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Walker, Margaret

Walker, Margaret

July 7, 1915
October 1998

The writer Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She received her early education in New Orleans and completed her undergraduate work at Northwestern University at the age of nineteen. Although Walker had published some of her poems before she moved to Chicago, it was there that her talent matured. She wrote as a college student and as a member of the federal government's Works Project Administration, and she shared cultural and professional interests with black and white intellectuals in Chicago, the best known of whom was the writer Richard Wright (19081960). Wright and Walker were close friends until Walker left Chicago for graduate work at the University of Iowa in 1939, by which time she was on her way to becoming a major poet.

In 1942 Walker completed the manuscript of a collection of poems entitled For My People, the title poem of which she had written and published in Chicago in 1937. The book served as her master's thesis at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and it won a measure of national literary prominence. In 1942 For My People won the Yale Younger Poets Award. About the same time, Walker began work on a historical novel based on the life of her grandmother, Elvira Dozier Ware, a work she did not finish until she returned to Iowa in the 1960s to complete her Ph.D. In the interim, she joined the faculty at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and her husband, Firnist James Alexander, raised their four children.

Walker played an active role in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, while continuing to write. The novel she created from her grandmother's stories was published in 1966 as Jubilee, and it received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award. It was translated into seven languages and enjoyed popularity as one of the first modern novels of slavery and the Reconstruction South told from an African-American perspective. Other books followed: Prophets for a New Day (1970), How I Wrote Jubilee (1972), October Journey (1973), and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974). Throughout her long career, Walker received numerous awards and honors for her contribution to American letters. She received several honorary degrees, and in 1991 she received a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Walker retired from full-time teaching in 1979. She remained in Jackson and worked on several projects, especially a controversial biography of Richard Wright, published in 1988 as Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. In 1989 Walker brought together new and earlier poems in This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems. A year later she published her first volume of essays, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature.

In all her work, Walker incorporated a strong sense of her own humanistic vision, together with an autobiographical recall of her own past and cogent themes from black history. Her artistic vision recognized the distinctiveness of black cultural life and the values associated with it. She was also outspoken on matters of political justice and social equality, for women as well as for men.

Jubilee tells the story of Vyry, a slave on an antebellum Georgia plantation who aspires to freedom. The unacknowledged daughter of the master, she marries a fellow slave and assumes responsibility for the plantation during the Civil War. After the war she moves away and discovers that her courage and determination make it possible for her to triumph over numerous adversities. In a 1992 interview, Walker stated, "The body of my work springs from my interest in the historical point of view that is central to the development of black people as we approach the twenty-first century."

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Literature of the United States; Poetry, U.S.


Graham, Maryemma. Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Walker, Margaret. How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature. Edited by Maryemma Graham. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1990.

Walker, Margaret. Conversations With Margaret Walker. Edited by Maryemma Graham. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

maryemma graham (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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