Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker younger

Margaret Walker (July 15, 1915 – November 30, 1998) was an American poet and novelist. She is recognized today as one of the foremost African-American female writers of her generation. In addition to her acclaimed novel, Jubilee (1966), she wrote several volumes of poetry.

Walker participated in the literary movement known as the Chicago Black Renaissance, and was a long-time friend of novelist and poet Richard Wright

Walker was a university professor from the 1940s through the 1970s, and she held positions at colleges in North Carolina, West Virginia and Mississippi. She received six honorary degrees and was inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame in October 1998.

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Margaret Walker, author of Jubilee, 1933

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Early Life and Education

Margaret Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 7, 1915. Her parents, Marion and Sigismund, introduced her to philosophy and poetry during her childhood.

The family moved to New Orleans when she was young, and she attended school there. As a child, she particularly loved the poetry of Langston Hughes, and began writing her own poems when she was 15 years old.

Walker received her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1935. While pursuing her studies there, she met Langston Hughes, who encouraged her to continue writing.

In 1936, Walker joined the Federal Writers’ Project and the South Side Writers Group, where she became friends with Richard Wright. In 1940, she received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa.

The following year, Walker was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her debut collection of poetry, For My People, which was published in 1942. She was the first African-American person to be awarded this prize.

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Family, Teaching and Early Career Highlights

In 1941, Walker began teaching at Livingstone College in North Carolina, and she taught at West Virginia State College in 1942. In 1943, she married Firnist Alexander, and her first child was born in 1944.

Throughout the 1940s, Walker researched her family history during the Civil War, compiling outlines and chapter titles for the novel that would later become her most famous work.

In 1949, Walker moved to Mississippi with her family, and she started teaching at Jackson State College. She re-enrolled at the University of Iowa in the early 1960s, graduating with her doctorate in 1965. She re-worked her doctoral dissertation into the form of a novel, and it was published as Jubilee in 1966.

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Jubilee by Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker page on Amazon*
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Jubilee (1966)

Jubilee, Ms. Walker’s best known work, is a novel based on the personal history of Ms. Walker’s great-grandmother. It follows Vyry, a slave on a plantation in Georgia, as she grows from childhood to adulthood during the antebellum period, the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.

The novel has been praised for its realistic depiction of daily life as a slave, and each of the 58 chapters begins with a proverb or an excerpt from a spiritual. Crispin Y. Campbell, a Washington Post contributor, hailed the work as “the first truly historical black American novel.”

While teaching at Jackson State College in 1968, Ms. Walker founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People at the college. The institute was later renamed as the Margaret Walker Center in her honor.

As the director of the institute, Margaret organized many events throughout the 1970s, including the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival.

 

Later Works

Prophets for a New Day, a collection of poetry, was published in 1970. With the exception of “Elegy” and “Ballad of the Hoppy Toad,” the poems are focused entirely on the civil rights movement.

Many of the poems use biblical allusions, and historical events, major cities and important leaders associated with the movement are prominently featured.

How I Wrote Jubilee was published in 1972. In this work, Walker explains the creative process behind the novel, detailing the oral history she received from her grandmother and citing the historical references that served as the underpinning for her story. Another collection of poetry, October Journey, was published in 1973.

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Margaret Walker (Alexander)
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Later Years and Legacy

In 1979, Margaret Walker retired from teaching. During the 1980s and 90s, she continued to write both poetry and prose. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, a nonfiction work which drew from her friendship with Richard, was published in 1988, and This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems followed in 1989.

In the 1990s, Walker published two volumes of essays. The last of these was On Being Female, Black, and Free (1997), and it became her final publication.

During her lifetime, Walker received numerous awards. In addition to Fulbright Commission, Ford Foundation, Rosenwald Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, she received the Living Legacy Award from President Carter.

She was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the College Language Association also honored her with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Walker died of cancer on November 30, 1998. Over a career that lasted nearly a century, her work spoke of the struggle for liberation and the importance of resilience and hope.

According to Tomeika Ashford, Margaret Walker was “one of the foremost transcribers of African-American heritage.” In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.


More about Margaret Walker

Major Works

  • For My People (poetry; 1942)
  • Jubilee (novel; 1966)
  • October Journey (poetry; 1973)
  • Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (critical biography; 1988)
  • This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems. (1989)
  •  How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990)

Biography

  • Conversations with Margaret Walker with Maryemma Graham (2002)
  • Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker by Carolyn J. Brown (2014)

More information

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