Margaret Walker, poet, novelist, essayist, orator, and critic, is known for her humanistic approach to issues of race and for the totality of her historical perspective. She began publishing poetry in the 1930’s in magazines such as Poetry, Opportunity, and Crisis, but is perhaps best known for her novel Jubilee.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Sigismund Walker, had emigrated from Buff Bay, Jamaica, to study for the ministry and received a degree in 1913 from Gramman Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. A Methodist minister, Sigismund bequeathed to his daughter a love of literature and an acute knowledge of the Bible. Likewise, Walker’s mother, Marian Dozier Walker, a music teacher, played ragtime music for Margaret and read a variety of poetry to her. Both of Walker’s parents encouraged her to pursue the highest academic goals possible.
Margaret Walker completed high school at age fourteen in New Orleans, where the family had moved when she was seven, and she enrolled at New Orleans University (now Dillard University). At the encouragement of Langston Hughes, Walker left the South after her sophomore year and eventually finished her bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University in 1935. She also published her first poem that year in Crisis. Upon graduating from Northwestern, Walker began working full time for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers’ Project. On her assignment as a junior writer, Walker came into contact with such writers as James Phelan, Katherine Dunbar, Frank Yerby, Fenton Johnson, and Richard Wright.
Her friendship with Wright was perhaps the most important and rewarding aspect of Walker’s time at the WPA. Their relationship was mutually supportive as Walker and Wright worked diligently to publish for the first time in national journals and books. Wright helped Walker improve the structure of her poetry, while Walker helped him revise some of his works. Wright encouraged Walker’s decision to delay work on her Civil War novel, which eventually became Jubilee, and Walker helped Wright research Native Son (1940). Walker’s relationship with Wright came to an abrupt end in June, 1939, when Wright accused her of spreading rumors about him and refused to speak to her again.
In the same year, Walker moved to Iowa City, Iowa, and enrolled in the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Under the mentorship of instructor Paul Engle, she completed an M.A. in 1940, using as her master’s thesis a collection of poems which were published two years later by Yale University Press as For My People. With the publication of this volume, which won for Walker the Yale University Young Poets Award, Walker became the first African American woman to win a prestigious national literary competition. The collection was also the first book of poetry published by an African American woman since Georgia Douglas Johnson’s The Heart of a Woman, and Other Poems in 1918. Throughout For My People, Walker calls for action against racism, demands change, and warns that the failure to do so would eventually lead to violence.
After teaching at Livingstone College in North Carolina (1941) and West Virginia State College (1942), Margaret Walker married Firnist James Alexander on June 13, 1943. She gave birth to her first child in 1944 and, a year later, returned to teach at Livingstone College. She also resumed research on Jubilee. In 1949 Walker began her long teaching career at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi, which ended when she retired from teaching in 1979. After tracing her grandmother’s family’s path from Greenville, Alabama, to Dawson, Georgia, in the early 1950’s, Walker located her grandmother’s younger sister, who gave her a picture of Walker’s great-grandmother, the family Bible, and the chest that her great-grandmother had brought from the plantation. These discoveries proved important in Walker’s shaping of Jubilee–she eventually used the image of her great-grandmother to help create the novel’s protagonist, Vyry; similarly, the chest is used as an important symbol in the novel.
In 1962, Walker returned to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop to begin work on a Ph.D. in English. Using Jubilee as her dissertation, she completed all the requirements for the degree in 1965 and published the novel in 1966. Noted for its realistic representation of the daily existence and folklore of slaves, Jubilee chronicles the life of Vyry Ware Brown through her childhood and young adulthood as a slave and as an adult during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Walker unites the oral tradition passed on to her by her maternal grandmother–Vyry’s story is essentially a fictionalized account of Walker’s great-grandmother’s life–with historical facts about slavery to create in Jubilee a novel that embodies history while encompassing Walker’s humanistic vision. As with her poetry, Jubilee demonstrates Walker’s belief that African Americans have risen above their victimization to become forceful and complex agents of change and shapers of history.
The poetry and essays that Walker published after Jubilee are as important as the novel. Her collection Prophets for a New Day, for example, offers a moving record of the triumphs and sorrows of the Civil Rights movement. Likewise, A Poetic Equation and How I Wrote “Jubilee,” and Other Essays on Life and Literature present crucial statements of Walker’s artistic vision. Margaret Walker’s celebration of African American life, culture, and history has made her an indelible figure in American literature. She died from breast cancer in 1998 at the age of eighty-three.