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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Margaret Walker

Margaret Abigail Walker was born July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. She received her early education in New Orleans and completed her undergraduate education at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, by the time she was nineteen years old. Although Walker had been writing and publishing before moving to Chicago as a student, it was there that her talent matured. A member of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Walker shared intellectual, cultural, and professional interests with an important group of artists and writers who formed the Southside Writers Group, led by Richard Wright. Wright and Walker enjoyed a close friendship until he moved to New York in the late 1930s. When Walker left Chicago for graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1939, she was well on her way to becoming a major American poet.

In 1942, Walker completed the full manuscript of a volume she called For My People, the title poem of which had been written and published in Chicago five years earlier. For My People won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award following its 1942 publication and brought her immediate recognition as the first African American woman to achieve national literary prominence.

Walker also began work on a historical novel based on her great grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, a novel she would not finish until she returned to Iowa in the 1960s to complete her doctoral studies. Jubilee is the story of Vyry, whose commitment to her own set of values sustains her during difficult times both as a slave and later as a free woman. Walker’s revisionist account of the Civil War and Reconstruction established a new tradition in southern American literature.

For most of her career, Walker lived in Jackson, Mississippi, where she taught English for thirty years. Married to the Firnist James Alexander, Walker found time between writing and teaching to mother four children as well as a host of grandchildren.

Walker described herself as a “poet and dreamer who tried to make her life a poem,” a statement suggestive of the many influences and traditions found in her writing, the most notable of which is oratory. She works with sounds, rhythms, and meanings that are drawn from an African American cultural framework and that embrace classical mythology, Judeo-Christian humanism, and African spirituality. With precision of language and sharpness of imagery, Walker captures a wide range of feelings within Anglo-American and traditional African American literary forms. The “I” which frequently appears in her poetry reveals a collective voice reminiscent of Walt Whitman, yet it remains distinctive in its lyrical cadences.

As a writer-activist for the civil rights movement—which her writing helped to fuel and which she acknowledged as a major source of her work—Walker was the model for an entire generation of African American women writers, many of whose careers she midwived into existence through her efforts as a public spokesperson, literary sponsor, workshop leader, and conference organizer. Walker died in 1998 after a long illness.

Maryemma Graham
University of Kansas

In the Heath Anthology
For My People (1942)
Southern Song (1942)
Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad (1970)
Solace (1988)
The Crystal Palace (1988)
from Jubilee
      Cook in the Big House (1966)
      Randall Ware (1966)

Other Works
Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius: A Portrait of the Man, A Critical Look at His Work (1986)
How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990)

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Margaret Walker Alexander Research Center
Describes the Center's archival and analytical activities; some resources available through the site.

Mississippi Writers Page
A biographical sketch, several photographs, and a list of works.

Voices from the Gaps
Biography, selected bibliography, and links.

Secondary Sources

Hazel Carby, "Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery," Slavery and the Literary Imagination, eds. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, 1988

Jacqueline M. Carmichael, Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore In Margaret Walker's Jubilee, 1998

Barbara Christian, The Black Woman Novelist, 1980

Margaret Coel, The Ghost Walker, 1997

Eugenia Collier, Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker, " Black women Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans, 1984

Margaret Hamill, Light on the Widow's Walk, 2000

Eleanor Traylor, "Music as Theme: The Blues Mode in the Works of Margaret Walker,: ibid; Minrose Gwin, Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood, 1985