American Literature Margaret Walker
by
Keith Byerman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0204

Introduction

Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 7, 1915. Her father, Sigismund, was a Methodist minister born in Jamaica and educated at Northwestern University; her mother, Marion Dozier, a music teacher. Both later taught at New Orleans University. In 1925, they moved to New Orleans and lived with Walker’s maternal grandmother, Elvira “Vyry” Dozier, who provided many of the stories used in her only novel, Jubilee (1966). After two years at New Orleans University (now Dillard University) Walker received her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1935. She then worked in Chicago for the Federal Writers’ Project and became part of what came to be known as the black Chicago renaissance, often associated with the novelist Richard Wright. Her friendship with him ended acrimoniously after he moved to New York. She continued to help him with the research for his celebrated novel Native Son (1940) after he left Chicago. She earned her master’s degree at the University of Iowa, with the poetry collection that was published as For My People, which won the Yale Younger Poets Award (1942). She married Firnist James Alexander in 1943, and they had four children. She taught at Livingstone College and West Virginia State College before moving to a permanent position at Jackson State University, where she taught from 1949 to 1979. In 1962, she took leave from her teaching position to work on a doctorate at Iowa. Her dissertation was based on the stories told by her grandmother and on the research she had conducted in the South for thirty years. She earned her degree in 1965 and the novel was published a year later as Jubilee. During this time, she continued writing poetry, including Ballad of the Free (1966)—a chapbook—and Prophets for a New Day (1970), both of which concern the civil rights movement, and October Journey (1973), primarily a collection of celebrations of black historical and literary figures, including a long memorial to her father. At Jackson State in 1968, she established the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People. In 1973, she organized the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival through the Institute; it brought together twenty African American women poets of different generations. For Folkways Records in 1975, she recorded three albums of poetry by African American artists, including her own version of “Yalluh Hammuh,” which she had collected as part of the Federal Writers Project. In 1989, she published This is My Century: New and Collected Poems. Her most controversial work is Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1987), which many reviewers have seen as an attack on her former friend, even though she adds significant detail to his early career in Chicago. She died of cancer on November 30, 1998.

General Overviews

Margaret Walker has not been the subject of many book-length studies of her work. Hamada 2013 is the only single-authored work to appear thus far. It examines the body of writings in the context of intellectual and social patterns of the 20th century. McCrary 1998 is a California Newsreel video that focuses on the poetry. Graham 2001 is a collection of critical essays that covers biographical and political issues, the volumes of poetry, and Jubilee. Shorter studies give most attention to the poetry. Buckner 2001 focuses on the use of folklore. Georgoudaki 2001 considers the ambivalence of Walker’s readings of the South. Pettis 2001 places the writings in the framework of her identity as a black southerner. Collier 2001 uses myth criticism to discuss the first three books of poetry.

  • Buckner, B. Dilla. “Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker’s Poetry.” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 139–147. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

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    Applies folklore analysis to several of Walker’s poems, reading them in terms of folk motifs.

  • Collier, Eugenia. “Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker.” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 98–109. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

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    Interprets For My People, Prophets of a New Day, and October Journal in the context of African myths and ritual practices, as well as those developed in the New World.

  • Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. “The South in Margaret Walker’s Poetry: ‘Harbor and Sorrow Home.’” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 164–178. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

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    Takes as a starting point Walker’s poem “Sorrow Home” to study her view of the South as both home and a space of danger.

  • Graham, Mayemma, ed. Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

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    Includes twenty-four essays that explore life and social contexts, all of the volumes of poetry, and the novel. Includes an extensive bibliography of biographical essays, interviews, primary works, and selected criticism.

  • Hamada, Doaa Abdelhafez. This Is Her Century: A Study of Margaret Walker’s Work. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013.

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    Uses a feminist approach to explicate not only the full range of Walker’s work, but also the reasons that she has received little critical consideration compared to writers of a somewhat younger generation.

  • McCrary, Judith, prod. and dir. For My People: The Life and Writing of Margaret Walker. DVD and Internet resource. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 1998.

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    This brief (28 minutes) documentary uses interviews, critical comments, and readings of Walker’s poetry to argue for her contribution to American literature.

  • Pettis, Joyce. “Margaret Walker: Black Woman Writer of the South.” In Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 44–54. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

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    Combines biographical information with the use of southern materials in the poetry and the novel.

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