haley of plagiarizing from the work to create his best-selling novel Roots (1976). The charges were later dropped, but Walker continued to refer to that incident as the ”Roots fiasco and wrote a poem entitled ”Ripoff Roots Style.”
A Call for Civil Rights
Walker’s next work, Prophets for a New Day (1970), was another book of poetry. Unlike the poems in For My People, which name religion an enemy of revolution, Prophets for a New Day is deeply religious, drawing parallels between Biblical characters and the current figures in the civil rights movement. In fact, Walker has called Prophets for a New Day her civil rights poems, and only two poems in the volume, ”Elegy” and ”Ballad of the Hoppy Toad,” are not about the civil rights movement. In For My People, Walker urged that activity replace complacency, but in Prophets for a New Day, she applauds the new day of freedom for black people, focusing on the events, sites, and people of the struggle.
Retired but Productive
Retirement from Jackson State University in 1979 gave Walker more time for writing and lecturing. She often gave lectures on black literature and about the writers she knew: James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Arna Bontemps. She also completed the book Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (1988), the publication of which was long delayed by legal entanglements from Wright s widow. The following year, she published another poetry collection, This Is My Century (1989).
Walker next began work on a sequel to Jubilee and an autobiography. Tragically, she died of breast cancer in 1998 and these two projects remain incomplete. Despite this, her position as an important chronicler of the black experience and a leading figure in American letters is assured.
Works in Literary Context
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was the first major African American artistic movement. The movement was so named because it chiefly grew out of the New York City neighborhood known as Harlem, which boasted a large African American population. The Harlem Renaissance was an encompassing artistic movement, influencing everything from music to literature to stage plays to dance to visual art, as well as philosophical thought. The movement intended to express the experience of African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s when the movement was at its peak, yet it remains tremendously influential on all manner of art and literature today. Another facet of the Harlem Renaissance was its euphoric celebration of racial pride and strong challenging of white racism. When she was a young writer, Margaret Walker was heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance and mentored by Langston Hughes, one of the definitive writers of the movement.
The Black Aesthetic Movement
The black aesthetic movement took place during the 1960s and early 1970s and was defined by the growing prominence of black artists and writers. This artistic movement was a direct result of the contemporary civil rights and black power movements, which both sought to achieve equal rights for African Americans. The black aesthetic movement intended to further these causes and create a distinct black culture separate from that of white artists and writers. According to the movement, the artist was an activist. Among the writers associated with the black aesthetic movement are Alex Haley, Sonia Sanchez, and Margaret Walker.
Works in Critical Context
For My People
Walker’s poetry collection, For My People, was both her first book and her first critically applauded work. Evaluating the title poem some thirty years after it was first published, Roger Whitlow writes in Black American Literature: A Critical History, ”The poem, written in free verse, rhythmically catalogues the progress of black American experience.” In that same volume, Eugenia Collier is more generous in her praise, stating, ”It speaks to us, in our words and rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.”
Critical reactions to Jubilee were mixed. Granting that the novel is ”ambitious,” New York Times Book Review contributor Wilma Dykeman deems it ”uneven.” Arthur P. Davis, writing in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, suggests that the author ”has crowded too much into her novel.” Even so, counter some reviewers, the novel merits praise. Abraham Chapman of the Saturday Review appreciates the author’s ”fidelity to fact and detail.” In the Christian Science Monitor, Henrietta Buckmaster comments, ”In Vyry, Miss Walker has found a remarkable woman who suffered one outrage after the other and yet emerged with a humility and a moral fortitude that reflected a spiritual wholeness.” Dykeman concurs: ”In its best episodes, and in Vyry, Jubilee chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondages.”
- Davis, Arthur. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.
- Evans, Mari. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1973.
- Tate, Claudia. Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1984.
- Walker, Margaret. How I Wrote “Jubilee.” Chicago: Third World Press, 1972.
- Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature: A Critical History. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982.
- Buckmaster, Henrietta. “Jubilee (review).” Christian Science Monitor (September 29, 1966).
- Chapman, Abraham. “Jubilee (review).” Saturday Review (September 22, 1966).
- Dykeman, Wilma. “Jubilee Book Review.” New York Times Book Review (September 25, 1966).
- The Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Margaret Walker, poet and novelist (obituary). Accessed December 2, 2008, from http://writing.upenn.edu/~afkeis/50s/waUter-margaret.html.
- Internet Poetry Archive. Biography. Accessed December 2, 2008, from http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/walker/biography.php.
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