Walker, Margaret (1915–1998)
Walker, Margaret (1915–1998)
African-American writer whose poetry and prose, especially her novel Jubilee, have become a recognized part of the African-American literary canon . Born Margaret Abigail Walker on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama; died on November 30, 1998, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of the Reverend Sigismund Walker (a minister in the United Methodist Church) and Marion Dozier Walker (a music teacher); graduated from high school in New Orleans; granted a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, 1932; University of Iowa, M.A., 1940, Ph.D., 1965; married Firnist James Alexander, on June 13, 1943 (died); children: Marion Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1944); Firnist James Alexander, Jr. (b. 1946); Sigismund Walker Alexander (b. 1949); Margaret Elvira Alexander (b. 1954).
first Black poet chosen for Yale University's Series of Younger Poets (1941); named to Honor Roll of Race Relations (1942); given Rosenthal fellow-ship (1944), Ford fellowship (1954), Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship (1966), and Fulbright fellowship (1971); awarded National Endowment for the Humanities (1972); Doctor of Literature, Northwestern University (1974); Doctor of Letters, Rust College (1974); Doctor of Fine Arts, Denison University (1974).
For My People (1942); Jubilee (1966); Ballad of the Free (1966); Prophets for a New Day (1970); How I Wrote Jubilee (1972); October Journey (1973); (with Nikki Giovanni) A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974); This Is My Century (1989); Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1985); How I Wrote Jubilee (1990); also contributed to numerous anthologies.
In a 1993 interview with Maryemma Graham , Margaret Walker identified the focus of her literary contributions as springing from her interest in a historical point of view, a view that reflected and encouraged the development of African-Americans approaching the 21st century. Some of Walker's first memories were those of a segregated world, the Jim Crow South. She remembered riding on segregated streetcars, attending a segregated one-room schoolhouse, watching movies in a segregated theater, and her father being chased home by an angry policeman who "resented" her father's possession of a fountain pen.
Margaret Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father Sigismund C. Walker was born in Jamaica Buff Bay, Jamaica, British West Indies. He came to the United States for ministerial study, graduating from Cammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Extremely well educated, he spoke five languages and read three more. Margaret Walker described him as a man who loved and lived in the world of books. While a theology student in Atlanta, Sigismund Walker met and married a college-educated music teacher, Marion Dozier (Walker) . The couple moved from Atlanta to Birmingham, where Margaret's father pastored a Methodist church and where she and three younger siblings were born.
Margaret Walker was an intelligent, precocious child, reading by the age of four, completing elementary school by age eleven, high school by age fourteen, and college at nineteen. Walker's parents instilled their religious beliefs, somewhat stern moralistic code, and unequivocal sense of duty into each of their children. They expected their children to be achievers, to strive for excellence, and to excel academically. The family moved often during Walker's early childhood as her father accepted various posts within the United Methodist Church. When Walker was ten, the family relocated to New Orleans where her parents accepted professorial positions at New Orleans University. Walker attended Gilbert Academy in New Orleans and then the university where her parents taught. After hearing Langston Hughes read his poetry at New Orleans University, Walker approached the well-known poet with her own poetry. He read her work, then encouraged her to continue writing and encouraged her parents to get her out of the South. Walker and Hughes remained friends for the next 35 years, until Hughes' death.
Walker left the South while still a teenager to attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She was 19 years old and still a student when W.E.B. Du Bois published her first poem, "Daydreaming," in The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP. Her creative writing teacher, E.B. Hungerford, also arranged for her to be admitted to the Northwestern chapter of the Poetry Society of America. During her senior year at Northwestern, Walker worked as a volunteer on a recreation project sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She was given a group of "delinquent" girls—shoplifters and prostitutes—to befriend, in hopes that her influence would have a beneficial effect. After completing her degree in English at Northwestern in 1935, Walker was employed with the WPA Writers' Project in Chicago. She wrote her first novel during these years, "Goose Island," a portrait of the Italian-black neighborhood surrounding Division Street, in which she had worked as a student. Although the novel was never published, Walker's characters and images reappear later in her poetry.
While employed by the WPA, Walker met a number of well-known writers, including Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks , and Richard Wright. She worked closely with Wright during her tenure with the Writers' Project, helping him research and edit his novel Native Son, and receiving help from him in the revision and rewriting of her poetry. She soon learned that Wright, who had no formal education, was paid $125 dollars per month, while Walker received only $85. Though Wright explained that he had a mother, aunt, and brother to support as head of a family, while Walker had only a sister, Walker remembered the $40 disparity in pay as an example of gender discrimination. Walker's political consciousness grew during her years in Chicago, and, influenced by Wright, she read a number of socialist and Marxist works. Unlike Wright, however, she did not join the Communist Party, but she did advocate unionization and socialist political cooperation between African-Americans and whites.
Walker's work with the WPA ended in 1939, as did her friendship with Wright, a breach that was never healed. She claimed later that mutual "friends" told him that she was critical of some of his decisions, so he snubbed her and broke off the friendship. She eventually
wrote to him, and he to her, but the connection was not reestablished. Walker left Chicago in 1939 to begin graduate studies at the University of Iowa, working toward a master's degree in writing. Since she had little money, she labored to finish her second degree in one year. She completed her master's in 1940, writing a volume of poems as her thesis. This collection was published in 1942 under the title For My People, the first book of poetry by a black woman to be issued since Georgia Douglas Johnson 's The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (1918). The poems in Walker's book honor ordinary African-Americans, those who have faced and overcome terrible obstacles in a race-conscious, often racist, society. She calls on African-Americans to reclaim their power to make a better world for themselves and others.
Walker began her teaching career in January 1941 with a position at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Since she had a master's degree but no teaching experience, she was paid only $130 per month. She won the Yale Award for Younger Poets during the summer of 1941 for For My People, the first African-American to win that competitive award, and the volume was subsequently published as part of the Yale Series. The award brought her a degree of recognition and several job offers. Before she had a chance to choose a suitable position, however, her parents accepted a post for her at West Virginia State College. Unfortunately, she found the living arrangements there untenable, moving five times in one semester. She finally found herself living in a dormitory on campus, a living situation that had been denied her when she arrived. After one year at West Virginia State College, Walker accepted a contract from the National Concert Artists Corporation Lecture Bureau to lecture and read poetry, a contract that was to last for five years, from 1943 to 1948. She returned to Livingstone College as professor of English for one year, 1945–46, while under contract with National Artists. In September 1949, Walker began teaching at Jackson State College in Mississippi, where she remained for 26 years, until 1979.
Margaret Walker … [w]as a Black woman who sought and achieved her identity in a white, male world that allowed some few Black men access, tolerating no women, let alone Black ones.
On June 13, 1943, Margaret Abigail Walker married Firnist James Alexander, a disabled veteran. They would have four children: Marion Elizabeth Alexander , Firnist James Alexander, Jr., Sigismund Walker Alexander, and Margaret Elvira Alexander . When Walker accepted the teaching position at Jackson State, she had three children, the youngest being only nine weeks old. Her husband was ill, thus Walker was the primary breadwinner for the family. Margaret Walker did not write extensively about her family, though she dedicated one of her books to her husband, whom she describes as her "lover, sweetheart, best boy-friend, and … ever-loving husband for more than thirty years." She also wrote an essay, "How I Told My Child about Race," in which she narrates the heartbreak of honestly responding to her oldest child's questions, telling her about racism in the United States. The essay was published in 1951, while the Alexander family was living in Mississippi, long before separate public facilities and overt, hostile segregation were ended in the South.
Although Walker was classified as the equivalent of a Ph.D. at Jackson State because she was a poet, in reality her salary did not reflect such a classification. In fact, for the first 11 years of her tenure at Jackson State, her salary remained well under $6,000 per year. As her children grew older, Walker determined to raise her salary in order to provide the money for their college educations. She decided to return to graduate school. In the summer of 1961, she borrowed money to enroll in summer school at the University of Iowa, taking her two youngest children with her. While there, she inquired about the doctorate degree and about using the Civil War novel (later to become Jubilee) she had started, based on her great-grandmother's life, as her dissertation. She returned to Jackson State for one more year, bargaining with the administration for partial salary and study leave; for the next two years, she would receive half her salary from Jackson State College, borrowing upon her salary for a third year. Thus, in the fall of 1962, with her mother caring for her younger children, Margaret Walker returned to graduate school at the University of Iowa as a candidate for a Ph.D. By then, her older children were in college; one of them would graduate a week before her mother. The writing of Jubilee, with Paul Engle as her advisor, was the focus of her study at the University of Iowa. Jubilee is Walker's only published novel. Although the book initially received mixed reviews, it won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, and is currently an integral part of the African-American canon.
According to Walker, the dissertation she wrote at the University of Iowa was a story she had literally been writing for 30 years. In "How I Wrote Jubilee," Walker says she had been conceiving the story of her great-grandmother, based on family stories her grandmother told her as a child, from her early adolescence. Walker began historical research for the work while she was working on her master's degree at Iowa. Her poetry, however, became her thesis, and she discontinued her research for several years. In 1944, she was awarded a Rosenwald fellowship to continue her research on the topic, and by 1948, she had written a rough outline of the book. She had titles for the chapters, most of which were taken directly from her grandmother's words. She gathered material from slave narratives, history books, Civil War newspapers, as well as the Georgia and National Archives. Jubilee, as a historical novel, spans the era from slavery through Reconstruction. Walker's heroine Vyry emerges from the bonds of slavery as a strong, capable human whose children are the center of her life. Critics argued that Vyry's lack of bitterness and her forgiving spirit were not realistic, but Walker countered that Vyry's forbearance was a faithful rendering of her great-grandmother and reflected the oral history passed to her from her grandmother. Jubilee, undoubtedly Walker's most successful literary effort, has sold millions of copies, has been translated into six languages, and has been produced as an opera. The book remains in print.
In addition to her novel Jubilee, Walker published a second volume of poems in 1966, Ballad of the Free. Two years later, she became director of Jackson State University's Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. In 1970, Walker published another volume of poetry, Prophets for a New Day. This collection identifies civil-rights leaders with Biblical prophets, and like Jubilee, reflects the deep religious convictions of the author. Although she decries the racism and corruption of the era, she also offers the reader hope for a new day, a day of redemption brought by leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also celebrates the historical leaders, both black and white, who sacrificed their lives to political commitment. In 1973, Walker published her third collection of poetry, October Journey. Although this volume lacks the cohesiveness of her first two collections, it demonstrates her commitment to celebrating the wide variety of black voices, from an epitaph for her father to pieces about Paul Laurence Dunbar and Harriet Tubman . She also collaborated with poet Nikki Giovanni to produce a book entitled A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker in 1974. In her conversation with Giovanni, Walker discusses her deep spirituality, reveals her role as a healer, and shows her commitment to humanity in general.
In 1977, Walker brought suit against Alex Haley, author of Roots, alleging that he had copied part of his plotting from her novel Jubilee. Although the suit was dismissed, she maintained that Haley plagiarized parts of her work. In 1979, Walker retired from Jackson State University, intending to devote herself to her writing and to public speaking. Unfortunately, she found herself embroiled in the court battle against Haley. She also faced publication delays, a rather lengthy illness, and the death of her husband. These events did not prove permanent obstacles to her career, however. In the late 1980s, she produced two major works. In 1988, she published the critical biography, Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. Critics consider the work ambitious but uneven, with a rather weak, poorly synthesized ending. Walker also drew upon her earlier relationship with Wright, revealing her resentment of his rejection of her. The year following her book on Wright, Walker published This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems. Her poems celebrate the 20th century and the progress of the modern and post-modern eras. In the volume, Walker contrasts her youthful visions of life with those of her later years. She affirms her belief in shared humanity, a humanity that provides dignity for all. In 1990, Walker published How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature. The essays, in part auto-biographical, describe the devastating effect of racism on Walker as a child, the discrimination and harassment she faced as a black woman in academia, and the process and production of her masterpiece, Jubilee. In addition, she included essays and poems dedicated to exploring the work of African-American literary leaders as well as the African-American literary tradition itself.
In the early 1990s, Walker was writing a sequel to Jubilee called "Minna and Jim" and another novel titled "Mother Broyer." She was also working on her autobiography and editing an anthology of African-American literature. At the time of her death in Chicago in 1998, Houghton Mifflin was preparing to launch a new trade paper edition of Jubilee.
Baechler, Lea, and A. Walton Litz, eds. African American Writers. NY: Scribner, 1991, pp. 1219–1220.
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.
Draper, James P. Black Literature Criticism. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation. NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Giovanni, Nikki, and Margaret Walker. A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.
Graham, Maryemma. "The Fusion of Ideas: An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander," in African American Review. Summer 1993.
May, Hal, and James G. Lesniak, eds. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 26. New Revision Series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.
Metzger, Linda, ed. Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.
Salem, Dorothy C., ed. African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Garland, 1993.
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. NY: Continuum, 1983.
Walker, Margaret. How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature. Ed. by Maryemma Graham. NY: The Feminist Press, 1990.
Yvonne Johnson , Associate Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri