Born 7 July 1915, Birmingham, Alabama; died 30 November 1998
Daughter of Sigismund and Marion Walker; married M. Alexander, 1943; children: four
Margaret Walker's middle-class parents were both university graduates; her father was a Methodist minister, and her mother a musicologist and third-generation educator. Walker graduated from Gilbert Academy (1930) and studied at Northwestern University (B.A. 1935) and the University of Iowa (M.A. 1940; Ph.D. 1965).
After working on the federal government's Writers Project in Chicago and as a newspaper and magazine editor, she began teaching. Beginning in 1949, Walker was a professor of English at Jackson State College, Mississippi. She also served as director of the Institute for the Study of History, Life, and Culture of Black People and organized black culture and writers' conferences, notably the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival (in November 1973), at which 20 black women poets read. Walker had four children.
Walker began writing poetry at the age of twelve. She was the first of her race to receive the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first volume of poetry, For My People (1942, reissued in 1989 and 1992), and other awards have followed. Her work is widely published in periodicals.
For My People is an early indication of Walker's poetic talent. She experiments with traditional and modern poetic forms. There are 10 occasional poems, written in unmistakably black poetic rhythms; 10 ballads with superimposed jazz rhythms or blues metrics; and six sonnets, the most traditional of her poetry in substance and structure. The volume begins at a dramatic, intense pitch, continues in a relaxed tone, and ends in contemplative modulation. In Prophets for a New Day (1970), Walker limits her subject to the often fatal struggle to secure human rights—chiefly for blacks. Substance clearly dominates form, whether sonnet or ballad.
Walker dedicates October Journey (1973), a volume of 10 poems, to two of her greatest influences: her father and Langston Hughes, her "friend and mentor." Her verse is at its most melodramatic here. The first poem, "October Journey," establishes the volume's tone: "A music sings within my flesh / I feel the pulse within my throat." The final piece, "A Litany from the Dark People," is a skillful, rhythmic composition.
Jubilee (1966, 1999), Walker's gripping novel, spans several genres: Civil War epic, historical fiction, and the slave narrative. It is the story of Vyre, daughter of a slave and her master. She experiences simultaneously the rite of passage to womanhood and the change from slavery to freedom. Walker frees her epic from the traditional male-oriented sense of the heroic, structuring her novel around Vyre, her maternal great-grandmother. Vyre's first husband, a free and literate Negro, functions only in a supportive role to underscore Vyre's heroism. Walker's poetic style is evident in Jubilee 's rhythmic prose and biblical overtones.
Jubilee was conceived in part as an answer to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. The former draws on both the modern form of historical fiction and the genre of the 19th-century slave narrative as well as oral African American traditions. Sometimes criticized for an overly conciliatory tone, the novel chronicles the survival and personal and spiritual growth of an African American woman, Vyre, in the face of slavery and incredible cruelty. Vyre not only withstands slavery but is able to transcend her hatred and forgive her former slave mistress, offering a vision of society without racism.
In How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1972, 1990) Walker writes about her own artistic development, her experience as a woman teacher in traditionally black colleges, African American literature, and Southern literature. Walker's essays especially chronicle the difficulties of African American women who teach in colleges dominated by men.
Her biography Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius (1988) attempts to analyze the complex influences that molded Wright's particular literary vision. Walker brings to bear her skills as scholar and writer as well as her personal knowledge of Wright, with whom she had a close working relationship—Walker did much of the primary research for Wright's novel Native Son.
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989) is a collection of autobiographical poems, elegies, historical portraits, and meditations on the state of African American life in the 1980s. It contains a new group of poems, "This Is My Century," and another, "Farish Street," previously published only in periodical form. "Farish Street" describes and commemorates an African American community in Jackson, Mississippi, portrayed both as a specific place and as an archetype of African American life in the United States.
Walker's work, particularly her poetry, shares many formal and thematic concerns with other African American writers of her generation, notably in her use of the sonnet, epic free verse, and vernacular-based ballads. In her fiction, she shares with such women writers of her generation as Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur a feminist sensibility, portraying strong female protagonists and suggesting that a more humane society is possible in the U.S. through the maternal power of women.
Carmichael, J. M., Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1998). Edwards, M. L., The Rhetoric of Afro-American Poetry: A Rhetorical Analysis of Black Poetry and the Selected Poetry of Margaret Walker and Langston Hughes (dissertation, 1980). Evans, M., ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984). Gwin, M. C., Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (1985). McCray, J., For My People: The Life and Writing of Margaret Walker (video, 1998). Miller, R. B., ed., Black Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 (1986). Pryse, M., and H. Spillers, eds., Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction and Literary Tradition (1985). Tate, C., ed., Black Women Writers at Work (1983).
African-American Writers (1991). CANR (1989). CB (Nov. 1943). CLC (1973, 1976). DLB (1988). Ebony Success Library (1973). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Poetry Criticism (1998).
A Message from Margaret (video, 1992). African American Review (1999). Black World (Dec. 1971). Callaloo (Winter 1999). CSM (22 Jan. 1990). LATBR (19 Feb.1989). Margaret Walker Interview with Kay Bonetti (audiocassette, 1991). Mississippi Quarterly (1995). Nation (1999). WRB (July 1990). Yale Review (1943).
UPDATED BY JAMES SMETHURST