“There’s a difference between writing about something and living through it. I did both.” — poet/novelist Margaret Walker

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

“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.” — Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker was born in 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents were interesting accomplished people, and her childhood was filled with literature and music. Her father gave her a love of heavy-hitters like Schopenhauer, classic English literature, all poetry, and her mother steeped her in music, ragtime, and read poetry outloud. Walker got a very WIDE home education, from early African-American writers like Paul Dunbar (my post about him here) to Shakespeare. She also heard stories of her family, her grandmother passing on stories of her mother, who was a slave in Georgia. All of this – the diversity of all of these influences – all of it poured into Margaret Walker’s own work. She was a kid when the Harlem Renaissance writers started emerging, and she read them all. Once she got a little bit older, she started writing and submitting poetry.

Her first collection, For My People won the Yale Younger Poets prize (she was the first African-American woman to win the prize.)

The title poem is perhaps one of her most famous (it’s printed below). It’s an anthem. The collection is filled with memorable character sketches, a portrait of a whole diverse community of people. “People” has its regular meaning, and then it has its higher meaning, as an identity marker – A people, MY people. She writes about legendary African-American figures, like John Henry and Stagger Lee.

What Walker considered her life’s work, and she worked on it for thirty years, was the historical novel Jubilee, published in 1966. Jubilee was about a slave family, based on the stories her grandmother used to tell her. Walker also did extensive research into the period. The novel spans many years, from the antebellum era, through the Civil War, through the chaos of Reconstruction. I have not read Jubilee, although I remember it being on the little display on the table in the main room of the library where I worked after school in high school. It has a very memorable cover. So this is an oversight on my part. I’ve read her poetry (I have For My People), but not Jubilee. It was an important book (recently released in a 50th anniversary edition), and a commercial success, important because it was black history written by a black person, not through the eyes of a white writer. Black experience is centralized. Of course, though, when the book came out many white critics compared it to Gone With the Wind, as in “It’s the OTHER side of Gone With the Wind!” OR, even worse, criticizing her for upholding some myth of Southern antebellum life, in the same way Gone With the Wind did. The NERVE. Margaret Walker was so annoyed by this she wrote a couple of pieces combatting the comparison.

Margaret Walker was a professor of literature for almost the entirety of her life. A major figure in 20th century African-American literature.

Here are a couple of her poems. And I promise I will read Jubilee.

For My People
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
unseen power;

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
Miss Choomby and company;

For the 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;

For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;

For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;

For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;

Let a new earth rise. 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. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.

Greensboro, North Carolina, in the Spring of 1960

You were the first brave ones to defy their dissonance of hate

With your silence

With your willingness to suffer

Without violence

Those first bright young to fling your names across pages

Of new southern history

With courage and faith, convictions, and intelligence

The first to blaze a flaming path for justice

And awaken consciences

Of these stony ones.

Come, Lord Jesus, Bold Young Galilean

Sit Beside this Counter, Lord, with Me!


Louis Untenmeyer on Walker’s For My People:

“Poems in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity.”

Eugenia Collier:

“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.”

Richard K. Barksdale:

“If the test of a great poem is the universality of statement, then ‘For My People‘ is a great poem. [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.”

Margaret Walker on writing Jubilee over a 10-year period:

“Living with the book over a long period of time was agonizing. Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. There’s a difference between writing about something and living through it. I did both.”

Margaret Walker on Jubilee:

“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,”

Roger Whitlow on Jubilee:

“It serves especially well as a response to white ‘nostalgia’ fiction about the antebellum and Reconstruction South.”

Tomeika Ashford:

“[She is] of the foremost transcribers of African American heritage. Indeed, she enjoyed a long and fruitful career—-one that spanned almost an entire century. As a result, she became a historian for a race. Through her work, she ‘[sang] a song for [her] people,’ capturing their symbolic quest for liberation. When asked how she viewed her work, she responded, ‘The body of my work . . . springs from my interest in a historical point of view that is central to the development of black people as we approach the twenty-first century.’”

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “There’s a difference between writing about something and living through it. I did both.” — poet/novelist Margaret Walker

  1. Sdr says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Margaret Walker. I will definitely read more. Although I am an avid fiction reader, I must admit I struggle with poetry – but For my people resonated with me straight away and gets deeper with each reading. I want to print it out and put it on a wall so other people will talk about it (but I am a stranger to my workplace for now).

    • sheila says:

      Sdr – thank you so much for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it!

      For My People is so good – I was talking with a friend about it who said he read it out loud off my site and was almost in tears by the end. IMO her stuff is meant to be read out loud. She was raised in the oral tradition – her grandmother telling her stories which she then passes on. There’s a building up of power in the poem, it works by accumulation – and sometimes I struggle with poetry too – I always read it out loud. It’s hard to concentrate otherwise.

      Again, thank you for your comment.

  2. reba says:

    I have always thought of Margaret Walker as a poet, but my public library has “Jubilee” (in print and the ’50th anniversary audiobook version’–we live in an age of marvels!) Margaret Walker summer book club, y/y?

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