Biography of Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker (Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander by marriage; July 7, 1915 – November 30, 1998) was an American poet and writer. She was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago. Her notable works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966), set in the South during the American Civil War.
Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to Sigismund C. Walker, a Methodist minister, and Marion (née Dozier) Walker, who helped their daughter by teaching her philosophy and poetry as a child. Her family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young girl. She attended school there, including several years of college, before she moved north to Chicago.
In 1935, Walker received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northwestern University. In 1936 she began work with the Federal Writers' Project under the Works Progress Administration of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression. She was a member of the South Side Writers Group, which included authors such as Richard Wright, Arna Bontemps, Fenton Johnson, Theodore Ward, and Frank Marshall Davis.
In 1942, she received her master's degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1965, she returned to that school to earn her Ph.D.
Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943 and moved to Mississippi to be with him. They had four children together and lived in the capital of Jackson, Mississippi.
Margaret Walker Poems
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
My roots are deep in southern life; deeper than John Brown or Nat Turner or Robert Lee. I was sired and weaned in a tropic world. The palm tree and banana leaf,
The Struggle Staggers Us
Our birth and death are easy hours, like sleep and food and drink. The struggle staggers us for bread, for pride, for simple dignity. And this is more than fighting to exist;
There were bizarre beginnings in old lands for the making of me. There were sugar sands and islands of fern and pearl, palm jungles and stretches of a never-ending sea. There were the wooing nights of tropical lands and the cool discretion of flowering plains between two stalwart hills. They nurtured my coming with wanderlust. I sucked fevers of adventure through my veins with my mother's milk. Someday I shall go to the tropical lands of my birth, to the coasts of continents and the tiny wharves of island shores. I shall roam the Balkans and the hot lanes of Africa and Asia. I shall stand on mountain tops and gaze on fertile homes below. And when I return to Mobile I shall go by the way of Panama and Bocas del Toro to the littered streets and the one-room shacks of my old poverty, and blazing suns of other lands may struggle then to reconcile the pride and pain in me.
My grandmothers were strong. They followed plows and bent to toil. They moved through fields sowing seed. They touched earth and grain grew. They were full of sturdiness and singing. My grandmothers were strong. My grandmothers are full of memories Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay With veins rolling roughly over quick hands They have many clean words to say. My grandmothers were strong. Why am I not as they?
For Malcolm X
All you violated ones with gentle hearts; You violent dreamers whose cries shout heartbreak; Whose voices echo clamors of our cool capers, And whose black faces have hollowed pits for eyes. All you gambling sons and hooked children and bowery bums Hating white devils and black bourgeoisie, Thumbing your noses at your burning red suns, Gather round this coffin and mourn your dying swan. Snow-white moslem head-dress around a dead black face! Beautiful were your sand-papering words against our skins! Our blood and water pour from your flowing wounds. You have cut open our breasts and dug scalpels in our brains. When and Where will another come to take your holy place? Old man mumbling in his dotage, crying child, unborn?
Love Song for Alex, 1979
My monkey-wrench man is my sweet patootie; the lover of my life, my youth and age. My heart belongs to him and to him only; the children of my flesh are his and bear his rage Now grown to years advancing through the dozens the honeyed kiss, the lips of wine and fire fade blissfully into the distant years of yonder but all my days of Happiness and wonder are cradled in his arms and eyes entire. They carry us under the waters of the world out past the starposts of a distant planet And creeping through the seaweed of the ocean they tangle us with ropes and yarn of memories where we have been together, you and I.
Traveller take heed for journeys undertaken in the dark of the year. Go in the bright blaze of Autumn's equinox. Carry protection against ravages of a sun-robber, a vandal, a thief. Cross no bright expanse of water in the full of the moon. Choose no dangerous summer nights; no heavy tempting hours of spring; October journeys are safest, brightest, and best. I want to tell you what hills are like in October when colors gush down mountainsides and little streams are freighted with a caravan of leaves, I want to tell you how they blush and turn in fiery shame and joy, how their love burns with flames consuming and terrible until we wake one morning and woods are like a smoldering plain- a glowing caldron full of jewelled fire; the emerald earth a dragon's eye the poplars drenched with yellow light and dogwoods blazing bloody red. Travelling southward earth changes from gray rock to green velvet. Earth changes to red clay with green grass growing brightly with saffron skies of evening setting dully with muddy rivers moving sluggishly. In the early spring when the peach tree blooms wearing a veil like a lavender haze and the pear and plum in their bridal hair gently snow their petals on earth's grassy bosom below then the soughing breeze is soothing and the world seems bathed in tenderness, but in October blossoms have long since fallen. A few red apples hang on leafless boughs; wind whips bushes briskly And where a blue stream sings cautiously a barren land feeds hungrily. An evil moon bleeds drops of death. The earth burns brown. Grass shrivels and dries to a yellowish mass. Earth wears a dun-colored dress like an old woman wooing the sun to be her lover, be her sweetheart and her husband bound in one. Farmers heap hay in stacks and bind corn in shocks against the biting breath of frost. The train wheels hum, 'I am going home, I am going home, I am moving toward the South.' Soon cypress swamps and muskrat marshes and black fields touched with cotton will appear. I dream again of my childhood land of a neighbor's yard with a red-bud tree the smell of pine for turpentine an Easter dress, a Christmas eve and winding roads from the top of a hill. A music sings within my flesh I feel the pulse within my throat my heart fills up with hungry fear while hills and flat lands stark and staring before my dark eyes sad and haunting appear and disappear. Then when I touch this land again the promise of a sun-lit hour dies. The greenness of an apple seems to dry and rot before my eyes. The sullen winter rains are tears of grief I cannot shed. The windless days are static lives. The clock runs down timeless and still. The days and nights turn hours to years and water in a gutter marks the circle of another world hating, resentful, and afraid, stagnant, and green, and full of slimy things.
I I am a child of the valley. Mud and muck and misery of lowlands are on thin tracks of my feet. Damp draughts of mist and fog hovering over valleys are on my feverish breath. Red clay from feet of beasts colors my mouth and there is blood on my tongue. I go up and down and through this valley and my heart bleeds for our fate. I turn to each stick and stone, marking them for my own; here where muddy water flows at our shanty door and levees stand like a swollen bump on our backyard. I watch rivulets flow trickling into one great river running through little towns through swampy thickets and smoky cities through fields of rice and marshes where the marsh hen comes to stand and buzzards draw thin blue streaks against evening sky. I listen to crooning of familiar lullabies; the honky-tonks are open and the blues are ringing far. In cities a thousand red lamps glow, but the lights fail to stir me and the music cannot lift me and my despair only deepens with the wailing of a million voices strong. O valley of my moaning brothers! Valley of my sorrowing sisters! Valley of lost forgotten men. O hunted desperate people stricken and silently submissive seeking yet sullen ones! If only from this valley we might rise with song! With singing that is ours. II Here in this valley of cotton and cane and banana wharves we labor. Our mothers and fathers labored before us here in this low valley. High above us and round about us stand high mountains rise the towering snow-capped mountains while we are beaten and broken and bowed here in this dark valley. The river passes us by. Boats slip by on the edge of horizons. Daily we fill boats with cargoes of our need and send them out to sea. Orange and plantain and cotton grow here in this wide valley. Wood fern and sour grass and wild onion grow here in this sweet valley. We tend the crop and gather the harvest but not for ourselves do we labor, not for ourselves do we sweat and starve and spend under these mountains we dare not claim, here on this earth we dare not claim, here by the river we dare not claim. Yet we are an age of years in this valley; yet we are bound till death to this valley. Nights in the valley are full of haunting murmurings of our musical prayers of our rhythmical loving of our fumbling thinking aloud. Nights in the houses of our miserable poor are wakeful and tormenting, for out of a deep slumber we are 'roused to our brother who is ill and our sister who is ravished and our mother who is starving. Out of a deep slumber truth rides upon us and we wonder why we are helpless and we wonder why we are dumb. Out of a deep slumber truth rides upon us and makes us restless and wakeful and full of a hundred unfulfilled dreams of today; our blood eats through our veins with the terrible destruction of radium in our bones and rebellion in our brains and we wish no longer to rest. III Now burst the dams of years and winter snows melt with an onrush of a turbulent spring. Now rises sap in slumbering elms and floods overwhelm us here in this low valley. Here there is a thundering sound in our ears. All the day we are disturbed; nothing ever moved our valley more. The cannons boom in our brains and there is a dawning understanding in the valleys of our spirits; there is a crystalline hope there is a new way to be worn and a path to be broken from the past. Into our troubled living flows the valley flooding our lives with a passion for freedom. Our silence is broken in twain even as brush is broken before terrible rain even as pines rush in paths of hurricanes. Our blood rises and bursts in great heart spasms hungering down through valleys in pain and the storm begins. We are dazed in wonder and caught in the downpour. Danger and death stalk the valley. Robbers and murderers rape the valley taking cabins and children from us seeking to threaten us out of this valley. Then with a longing dearer than breathing love for the valley arises within us love to possess and thrive in this valley love to possess our vineyards and pastures our orchards and cattle our harvest of cotton, tobacco, and cane. Love overwhelms our living with longing strengthening flesh and blood within us banding the iron of our muscles with anger making us men in the fields we have tended standing defending the land we have rendered rich and abiding and heavy with plenty. We with our blood have watered these fields and they belong to us. Valleys and dust of our bodies are blood brothers and they belong to us: the long golden grain for bread and the ripe purple fruit for wine the hills beyond for peace and the grass beneath for rest the music in the wind for us the nights for loving the days for living and the circling lines in the sky for dreams. We are like the sensitive Spring walking valleys like a slim young girl full breasted and precious limbed and carrying on our lips the kiss of the world. Only the naked arm of Time can measure the ground we know and thresh the air we breathe. Neither earth nor star nor water's host can sever us from our life to be for we are beyond your reach O mighty winnowing flail! infinite and free
Big John Henry
Big John Henry This here's a tale of a sho-nuff man Whut lived one time in the delta lan' His hand was big as a hog's fat ham And he useta work for Uncle Sam. His gums was blue, his voice was mellow And he talked to mules, fellow to fellow. The day he was born in the Mississippi bottom He made a meal on buttermilk and sorghum A mess o' peas and a bait o' tunnips And when he finished he smacked his lips And went outside to help pick cotton. And he growed up taller than a six-foot shooter Skinnin' mules and catchin' barracuda And stronger than a team of oxen And he even could beat the champion boxin' An' ain't nary man in Dixie's forgotten How he could raise two bales of cotton While one hand anchored down the steamboat. Oh, they ain't no tale was ever wrote 'Bout Big John Henry that could start to tell All the things that Big Boy knowed so well: How he learned to whistle from the whippoorwills, And turned the wheels whut ran the mills; How the witches taught him how to cunjer, And cyo the colic and ride the thunder; And how he made friends with a long lean houn' Sayin', 'It's jes' John Henry a-giftin' roun'.' But a ten-poun' hammer done ki-ilt John Henry, Yeah, a ten-poun' hammer ki-ilt John Henry, Bust him open, wide Lawd! Drapped him ovah, wide Lawd! Po' John Henry, he cold and dead.
I want my body bathed again by southern suns, my soul reclaimed again from southern land. I want to rest again in southern fields, in grass and hay and clover bloom; to lay my hand again upon the clay baked by a southern sun, to touch the rain-soaked earth and smell the smell of soil. I want my rest unbroken in the fields of southern earth; freedom to watch the corn wave silver in the sun and mark the splashing of a brook, a pond with ducks and frogs and count the clouds. I want no mobs to wrench me from my southern rest; no forms to take me in the night and burn my shack and make for me a nightmare full of oil and flame. I want my careless song to strike no minor key; no fiend to stand between my body's soutnern song- the fusion of the South, my body's song and me.
Old Molly means was a hag and a witch; Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch. Her heavy hair hung thick in ropes And her blazing eyes was black as picch. Imp at three and wench at 'leben She counted her husbands to the number seben. O Molly, Molly, Molly Means There goes the ghost of Molly Means. Some say she was born with a veil on her face So she could look through unnatural space Through the future and through the past And charm a body or an evil place And every man could well despise The evil look in her coal black eyes. Old Molly, Molly, Molly Means Dark is the ghost of Molly Means. And when the tale begun to spread Of evil and of holy dread: Her black-hand arts and her evil powers How she could cast her spells and called the dead, The younguns was afraid at night And the farmers feared their crops would blight. Old Molly, Molly, Molly Means Cold is the ghost of Molly Means. Then one dark day she put a spell On a young gal-bride just come to dwell In the lane just down from Molly's shack And when her husband come riding back His wife was barking like a dog And on all fours like a common hog. O Molly, Molly, Molly Means Where is the ghost of Molly Means? The neighbors come and they went away And said she'd die before break of day But her husband held her in his arms And swore he'd break the wicked charms; He'd search all up and down the land And turn the spell on Molly's hand. O Molly, Molly, Molly Means Sharp is the ghost of Molly Means. So he rode all day and he rode all night And at the dawn he come in sight Of a man who said he could move the spell And cause the awful thing to dwell On Molly Means, to bark and bleed Till she died at the hands of her evil deed. Old Molly, Molly, Molly Means This is the ghost of Molly Means. Sometimes at night through the shadowy trees She rides along on a winter breeze. You can hear her holler and whine and cry. Her voice is thin and her moan is high, And her cackling laugh or her barking cold Bring terror to the young and old. O Molly, Molly, Molly Means Lean is the ghost of Molly Means.
We Have Been Believers
We have been believers believing in the black gods of an old land, believing in the secrets of the seeress and the magic of the charmers and the power of the devil's evil ones. And in the white gods of a new land we have been believers believing in the mercy of our masters and the beauty of our brothers, believing in the conjure of the humble and the faithful and the pure. Neither the slaves' whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the bayonet could kill our black belief. In our hunger we beheld the welcome table and in our nakedness the glory of a long white robe. We have been believers in the new Jerusalem. We have been believers feeding greedy grinning gods, like a Moloch demanding our sons and our daughters, our strength and our wills and our spirits of pain. We have been believers, silent and stolid and stubborn and strong. We have been believers yielding substance for the world. With our hands have we fed a people and out of our strength have they wrung the necessities of a nation. Our song has filled the twilight and our hope has heralded the dawn. Now we stand ready for the touch of one fiery iron, for the cleansing breath of many molten truths, that the eyes of the blind may see and the ears of the deaf may hear and the tongues of the people be filled with living fire. Where are our gods that they leave us asleep? Surely the priests and the preachers and the powers will hear. Surely now that our hands are empty and our hearts too full to pray they will understand. Surely the sires of the people will send us a sign. We have been believers believing in our burdens and our demigods too long. Now the needy no longer weep and pray; the long-suffering arise, and our fists bleed against the bars with a strange insistency
I Want to Write
I want to write I want to write the songs of my people. I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark. I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn throats. I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into notes. I want to catch their sunshine laughter in a bowl; fling dark hands to a darker sky and fill them full of stars then crush and mix such lights till they become a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.
When I was a child I knew red miners
dressed raggedly and wearing carbide lamps.
I saw them come down red hills to their camps
dyed with red dust from old Ishkooda mines.
Night after night I met them on the roads,
or on the streets in town I caught their glance;
the swing of dinner buckets in their hands,
and grumbling undermining all their words.