About this poet

Margaret Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. She began writing poetry at age fifteen, when she entered college. She received a BA from Northwestern University in 1935 and an MA from the University of Iowa in 1940. In 1936 she joined the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago, where she became friends with Richard Wright and joined his South Side Writers Group.

In 1941 Walker became the first African American poet to receive the Yale Younger Poets Prize, for her debut collection For My People (Yale University Press, 1942). She was also the author of the poetry collections This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989), October Journey (Broadside Press, 1973), and Prophets for a New Day (Broadside Press, 1970).

Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943, and together they had four children. In 1949 they moved to Mississippi, where she joined the faculty at Jackson State College. She returned to the University of Iowa for her doctoral studies and received a PhD in 1965. The following year, she published her dissertation as a novel, Jubilee (Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

In 1968 Walker founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People at Jackson State College. As director of the institute, which was later renamed the Margaret Walker Center, she organized the 1971 National Evaluative Conference on Black Studies and the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival.

After Walker retired from teaching in 1979, she published On Being Female, Black, and Free (University of Tennessee Press, 1997), a collection of personal essays, and Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (Warner Books, 1988), a work of nonfiction informed by her friendship with Wright. She died of cancer on November 30, 1998, in Jackson, Mississippi.


Bibliography

Poetry
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989)
October Journey (Broadside Press, 1973)
Prophets for a New Day (Broadside Press, 1970)
For My People (Yale University Press, 1942)

Prose
On Being Female, Black, and Free (University of Tennessee Press, 1997)
Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (Warner Books, 1988)
How I Wrote Jubilee (Third World Press, 1972)
Jubilee (Houghton Mifflin, 1966)

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 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.

From This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989). Copyright © 1989 by Margaret Walker. Used with permission of the University of Georgia Press.

From This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (University of Georgia Press, 1989). Copyright © 1989 by Margaret Walker. Used with permission of the University of Georgia Press.