Walker, Margaret (1915–1998), poet, novelist, essayist, and educator. Margaret Abigail Walker was born on 7 July 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of Sigismond Walker, a Methodist minister, and Marion Dozier Walker, a music teacher. Although she spent her childhood and youth in the racist, segregated South, Walker seems not to have been afflicted by the psychic wound of racism she poignantly describes in Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988). The reason is not far to seek. Walker was protected to some extent by having been raised in an educated, middle-class family, surrounded by books and music and imbued with strong Christian values and belief in the innate dignity of humanity. She has drawn special attention to the inspiring character of her family and to the emphasis they placed on education and intellectual life. On the other hand, Walker’s childhood was not devoid of exposure to oppression and injustice. The imprint of her formative years is reflected in her creative works, particularly in the poems in For My People (1942) that express an ambivalence about the South, and in Jubilee (1966), the culmination of her early exposure to stories of slave life from her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier.
In 1925 the family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. There she was educated at Gilbert Academy and finished high school at the age of fourteen. A precocious child, Walker completed two years of college at New Orleans University (Dillard University), where both of her parents taught. She was accustomed during her youth to meeting such famous people as James Weldon Johnson, Roland Hayes, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
In 1931 she was introduced to Langston Hughes, who would have great influence on her career. He read some of her poems and encouraged her to write and to get an education outside the South. The next year she transferred to Northwestern University, from which she received a BA in English in 1935, a few months before her twentieth birthday. Prior to graduation, she had published her first poems in the Crisis magazine (1934) and had begun a draft of a Civil War story.
The years Walker lived in Chicago during the Great Depression had a significant impact on her decision to be a writer. Shortly after graduating from Northwestern, she was hired by the Works Project Administration (WPA), first as a social worker and later as a member of the Federal Writers’ Project. Assigned to work on the Illinois Guidebook, Walker learned much about the urban life of her people and about the craft of writing. In the years between 1936 and 1939, she benefited much from her friendships with the novelists Nelson Algren and Frank Yerby, poets Arna Bontemps and Frank Marshall Davis, the artist Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and the playwright Theodore Ward. The most significant friendship was that with Richard Wright, whom she met in February 1936 at a meeting of the South Side Writers Group. She was genuinely impressed with Wright’s commitment to social change and his gift for writing. They shared their works, Walker providing technical assistance to Wright, Wright broadening her vision of how literature might be related to political action. It was under Wright’s influence that Walker made the decision to be a writer for the people. She continued to help Wright after he moved to New York in 1937, sending him the newspaper clippings and other material pertinent to the Robert Nixon case he was using in writing Native Son (1940). During this period Walker also completed an urban novel, “Goose Island,” which remains unpublished. Walker’s obviously inspiring friendship with Wright ended abruptly in 1939, when she attended the League of American Writers Congress in New York, a rupture that she treats in detail in Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius.
Walker’s tenure with the Federal Writers’ Project ended in 1939, and she enrolled at the University of Iowa to complete studies for the master’s degree in creative writing and prepared the poems that would appear in For My People as her thesis.
Walker began what would be a long and distinguished teaching career at Livingston College in North Carolina, taught for one year at West Virginia State College, and married Firnist James Alexander in June 1943. The fame she achieved with the publication of her first book was now complemented, and to some degree complicated, by the prospect of trying to write a novel as she handled the responsibilities of motherhood. A Rosenwald Fellowship in 1944 did enable her to resume research for the novel, but the freedom to write was brief. She returned to teaching, moving in 1949 with her husband and three children to Jackson, Mississippi, and a position at Jackson State College, where she taught until her retirement in 1979.
Jackson, Mississippi, became both harbor and site of frustration for Margaret Walker. Teaching duties and domestic responsibilities left little time for sustained writing. She was able to continue her historical research from 1953 to 1954 with the aid of a Ford Fellowship, but with four children to care for she would not be able to do substantial work on the manuscript until she returned to the University of Iowa in 1962 to work on her doctorate in English. She finished both the degree and the dissertation version of Jubilee in 1965. The long story of her struggle to bring this novel to life is the subject of her essay “How I Wrote Jubilee” (1972).
Walker’s output increased dramatically in the years after Jubilee. Prophets for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973) created new audiences for her poetry as did A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker. She completed the long-awaited biography Richard Wright: Daemonic Genuis (1988), and published This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989) and How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990). She is currently writing her autobiography and preparing a second collection of her essays for publication.
Walker’s public reception since the 1960s has been enthusiastic, partly because of her status as one of the few surviving members of a transitional generation of African American writers and partly because of her well-earned international reputation. Thus it is surprising that while her works are widely anthologized and taught in African American and women’s studies courses, critical attention to her more than fifty years of writing has been less substantial than one might expect. Scholars of African American literature and culture are aware of her impact on such writers as Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, her place in literary history with the landmark works For My People and Jubilee, and her special contribution to the academic world in founding the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People at Jackson State University (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center), and in organizing the legendary Phillis Wheatley Festival (1973). Perhaps one must conclude, as Maryemma Graham does in the preface to How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays (1990), that Walker’s works have not been canonized because critics tend to be uncomfortable with her complex aesthetic vision. No such discomfort is evidenced by the audiences who respond warmly to Walker’s public lectures and readings. It may be that Margaret Walker has the distinction of being canonized by her people.
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