Alexander, Margaret Walker 1915–1998
Margaret Walker Alexander 1915–1998
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 achievement—from Langston Hughes to Alice Walker—and 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.”
The South in which Alexander grew up was still peopled by older African-Americans who had been born into slavery. Her great-grandmother—Vyry’s mother—died just a month before Alexander’s 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 father’s 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. 1931–33; 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, 1936–39; Livingstone College, Salisbury, NC, member of faculty, 1941–42; West Virginia State College, Institute, West Virginia, instructor in English, 1942–43; lecturer, National Concert and Artists Corp. Lecture Bureau, 1943–48; Livingstone College, professor of English, 1945–46; Jackson State College, Jackson, Mississippi, professor, 1949–79 (named professor emerita), founder and director of Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black Peoples, 1968–79.
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.
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. DuBois’s journal, in 1934. During her senior year, she began handing in assignments based on her grandmother’s 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 Chicago’s 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 Writer’s 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 other’s literary endeavors. Over the next three years they contributed to and encouraged each other’s 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 Wright’s 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 mother’s family, but once again shelved the idea.
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 university’s Younger Poet’s 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 Alexander’s volume marked the first book of poetry published by an African American woman since 1918. For My People was widely reviewed—somewhat of an accomplishment in itself at the time—though 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.”
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 Vyry’s 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 grandmother’s 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 Alexander’s great-grandmother, here named Vyry, from her birth as a slave on a Georgia plantation. Divided into three sections—the antebellum years, the Civil War era, and the Reconstruction period— Vyry’s tale stands in literary form as representative of untold thousands, based on Alexander’s 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.
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 Hetta’s 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 owner’s wife, Salina. Vyry serves as a cook in family’s 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. Vyry—Lillian’s 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.
Jubilee became a bestseller, and was translated into several European languages. Alexander continued to teach at Jackson State, and set up the school’s 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, 1932–1992. 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.
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, 1932–1992, University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 76: AfroAmerican Writers, 1940–1955, 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. 32–33.
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.
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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.
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). □
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Walker, Margaret 1915–1998
Margaret Walker 1915–1998
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. Walker’s 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 Walker’s 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 I’m going to write that story.’ I’d 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.
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 cheaper—they’d get a rebate,” Walker told Bonetti. In 1934, during her senior year at Northwestern, Walker’s 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 am…from my race, from my gender, from my nationality, and from my consciousness. I’m black, woman, writer; I’m very Black Nationalist,” Walker explained to Jerry W. Ward of the Mississippi Quarterly.
Walker’s 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 Negro’s 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 bachelor’s degree in literature from Northwestern in 1935, Walker soon obtained employment with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writer’s 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.
When Walker was a student at Northwestern, she began work on a novel based on her grandmother’s 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 master’s 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 Walker’s 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 woman’s 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 master’s 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 Walker’s creative process. “The South is symbolic—the 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, Walker’s own papers were formally received into the Institute’s collection to create the Institute’s 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 Walker’s 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.
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 Walker’s 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. That’s 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 moment…the political clouds may gather, the racial problems, poverty, even sickness and death. I’m almost a Pollyanna in my belief in life, in love, in the goodness of my fellow man.”
For My People, 1942.
Prophets for a New Day, 1970.
October Journey, 1973.
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1988.
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, Scribner’s, 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, http://www.english.uiuc.edu
The National Endowment for the Humanities website, http://www.neh.fed.us
The Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color website, http://www.voices.cla.umn.edu.
"Walker, Margaret 1915–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/walker-margaret-1915-1998
"Walker, Margaret 1915–1998." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/walker-margaret-1915-1998