Alexander, Margaret Walker 1915–1998

views updated May 17 2018

Margaret Walker Alexander 19151998


Vestiges of Slave Era

Alexander and Richard Wright

Heralded as Voice of Her Generation

Began Both Family and Novel

Her Great-Grandmothers Story

A Figure of Literary Eminence

Selected writings


Though a younger generation of African American writers had long eclipsed the pioneering accomplishments of Margaret Walker Alexander by the time of her death at age 83 in 1998, the poet, novelist and academic had enjoyed friendships that spanned nearly a century of black literary achievementfrom Langston Hughes to Alice Walkerand was well known and vividly remembered to many in the African American literary community. In 1942, Alexander became the first African American to win a leading literary competition, and one of just a handful of female African-American female poets ever. The sentiments expressed in her ac-claimed 1942 volume, For My People, would later become inspirational, oftencited verse during the civil-rights era. Alexander was also the author other of what has been termed the first African-American historical novel, the 1966 work Jubilee. In an obituary penned for Alexander that was published in TheNation, Amiri Baraka called her the living continuum of the great revolutionary democratic arts culture that has sustained and inspired the Afro-American people since the Middle Passage.

Alexander was born Margaret Abigail Walker in 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of a Jamaican-born Methodist minister with a deep love of classic literature and philosophy. A graduate of North-western University, Sigismund Walker had married music teacher Marion Dozier Walker; when their only child was still young, they relocated to New Orleans. Also present in the Walker house-hold was grandmother Elvira Vyry Ware Dozier, who helped care for the little girl and told her fantastic bedtime stories about slavery time.

Vestiges of Slave Era

The South in which Alexander grew up was still peopled by older African-Americans who had been born into slavery. Her great-grandmotherVyrys motherdied just a month before Alexanders birth, but passed on the tales of a harsh life on the plantation to Vyry, who entertained her granddaughter with them. Though obvious changes had occurred in the intervening decades, discrimination and violence were still commonplace in 1920s New Orleans. One year, Alexander would recall, her fathers job forced him to travel, and the women lived in tremendous fear when they were alone in the house. On another occasion, a drunken off-duty New Orleans police officer chased

At a Glance

Born July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, AB; died of cancer, November 30, 1998, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Sigismund C (a Methodist minister) and Marion (a music teacher; maiden name, Dozier) Walker; married Firnist James Alexander (an interior decorator), June 13, 1943; children: Marion Elizabeth, Firnist James, Sigismund Walker, Margaret Elvira. Education: Attended New Orleans University (now Dillard University), c. 193133; Northwestern University, B. A., 1935; University of Iowa, M.A., 1940, Ph.D., 1965. Religion; Methodist.

Career: Writer. Member of Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, Chicago, 193639; Livingstone College, Salisbury, NC, member of faculty, 194142; West Virginia State College, Institute, West Virginia, instructor in English, 194243; lecturer, National Concert and Artists Corp. Lecture Bureau, 194348; Livingstone College, professor of English, 194546; Jackson State College, Jackson, Mississippi, professor, 194979 (named professor emerita), founder and director of Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black Peoples, 196879.

Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1942, for For My People; Ford fellowship for study at Yale University, 1954; Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship, 1966; Fulbright fellowship, 1971; National Endowmentforthe Humanities, 1972; received honorary doctorates from Northwestern University and Dennison University, both 1974, and from Morgan State University, 1976.

Member: Modern Language Association, Poetry Society of America, National Council of Teachers of English, American Association of University Professors, National Education Association, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Sigismund Walker home at gunpoint, enraged that an African American man had the audacity to carry a fountain pen in his pocket.

Growing up in a learned household, Alexander soon displayed both creativity and intelligence. She attended a private school, and earned her high school diploma by the age of fourteen. Both parents were instructors at New Orleans University (now Dillard University), and Alexander enrolled there as a teen. After two years, she decided to transfer to Northwestern University in the Chicago area in an attempt to escape the racism of the South. She was dismayed to find that prejudice and mistreatment plagued blacks who lived in sophisticated urban cities, too; she was even refused service once at a restaurant in Evanston, the quaint town that is home to the university.

Alexander and Richard Wright

In 1932, Alexander met the poet Langston Hughes. Raised in a home that boasted an impressive library of titles by African American writers, she was already a great fan of Hughes and his work, and well acquainted with the literary achievements of the Harlem Renaissance that he and others had launched the previous decade. Hughes encouraged the aspiring writer, and her first poem appeared in Crisis, W.E.B. DuBoiss journal, in 1934. During her senior year, she began handing in assignments based on her grandmothers tales of life before and after slavery, but decided she needed more time to pursue it as a work of fiction. After graduation from Northwestern, Alexander was hired by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal federal agency aimed at relieving the unemployment of the Great Depression and through building and improvement projects. Assigned to work with delinquent females, Alexander became deeply interested in one of Chicagos ethnic neighborhoods that was an unusual merging of Italian American and African American families, and began an uncompleted novel about it she tentatively entitled Goose Island.

Later on staff at the WPA Federal Writers Project, Alexander came to know Nelson Algren, Katherine Dunham, and Richard Wright, as well as several other unknown or up-and-coming personalities in the city. She and Wright shared many ideas and opinions, and developed a keen interest in each others literary endeavors. Over the next three years they contributed to and encouraged each others work: Wright helped Alexander fine-tune her verse, and wakened her interest in leftist political theory; in turn, she mailed him Chicago newspaper clippings about a young black man accused of rape. This story would form the basis for Wrights 1940 novel Native Son.

Alexander began to realize that her Goose Island manu-script was very similar to Native Son, and put it aside. The fruitful friendship between the pair ended on a visit by Alexander to New York City; Wright believed that she had gossiped about him to mutual friends, and cut her from his circle. Back in Chicago, Alexander suffered another setback when her WPA job was terminated by an act of Congress, so she decided to enroll in graduate school for an M.A. in English. After winning entry into the eminent University of Iowa Writers Workshop, she earned her degree from the school in 1940. Again, she considered creating a thesis project centered on the oral history of her mothers family, but once again shelved the idea.

Heralded as Voice of Her Generation

A volume of poetry, For My People, was her Iowa thesis instead. The work was published by Yale University Press in 1942 after winning the universitys Younger Poets Award, a coveted literary prize. It made her the first African American to win a major literary competition, but even more remarkably, the publication of Alexanders volume marked the first book of poetry published by an African American woman since 1918. For My People was widely reviewedsomewhat of an accomplishment in itself at the timethough in some cases with subtly racist sentiment behind the praise. Poetess Walker avoids the callow literary posturing that is the curse of most Negro versifiers, opined Time magazine. The moral guilelessness which may well rate as the most valuable gift of the Negro to American civilization is exemplified in almost every stanza in this slim twenty-four-poem book.

Through characters in For My People such as New Orleans sorceress Molly Means, and Poppa Chicken, an urban drug dealer and pimp, Alexander gave voice to a range of African American experiences during her era. But her title poem would endure: For my people, she wrote, Forthe cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn to know/the reasons why and the answers to and the people who and the/places where and the days when, in memory of the bitter hours/when we discovered we were black and poor and small and/different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody/understood. Its final lines would serve as inspirational verse during the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s in the South. Let a new earth rise, Alexander concluded in her 1940 poem. 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.

Began Both Family and Novel

After graduating from Iowa, Alexander realized, as her father once pointed out, I would have to eat if I wanted to live, and writing poetry would not feed me, she recalled in How I Wrote Jubilee. So following in the footsteps of two previous generations, she became a teacher at a small North Carolina college in 1941; the following year she taught at West Virginia State College. She wed Firnist James Alexander, a disabled war veteran, in June of 1943. They began a family the following year that would number four children. In 1949 she became a professor of English at Jackson State College in Mississippi (now Jackson State University).

With the success of For My People behind her, Alexander began working in earnest on a historical novel based on her grandmother Vyrys tales of nineteenth-century black life. She fit in research on what would become Jubilee between her obligations as a working mother; for years she pored over historical documents across the South, read an immense amount of literature on the Civil War period, and cultivated helpful professional contacts with scholars and librarians in several states. She visited the towns where her great-grandparents had lived, and even tracked down her grandmothers sole remaining sibling. From 1955 to 1962, however, both she and her husband suffered from medical and financial setbacks, and the demands of a growing family forced Alexander to shelve her novel for seven years.

In 1962 Alexander, though mother of four children, took leave from her job and went back to the University of Iowa to earn a Ph.D. in English. Her manuscript became her dissertation, and she typed the last sentence of Jubilee in April of 1965, nearly three decades after beginning it as a Northwestern University student. Published in 1966, Jubilee recreates the life of Alexanders great-grandmother, here named Vyry, from her birth as a slave on a Georgia plantation. Divided into three sectionsthe antebellum years, the Civil War era, and the Reconstruction period Vyrys tale stands in literary form as representative of untold thousands, based on Alexanders exhaustive amount of research into African American social and economic realities of the Old South. As a literary character, however, Vyry emerges as a woman who suffered immense hardship, yet rose above her circumstances to set an example for future generations, a woman guided by Christian principles and a deep sense of self-worth.

Her Great-Grandmothers Story

In Jubilee, Vyry is the last of over a dozen children born to a slave named Sis Hetta before she was thirty. Some were fathered by Hettas slave husband, but others by the plantation owner, and Vyry is one of these biracial offspring. This last childbirth kills Hetta, and Vyry is raised by two adoptive mothers. One dies, and the second is sold away on the order of the plantation owners wife, Salina. Vyry serves as a cook in familys mansion, and is terribly abused by this woman, who resents the fact that this slave child bears such a resemblance to her own daughter, Lillian.

As a young woman, Vyry falls in love with Randall Ware, who was born free, owns his own smithy, and can read and write. He urges her to run away with him and leave her young children behind, but she cannot, and when she attempts to flee with them, is captured and lashed. During the Civil War, all members of the plantation family perish except Lillian, who is traumatized by the war and its violence. VyryLillians only remaining family remains with her, even after she is freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Jubilee progresses, Vyry marries a former slave, Innis Brown, a kind man deeply committed to providing a stable, prosperous home for his family. The Reconstruction legislation provides men like Innis with a brief window of political and economic opportunity, but this progress is soon ended by a resurgence of white power in the South. Vyry and Innis move several times with their children, fleeing Ku Klux Klan posses, and she eventually becomes a respected local midwife and folk healer. Randall Ware returns, now a committed black activist, and though his boldness unsettles her, Vyry realizes there is justification for his beliefs, and allows him to take her son away for an education.

A Figure of Literary Eminence

Jubilee became a bestseller, and was translated into several European languages. Alexander continued to teach at Jackson State, and set up the schools black studies program in 1968. She published her second book of poetry, Prophets for a New Day, in 1970. Less political than For My People, its poems reveal a more spiritual direction. In one work, the civil-rights heroes of the 1960s are renamed as the prophets of the Bible: Martin Luther King is Amos, Medgar Evars is Micah, and the events in civil-rights era occur in religious metaphor. At the Lincoln Monument in Washington August 28, 1963 compares the thousands of marchers with the enslaved Jews waiting for Moses to take them out of Egypt.

One day Alexander and another African American writer, Nikki Giovanni, read theirpoems at a conference, and the response was so enthusiastic that an editor invited them do a volume together. A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker was published in 1974 by Howard University Press, and reprinted nine years later with a new postscript. In 1977 Alexander filed a plagiarism suit against author Alex Haley for his bestseller Roots, claiming he had lifted several parts from directly from Jubilee. Haley said he had never read it, and the suit was later dismissed. Two years later she retired from Jackson State, but continued to tour as a popular lecturer.

Alexander wrote a literary biography, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, published in 1987. The 1972 pamphlet that chronicled the thirty-year process of writing her only novel was later reprinted in a 1990 volume of the same name, How I Wrote Jubilee, along with several other examples of her work. The Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black Peoples at Jackson State was later renamed in her honor, as was the street in the city on which she lived. Her last published work was the 1997 volume On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 19321992. She died of cancer at the home of her daughter, Marion Colmon, in Chicago in November of 1998. A documentary film, For My People: The Life and Writing of Margaret Walker, appeared the following year, and contains interviews with Alexander and those who knew her.

Selected writings


For My People, Yale University Press, 1942, with foreword by Stephen Vincent Benet, reprinted, Ayer Co., 1969.

The Ballad of the Free, Broadside Press, 1966.

Prophets for a New Day, Broadside Press, 1970.

October Journey, Broadside Press, 1973.

This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems, University of Georgia Press, 1989.


Jubilee (novel), Houghton, 1965, Bantam, 1981.

(Pamphlet) How I Wrote Jubilee, Third World Press, 1972, revised edition edited by Maryemma Graham, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, Feminist Press, 1990.

(With Nikki Giovanni) A Poetic Equation: Conversations betweenNikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, Howard University Press, 1974, reprinted with new postscript, 1983.

For Parish Street, Green 1986.

Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, Dodd, 1987.

(With Thea Bowman) God Touched My Life: The Inspiring Autobiography of the Nun Who Brought Song, Celebration, and Soul to the World, Harper & Row, 1992.

On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 19321992, University of Tennessee Press, 1997.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 76: AfroAmerican Writers, 19401955, edited by Trudier Harris, 1988, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited James Giles and Wanda Giles, 1995.


Jet, December 14, 1998, p. 17.

Nation, January 4, 1999, pp. 3233.

New York Times, December 4, 1998, p. 29.

Washington Post, April 28, 1977, p. A12; August 24, 1978, p. B6; January 10, 1999, p. X2.

Carol Brennan

Walker, Margaret 1915–1998

views updated Jun 27 2018

Margaret Walker 19151998

Poet, novelist

Published First Poem

Poetry Collection Won Yale Competition

Completed Epic Novel

Selected writings


Ithough her name is not well known outside of academic and literary spheres, Margaret Walker is widely considered a major figure in twentieth century American literature. In a career that spanned more than fifty years, Walker wrote several volumes of poetry, most notably the award-winning For My People, and an epic novel, Jubilee. Walker also wrote essays and scholarly articles, and was a professor of literature. Clarence Hunter of Tougaloo College told the Associated Press that Margaret Walker was a woman for all seasons. She was poet, a novelist, a teacher, a mentor, a scholar, a humanitarian, an activist, a fighter for rights of people. She was everything you can expect of a great woman.

Margaret Abigail Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1915. Her Jamaican-born father, Sigismund, was a Methodist minister. Her mother, Marion, was a music teacher. When Walker was ten years old, her family, which included three younger siblings, moved to New Orleans where both of her parents took teaching positions at New Orleans (now Dillard) University. Growing up in the 1920s in a cultured household with educated parents, Walker was introduced early to great literature. She read classic works by Homer, Shakespeare, and Victorian novelists, as well as recent works by black writers of the then-flourishing Harlem Renaissance, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Walkers father encouraged her to keep a journal into which she recorded her own poems and other writings.

During her childhood Walker also listened enthralled to the stories told by her grandmother about life in Georgia before and after slavery. Many of the stories were retellings of stories that had been told to Walkers grandmother by her own mother, who had been born a slave. My grandmother talked about it all the time, and when I was a little girl, I told her, When I grow up Im going to write that story. Id ask, And where did you go, where did you live after that? I had the feeling that it was an important story. The older I got, the more I realized that I had a very great story, Walker told Kay Bonetti of the Missouri Review.

Published First Poem

After graduating from Gilbert Academy, Walker attended New Orleans University for two years. At the end of her second year her parents met poet Langston

At a Glance

Born Margaret Abigail Walker on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, AL; died November 30, 1998, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Sigismund Walker (a clergyman) and Marion Dozier Walker (a music teacher); married Firnist James Alexander, 1943 (deceased 1983); children: four. Education: Northwestern University, B.A., 1935; University of lowa, M.A., 1940, Ph.D., 1965.

Career: Poet, novelist, and scholar. Livingston College, professor of literature, 1941-42; West Virginia State College, Institute, professor, 1943-45; Jackson State University, professor, 1949-79; Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People, Jackson State University, founder; First published poem appeared in Crisis magazine, 1934; poetry volumes include: For My People, 1942; Prophets for a New Day, 1970; October Journey 1973; This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1988; others works include Jubilee, a novel, 1966; How I Wrote Jubilee, 1972; A Poetic Equation (with Nikki Giovanni), 1974; The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright: A Portrait of a Man, a Critical Look at His Works, 1988.

Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1942; Rosenthal Fellowship, 1944; Ford Foundation grant, 1953; Houghton Mifflin Fellowship, 1966; National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 1972; Mississippi Arts Commission, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1992.

Hughes, who encouraged them to sent their talented daughter to a more prestigious and well-funded college outside the South. Walker transferred to Northwestern University in suburban Chicago. It was a Methodist school and Methodist ministers could sent their children there cheapertheyd get a rebate, Walker told Bonetti. In 1934, during her senior year at Northwestern, Walkers poem Daydreaming was published in Crisis magazine. Though all of her work with the exception of a few poems appeared in the 1940s and after, Walker felt her consciousness as writer was formed in the volatile social climate of the 1930s. I learned then that the ivory tower was no place for a black writer I have no desire to separate myself from what I amfrom my race, from my gender, from my nationality, and from my consciousness. Im black, woman, writer; Im very Black Nationalist, Walker explained to Jerry W. Ward of the Mississippi Quarterly.

Walkers admiration for the work of Harlem Renaissance writers of the generation prior to her own was tempered by her dismay at their disregard for the political and economic problems facing African Americans. They lacked social perspective and suffered from a kind of literary myopia, Walker said of the Harlem Renaissance writers in an essay in Pylon. They seemed to constantly beg the question of the Negros humanity. It was a day of individual literary patronage when a rich angel adopted a struggling poor artist and made an exotic plaything out of any really brilliant Negro.

Receiving a bachelors degree in literature from Northwestern in 1935, Walker soon obtained employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers Project, a government program which gave work to writers during the Depression. One learned many professional tricks of the trade, if the not the actual craft of writing, Walker recalled of her WPA experience in How I Wrote Jubilee. While working for the WPA in Chicago Walker became friends with Richard Wright, an unknown young author who would later write acclaimed novels such as Native Son and The Outsider. I knew Richard Wright three years. I was always at his desk. Everybody seemed to feel that I was trying to marry the man [but] we were never romantically involved, Walker told The Missouri Review. Walker maintained that she assisted Wright with research for Native Son, which is based on a real life incident of a black man murdering a white woman. Also, Walker said that using her university-acquired knowledge of literary technique she helped Wright develop his vision of the book. She was disappointed and angry that Wright, who died in 1960, never publicly acknowledged her contribution.

Poetry Collection Won Yale Competition

When Walker was a student at Northwestern, she began work on a novel based on her grandmothers slave-era stories. After graduation Walker set the novel aside to concentrate on writing poetry. In the late 1930s Walker left Chicago to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa. While in Iowa she completed a volume of poetry called For My People, a three part work dealing with African-American culture, which she submitted as her masters thesis in creative writing in 1940. She also entered the volume in the Yale Younger Poets competition three years in a row until it finally won in 1942.

Winning the prestigious Yale prize made Walker a rising star in the poetry world. For My People was published by the Yale University Press in 1942, with a foreword by well-known poet and fiction writer Stephen Vincent Benet, and was widely reviewed in literary journals and mainstream magazines. Walker was named to the 1942 Honor Roll of Race Relations, a nationwide poll conducted by the Schomberg Collection of Negro Literature at the New York Public Library. Adrianne Baytop in American Women Writers hailed For My People as an early indication of Walkers poetic talent. Baytop also praised Walker for her experiments with poetic forms, observing, There are ten occasional poems, written in unmistakably black poetic rhythms; ten 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. Jane Campbell of African American Writers called For My People a literary masterpiece that fuses the cadence of sermon and folk tale with Western literary tradition. It merges her African heritage and her humanistic and Christian beliefs with a feminist consciousness that sees womans links with nature and the earth as emblematic of her ability to create new poetic, political, and spiritual worlds.

Leaving the University of Iowa with a masters degree, Walker obtained a teaching position at Livingston College in North Carolina, then moved on to teach at West Virginia State College. In 1943, Walker married Firnist James Alexander, and eventually had four children. Walker spent many years balancing the demands of family and career. In 1949, Walker joined the faculty at Jackson State College (now University) in Jackson, Mississippi. She remained at Jackson State until her retirement from teaching in 1979 and she continued to reside in Jackson for the rest of her life. Living in the South was important to Walkers creative process. The South is symbolicthe violence of the South, the protest, the struggle, all of that. The South is both an historic region and a mythic ideal. All my images, in my poetry, come from out of the South, where I was a child, where my imagination was formed, and where I was an adolescent. I never felt at home anywhere but in the South, Walker told The Missouri Review.

While a professor at Jackson State, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People, which collects, preserves and interprets 20th century African-American history. In 2000, Walkers own papers were formally received into the Institutes collection to create the Institutes Margaret Walker Alexander National Resource Center.

Despite the many hours Walker gave to teaching and scholarly activities, she always considered herself primarily a writer. She continued to write poetry and to work on the novel about slave life she had begun as an undergraduate. The novel, entitled Jubilee and based on real events in the lives of Walkers ancestors, required a great deal of historical research. Whenever I took a job, whether in Chicago in the thirties, in West Virginia and North Carolina between 1942 and 1945, or in Jackson, Mississippi, where I began teaching in 1949, I would hound the librarians to help me find books and materials relating to my story. After I had combed books that I found through card catalogues and reference materials I sent the librarians on further hunts for obscure items and for bits of information I had picked up here and there, Walker recalled in How I Wrote Jubilee. She also traveled to the places in Georgia and Alabama where her forebears had lived and she visited elderly relatives to gain further information on family history. Jubilee is a folk novel and an historical novel I used folk ways, folk sayings, folk philosophy, folk ideas, folk everything At the same time, no one can deny the historical accuracy of what I have written - the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction and reaction, Walker told Bonetti.

Completed Epic Novel

In 1962 she took a leave of absence from Jackson State to return to the University of Iowa for a doctorate in English, using Jubilee as her dissertation material. In the spring of 1965 the novel was completed. Jubilee tells the story of Vyry, a slave girl fathered by a plantation owner, and follows her life as a child in the slave quarters, as a young adult during the Civil War, and finally as a wife, mother, freewoman, and farm owner in the Reconstruction era. The character of Vyry is based on Walkers great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown.

Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1966, Jubilee was generally well-received by critics. To appreciate the extent of innovation Jubilee brings to a thoroughly quarried, frequently hackneyed genre of writing, it is only necessary to recall that the Civil War novel has been the source of some of the crudest stereotypes of Negro characters in American fiction Margaret Walker has reversed the picture completely. With a fidelity to fact and detail, she presents the little-known everyday life of the slaves, their modes of behavior, patterns and rhythms of speech, emotions, frustrations, and aspirations, wrote Abraham Chapman in the Saturday Review. Wilma Dykeman of the New York Times Book Review called Vyry one of the memorable women of contemporary fiction adding that in its best episode, and in Vyry, Jubilee chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondages.

Because of its historical accuracy, Jubilee has often shown up on college and high school reading lists, and it has remained continuously in print since its publication, an achievement that few books can match. Despite its durability, Jubilee has not been promoted to the ranks of classic American novels; likewise Margaret Walker remained an obscure name to those not well acquainted with American literature. Twenty years after Jubilee, Toni Morrison would write Beloved, about a woman who kills her infant daughter rather than let her grow up a slave. Set against such competition, Jubilee is merely an honest novel, not a great one. Thats the trouble with pioneers; eventually they become old fashioned, wrote David Streitfeld of the Washington Post.

In the years following Jubilee Walker continued to write poetry, including the volumes Prophets for a New Day, October Journey, and This is My Century, non-fiction essays, and completed her biography of Richard Wright. She was also a friend and inspiration to younger writers such as Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker. Walker sometimes thought a more pessimistic point of view might have aided her writing and placed her in the celebrated Southern Gothic literary tradition. Nevertheless she clung to a positive outlook throughout her long and busy life. Everything has possibilities, Walker told The Mississippi Quarterly. I believe in the goodness of the future. No matter how hard things may seem at the momentthe political clouds may gather, the racial problems, poverty, even sickness and death. Im almost a Pollyanna in my belief in life, in love, in the goodness of my fellow man.

Selected writings


For My People, 1942.

Prophets for a New Day, 1970.

October Journey, 1973.

This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1988.


Jubilee, 1966.


How I Wrote Jubilee, 1972.

The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright: A Portrait of a Man, a Critical Look at His Works, 1988.



African American Writers, Scribners, 1991.

American Women Writers, Volume 4, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1982.

Contemporary African American Novelists, Greenwood Press, 1999.

Walker, Margaret. How I Wrote Jubliee, Third World Press, 1972.

Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Duke University Press, 1994.


Associated Press, December 1, 1998.

Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1988, p. 515-527.

Missouri Review, Vol. 15, no. 1, 1992, p. 112-131.

New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1966, p. 52.

Pylon, no. 10, 1950.

Saturday Review, September 24, 1966, p. 43-44.

Washington Post, December 2, 1998, p. Dl-2.


The Perspectives in American Literature website,

The National Endowment for the Humanities website,

The Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color website,

Mary Kalfatovic

Walker, Margaret 1915–1998

views updated May 29 2018

Walker, Margaret 1915–1998

(Margaret Abigail Walker)

PERSONAL: Born July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, AL; died November 30, 1998, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Sigismund C. (a Methodist minister) and Marion (a music teacher; maiden name, Dozier) Walker; married Firnist James Alexander, June 13, 1943 (deceased); children: Marion Elizabeth, Firnist James, Sigismund Walker, Margaret Elvira. Education: Northwestern University, B.A., 1935; University of Iowa, M.A., 1940, Ph.D., 1965. Religion: Methodist.

CAREER: Worked as a social worker, newspaper reporter, and magazine editor; Livingstone College, Salisbury, NC, member of faculty, 1941–42; West Virginia State College, Institute, WV, instructor in English, 1942–43; Livingstone College, professor of English, 1945–46; Jackson State College, Jackson, MS, professor beginning 1949, professor emeritus of English, director of Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black Peoples, 1968–. Lecturer, National Concert and Artists Corp. Lecture Bureau, 1943–48. Visiting professor in creative writing, Northwestern University, spring, 1969. Staff member, Cape Cod Writers Conference, Craigville, MA, 1967 and 1969. Participant, Library of Congress Conference on the Teaching of Creative Writing, 1973.

MEMBER: National Council of Teachers of English, Modern Language Association, Poetry Society of America, American Association of University Professors, National Education Association, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

AWARDS, HONORS: Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1942, for For My People; named to Honor Roll of Race Relations, the New York Public Library, 1942; Rosenthal fellowship, 1944; Ford fellowship for study at Yale University, 1954; Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship, 1966; Fulbright fellowship, 1971; National Endowment for the Humanities, 1972; Doctor of Literature, Northwestern University, 1974; Doctor of Letters, Rust College, 1974; Doctor of Fine Arts, Dennison University, 1974; Doctor of Humane Letters, Morgan State University, 1976.



For My People, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1942.

Ballad of the Free, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1966.

Prophets for a New Day, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.

October Journey, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.

This Is My Century, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1989.


Jubilee (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965.

How I Wrote "Jubilee," Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1972.

(With Nikki Giovanni) A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1974.

Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, Dodd (New York, NY), 1987.

How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, edited by Maryemma Graham, Feminist Press at The City University of New York (New York, NY), 1990.

On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1997.

Conversations with Margaret Walker, edited by Maryemma Graham, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MI), 2002.


Contributor to Black Expression, edited by Addison Gayle, Weybright & Tally (New York, NY), 1969; Many Shades of Black, edited by Stanton L. Wormley and Lewis H. Fenderson, Morrow (New York, NY), 1969; Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973, and The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1999.

Also contributor to numerous anthologies, including Adoff's Black Out Loud, Weisman and Wright's Black Poetry for All Americans, and Williams' Beyond the Angry Black. Contributor of articles to periodicals including Mississippi Folklore Register and Southern Quarterly.

SIDELIGHTS: When For My People by Margaret Walker won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1942, "she became one of the youngest Black writers ever to have published a volume of poetry in this century," as well as "the first Black woman in American literary history to be so honored in a prestigious national competition," noted Richard K. Barksdale in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940–1960. Walker's first novel, Jubilee, is notable for being "the first truly historical black American novel," reported Washington Post contributor Crispin Y. Campbell. It was also the first work by a black writer to speak out for the liberation of the black woman. The cornerstones of a literature that affirms the African folk roots of black American life, these two books have also been called visionary for looking toward a new cultural unity for black Americans that will be built on that foundation.

The title of Walker's first book, For My People, denotes the subject matter of "poems in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity," wrote Louis Untermeyer in the Yale Review. Here, in long ballads, Walker draws sympathetic portraits of characters such as the New Orleans sorceress Molly Means; Kissie Lee, a tough young woman who dies "with her boots on switching blades"; and Poppa Chicken, an urban drug dealer and pimp. Other ballads give a new dignity to John Henry, killed by a ten-pound hammer, and Stagolee, who kills a white officer but eludes a lynch mob. In an essay for Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Eugenia Collier noted, "Using … the language of the grass-roots people, Walker spins yarns of folk heroes and heroines: those who, faced with the terrible obstacles which haunt Black people's very existence, not only survive but prevail—with style." Soon after it appeared, the book of ballads, sonnets, and free verse found a surprisingly large number of readers, requiring publishers to authorize three printings to satisfy popular demand.

"If the test of a great poem is the universality of statement, then 'For My People' is a great poem," remarked Barksdale. The critic explained in Donald B. Gibson's Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays that the poem was written when "world-wide pain, sorrow, and affliction were tangibly evident, and few could isolate the Black man's dilemma from humanity's dilemma during the depression years or during the war years." Thus, the power of resilience presented in the poem is a hope Walker holds out not only to black people, but to all people, to "all the Adams and Eves." As she once remarked, "Writers should not write exclusively for black or white audiences, but most inclusively. After all, it is the business of all writers to write about the human condition, and all humanity must be involved in both the writing and in the reading."

Jubilee, a historical novel, is the second book on which Walker's literary reputation rests. It is the story of a slave family during and after the Civil War, and it took her thirty years to write. 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 believes, partly accounts for the book's quality. As she told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, "Living with the book over a long period of time was agonizing. Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person," one whose own difficult pregnancies and economic struggles could lend authenticity to the lives of her characters. "There's a difference between writing about something and living through it," she said in the interview; "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 explains in How I Wrote "Jubilee," 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 completed extensive research on every aspect of the black experience touching the Civil War, from obscure birth records to information on the history of tin cans. "Most of my life I have been involved with writing this story about my great-grandmother, and even if Jubilee were never considered an artistic or commercial success I would still be happy just to have finished it," she claims.

Soon after Jubilee was published in 1966, Walker was given a fellowship award from Houghton Mifflin. Granting that the novel is "ambitious," New York Times Book Review contributor Wilma Dykeman deemed it "uneven." Arthur P. Davis, writing in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900–1960, suggested that the author "has crowded too much into her novel." On the other hand, Abraham Chapman of the Saturday Review appreciated the author's "fidelity to fact and detail" as she "presents the little-known everyday life of the slaves," their music, and their folkways. In the Christian Science Monitor, Henrietta Buckmaster commented, "In Vyry, Miss Walker has found a remarkable woman who suffered one outrage after the other and yet emerged with a humility and a mortal fortitude that reflected a spiritual wholeness." Dykeman felt that, "In its best episodes, and in Vyry, 'Jubilee' chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondages." Later critical studies of the book emphasize the importance of its themes and its position as the prototype for novels that present black history from a black perspective. Roger Whitlow claimed in Black American Literature: A Critical History, "It serves especially well as a response to white 'nostalgia' fiction about the antebellum and Reconstruction South."

Walker's next book to be highly acclaimed was Prophets for a New Day, a slim volume of poems. Unlike the poems in For My People, which, in a Marxist fashion, names religion an enemy of revolution, remarked Collier, Prophets for a New Day "reflects a profound religious faith. The heroes of the sixties are named for the prophets of the Bible: Martin Luther King is Amos, Medgar Evars is Micah, and so on. The people and events of the sixties are paralleled with Biblical characters and occurrences…. The religious references are important. Whether one espouses the Christianity in which they are couched is not the issue. For the fact is that Black people from ancient Africa to now have always been a spiritual people, believing in an existence beyond the flesh." One poem in Prophets that harks back to African spiritism is "Ballad of Hoppy Toad" with its hexes that turn a murderous conjurer into a toad. Though Collier felt that Walker's "vision of the African past is fairly dim and romantic," the critic went on to say that this poetry "emanates from a deeper area of the psyche, one which touches the mythic area of a collective being and reenacts the rituals which define a Black collective self." Perhaps more importantly, in all the poems, observed Collier, Walker depicts "a people striking back at oppression and emerging triumphant."

Much of Walker's responsiveness to the black experience, communicated through the realism of her work, can be attributed to her growing up in a southern home environment that emphasized the rich heritage of black culture. Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama, to the Reverend Sigismund C. Walker and Marion Dozier Walker. The family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young child. A Methodist minister who had been born near Buff Bay, Jamaica, Walker's father was a scholar who bequeathed to his daughter his love of literature—the classics, the Bible, Benedict de Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, the English classics, and poetry. Similarly, Walker's musician mother played ragtime and read poetry to her, choosing among such varied authors and works as Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Greenleaf Whittier's "Snowbound," the Bible, and Shakespeare. At age eleven Walker began reading the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Elvira Ware Dozier, her maternal grandmother, who lived with her family, told Walker stories, including the story of her own mother, a former slave in Georgia. Before she finished college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the early 1930s, Walker had heard James Weldon Johnson read from God's Trombones (1927), listened to Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes sing in New Orleans, and, in 1932, heard Hughes read his poetry in a lecture recital at New Orleans University, where her parents then taught. She met Hughes in 1932, and he encouraged her to continue writing poetry. Her first poem was published in Crisis in 1934.

As a senior at Northwestern in 1934, Walker began a fruitful association with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She lived on Chicago's North Side and worked as a volunteer on the WPA recreation project. The project directors assigned her to associate with so-called delinquent girls, mainly shoplifters and prostitutes, in order to determine if Walker's different background and training might have a positive influence on them. She became so fascinated by an Italian-black neighborhood that she eventually chose it as the setting and title for a novel that she began writing (but never published), Goose Island. On Friday, March 13, 1936, Walker received notice to report to the WPA Writer's Project in Chicago as a full-time employee. Classified as a junior writer—her salary was eighty-five dollars a month—her work assignment was the Illinois Guide Book. Other writers on the project were Nelson Algren, Jacob Scher, James Phelan, Sam Ross, Katherine Dunham, Willard Motley, Frank Yerby, Fenton Johnson, and Richard Wright. In 1937 the WPA office allowed her to come into the downtown quarters only twice weekly so that she might remain at home working on her novel.

Perhaps her most rewarding interaction with a writer at the project was Walker's friendship with Wright, a liaison that, while it lasted, proved practical and beneficial to both fledgling writers. Before she joined the project, Walker had met Wright in Chicago in February, 1936, when he had presided at the writer's section of the first National Negro Congress. Walker had attended solely to meet Hughes again, to show him the poetry she had written since their first meeting four years earlier. Hughes refused to take her only copy of the poems, but he introduced her to Wright and insisted that he include Walker if a writer's group organized. Wright then introduced her to Arna Bontemps and Sterling A. Brown, also writers with the WPA.

Although Wright left Chicago for New York at the end of May, neither his friendship with Walker nor their literary interdependence ended immediately. Walker provided him, in fact, with important help on Native Son (1940), mailing him—as he requested—newspaper clippings about Robert Nixon, a young black man accused of rape in Chicago, and assisting Wright in locating a vacant lot to use as the Dalton house address when Wright returned to Chicago briefly the next year. Furthermore, Walker was instrumental in acquiring for him a copy of the brief of Nixon's case from attorney Ulysses S. Keyes, the first black lawyer hired for the case. Together, Wright and Walker visited Cook County jail, where Nixon was incarcerated, and the library, where on her library card they checked out a book on Clarence Darrow and two books on the Loeb-Leopold case, from which, in part, Wright modeled Bigger's defense when he completed his novel in the spring of 1939.

Walker began teaching in the 1940s. She taught at North Carolina's Livingstone College in 1941 and West Virginia State College in 1942. In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander. In that year, too, she began to read her poetry publicly when she was invited by Arthur P. Davis to read "For My People" at Richmond's Virginia Union University, where he was then teaching. After the birth of the first of her four children in 1944, Walker returned to teach at Livingstone for a year. She also resumed the research on her Civil War novel in the 1940s. She began with a trip to the Schomburg Center in 1942. In 1944 she received a Rosenwald fellowship to further her research. In 1948 Walker was unemployed, living in High Point, North Carolina, and working on the novel. By then she clearly envisioned the development of Jubilee as a folk novel and prepared an outline of incidents and chapter headings, the latter which were supplied by the stories of her grandmother. In 1949 Walker moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and began her long teaching career at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University).

The fictional history of Walker's great-grandmother, here called Vyry, Jubilee is divided into three sections: the antebellum years in Georgia on John Dutton's plantation, the Civil War years, and the Reconstruction era. Against a panoramic view of history Walker focuses the plot specifically on Vyry's life as she grows from a little girl to adulthood. In the first section Vyry, the slave, matures, marries and separates from Randall Ware, attempts to escape from slavery with her two children, and is flogged. The second section emphasizes the destruction of war and the upheaval for slaveowner and slaves, while the last section focuses on Vyry as a displaced former slave, searching for a home.

Walker said her research was done "to undergird the oral tradition," and Jubilee is primarily known for its realistic depiction of the daily life and folklore of the black slave community. Although there are also quotes from Whittier and the English romantic poets, she emphasizes the importance of the folk structure of her novel by prefacing each of the fifty-eight chapters with proverbial folk sayings or lines excerpted from spirituals. The narrative is laced with verses of songs sung by Vyry, her guardian, or other slaves. A portion from a sermon is included. The rhymes of slave children are also a part of the narrative. A conjuring episode is told involving the overseer Grimes, suggesting how some folk beliefs were used for protection. Vyry provides a catalogue of herbs and discusses their medicinal and culinary purposes.

In response to Walker's Civil War story, Guy Davenport commented in National Review that "the novel from end to end is about a place and a people who never existed." For him Walker had merely recalled all the elements of the southern myth, writing a lot of "tushery that comes out of books, out of Yerby and Margaret Mitchell." He further found "something deeply ironic in a Negro's underwriting the made-up South of the romances, agreeing to every convention of the trade." More justly, Chapman in the Saturday Review found "a fidelity to fact and detail" in the depictions of slave life that was better than anything done before. Lester Davis, a contributor to Freedomways, decided that one could overlook the "sometimes trite and often stilted prose style" because the novel is "a good forthright treatment of a segment of American history about which there has been much hypocrisy and deliberate distortion." He found the "flavor of authenticity … convincing and refreshing."

Walker's How I Wrote "Jubilee," a history of the novel's development from her grandmother's oral history, is an indirect response to those critics who compared Jubilee with books like Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) and who accused Walker of sustaining the southern myth from the black perspective. She answers her detractors by citing the references and historical documents she perused over several years in order to gird her oral story with historical fact.

Walker's volume of poetry Prophets for a New Day was published in 1970. She 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. Walker begins the volume with two poems in which the speakers are young children; one eight-year-old demonstrator eagerly waits to be arrested with her group in the fight for equality, and a second one is already jailed and wants no bail. Her point is that these young girls are just as much prophets for a new day as were Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and John Brown. In "The Ballad of the Free" Walker establishes a biblical allusion and association as an integral part of the fight to end racism: "The serpent is loosed and the hour is come / The last shall be first and the first shall be none / The serpent is loosed and the hour is come."

The title poem, "Prophets for a New Day," and the seven poems that follow it invite obvious comparisons between the biblical prophets and the black leaders who denounced racial injustice and prophesied change during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. For example, several prophets are linked to specific southern cities marked by racial turmoil: in "Jeremiah," the first poem of the series, Jeremiah "is now a man whose names is Benjamin / Brooding over a city called Atlanta / Preaching the doom of a curse upon the land." Among the poems, other prophets mentioned include "Isaiah," "Amos," and "Micah," a poem subtitled "To the memory of Medgar Evers of Mississippi."

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. Among the poems that recognize southern cities associated with racial turbulence are "Oxford Is a Legend," "Birmingham," "Jackson, Mississippi," and "Sit-Ins." Of these, the latter two, claim reviewers, are the most accomplished pieces. "Sit-Ins" is a recognition of "those first bright young to fling their … names across pages / Of new Southern history / With courage and faith, convictions, and intelligence."



African American Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2nd edition, 2000, Volume 2, pp. 759-771.

Bankier, Joanna, and Dierdre Lashgari, editors, Women Poets of the World, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1983.

Baraka, Amiri, The Black Nation, Getting Together Publications, 1982.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1976.

Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Davis, Arthur P., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1974.

Emanuel, James A., and Theodore L. Gross, editors, Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, Free Press (New York, NY), 1968.

Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Anchor/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.

Gayle, Addison, editor, The Black Aesthetic, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.

Gibson, Donald B., editor, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1983.

Henderson, Ashyia, editor, Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 29, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Jackson, Blyden, and Louis D. Rubin Jr., Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1974.

Jones, John Griffith, in Mississippi Writers Talking, Volume II, University of Mississippi Press (Jackson, MS), 1983.

Kent, George E., Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1972.

Lee, Don L., Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.

Miller, R. Baxter, editor, Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940–1960, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1986.

Mitchell, Angelyn, editor, Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1994.

Modern Black Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2nd edition, 1999, pp. 758-762.

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, editors, Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1985.

Redmond, Eugene B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry-A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.

Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983.

Walker, Margaret, How I Wrote "Jubilee," Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1972.

Whitlow, Roger, Black American Literature: A Critical History, Nelson Hall, 1973.


African American Review, summer, 1993, Jerry W. Ward Jr., "Black South Literature: Before Day Annotations (for Blyden Jackson)," p. 315.

Atlantic Monthly, December, 1942.

Black World, December, 1971; December, 1975.

Booklist, July, 1997, Alice Joyce, review of On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992, p. 1794; February 15, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of Jubilee, p. 979.

Book Week, October 2, 1966.

Callaloo, May, 1979.

Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 1942; September 29, 1966; June 19, 1974; January 22, 1990, Laurel Shaper, "One woman's world of words; 'Jubilee' author draws on her racial experience to craft works of concern and compassion".

CLA Journal, December, 1977.

Ebony, February, 1949.

Freedomways, summer, 1967.

Library Journal, November 1, 1989, Fred Muratori, review of This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems, p. 92; January 1990, Molly Brodsky, review of Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, p. 110; June 15, 1997, Ann Burns, review of On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992, p. 69.

Mississippi Quarterly, fall, 1988; fall, 1989.

National Review, October 4, 1966.

Negro Digest, February, 1967; January, 1968.

New Republic, November 23, 1942.

New York Times, November 4, 1942.

New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1942; September 25, 1966.

Publishers Weekly, April 15, 1944; March 24, 1945.

Saturday Review, September 24, 1966.

Times Literary Supplement, June 29, 1967.

Washington Post, February 9, 1983.

Yale Review, winter, 1943.


Internet Poetry Archive, (October 24, 2003).

Modern American Poetry, (October 27, 2003).

University of Mississippi, (April 17, 2003), Jon Tucker, "Margaret Walker Alexander."

Voices from the Gaps, Women Writers of Color, (December 9, 1999), Danye A. Pelichet, Shanese Baylor, and Kinitra D. Brooks, "Dr. Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander."

Margaret Walker

views updated May 18 2018

Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker (born 1915), novelist, poet, scholar, and teacher, was best known for her Civil War novel Jubilee (1963) and for her powerful collection of poetry about racial affirmation, For My People (1942).

Margaret Abigail Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Sigismund and Marion (Dozier) Walker. In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander (deceased 1983), and they parented four children: Marion Elizabeth, Firnist James, Sigismund Walker, and Margaret Elvira. Walker received her A.B. from Northwestern University (1935) and an M.A. (1940) and Ph.D. (1965) from the University of Iowa. For more than 30 years Walker taught literature at Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina (1941-1942); West Virginia State College (1944-1945); and Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi (1949-1979).

In addition to teaching, Walker was a prolific writer. She wrote six books between 1942 and 1974. For My People (1942), a collection of poetry about African American racial pride and heritage, brought her instant recognition. Her Civil War novel Jubilee (1966), begun when she was 19, dramatizes actual historical events from American slavery to Reconstruction as the setting for the fictionalized life of her maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans. This novel was translated into five languages and went through 43 printings. Her other book-length works include Prophets for a New Day (1970), How I Wrote Jubilee (1972), October Journey (1973), and A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni (1974). Walker also wrote numerous articles on African American literature and culture. Moreover, she recorded her own poetry, as well as selections from the work of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, on Folkways Records.

Her literary activities won her many honors. In 1942 she received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for For My People, followed by the Rosenthal fellowship in 1944, Ford Foundation fellowship in 1954, Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship in 1966 for Jubilee, Fulbright fellowship in 1971, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 1972. Walker also held honorary degrees from Northwestern University, Rust College, Dennison University, and Morgan State University.

After retiring from teaching at Jackson State University, Walker devoted full-time effort to her writing. She prepared two books for publication in the 1980s—The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright, a definitive, critical biography of Wright; and This is My Century, a collection of poetry possessing the power of For My People. Walker also worked on five other book-length manuscripts: Mother Broyer, a novel about a faith healer and cult leader; Goose Island, a collection of short stories; A New Introduction to theHumanities, a textbook; Twentieth Century Afro-American Literature, an anthology; and Minna and Jim, a sequel to Jubilee.

Walker continued to reside in Jackson, Mississippi, where she said she must stay and "write for the rest of [her] life, no matter how short or long it is." In addition to working on the Jubilee she is also writing an autobiography. When she is not writing she lectures on African American literature.

Further Reading

The following works contain biographical and critical information: Phanuel Egejuru and Robert Elliot Fox, "An Interview with Margaret Walker," in Callaloo (1979); Mari Evans, "Margaret Walker," in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); R. Baxter Miller, "The 'Etched Flame' of Margaret Walker: Biblical and Literary Re-Creation in Southern History," in Tennessee Studies in Literature (1981); Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview with Margaret Walker," in Black World (December 1975); James E. Spears, "Black Folk Elements in Margaret Walker's Jubilee," in Mississippi Folklore Register (Spring 1980); Claudia Tate, "Margaret Walker," in Black Women Writers at Work (1983); and Margaret Walker, How I Wrote Jubilee (1972). □

About this article

Margaret Walker

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic