11 Poems by Margaret Walker

This is my century by Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker (1915 – 1998) is best known for her acclaimed novel, Jubilee (1966) as well as her richly evocative poetry. Here we’ll explore a sampling of poems by Margaret Walker, works that speak powerfully to the African-American experience.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Walker grew up in New Orleans and eventually settled in Chicago, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1935. Growing up, she was particularly taken with the poetry of Langston Hughes.

In 1936, Walker joined the Federal Writers’ Project and the South Side Writers Group, where she became friends with fellow writer and poet, Richard Wright. In 1940, she earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She and Wright both participated in the movement called The Chicago Black Renaissance.

In 1942, Walker received the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her debut collection of poetry, For My People. She was the first African-American person to be awarded this prize. She went on to publish two more collections of poetry, and worked on her only novel, Jubilee, based on the true story of her enslaved great-grandmother.

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Margaret Walker in 1933

Learn more about Margaret Walker
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Occasionally, you may see Walker referred to as “Dr. Alexander,” reflecting the doctorate degree she earned coupled with her married name. Her books were all published under the name Margaret Walker.

Walker enjoyed a distinguished career as a university professor from the 1940s through the 1970s. She received six honorary degrees and was inducted into the African American Literary Hall of Fame in October 1998.
An analysis of Margaret Walker’s body of poetic work observes that:

“Walker spoke for all African Americans, the real heroes and the legendary ones, winners and losers, men and women, adults and children.

As a poet, Walker cast herself as a prophet or an oracle, connecting with her audience not by logic but through their emotions. She often relied on the techniques used so effectively by African American preachers, including ritualistic repetition or the call-and-response format.

Sometimes she used the kind of elevated language one would expect to hear in a sermon; at other times, however, she adopted the slangy, succinct vernacular.”

In a thought-provoking analysis of Margaret Walker’s poetry, “For My People” as the Fulfillment of Margaret Walker’s Literary Manifesto, observes:

[Her] poetic act of framing Black people’s dreams into words and framing their souls into notes is an act of making them human by showing African people as critical and creative beings with desires to transcend the arresting of their natural human development and fulfill their human potential. 

Margaret Walker’s published poetry collections include:

  • For My People (1942)
  • Prophets for a New Day (1970)
  • October Journey (1973)
  • This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989)

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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
    unseen power;

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
    gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
    washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
    hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
    dragging along never gaining never reaping never
    knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
    backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
    and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
    and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
    Miss Choomby and company;

For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
    to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
    people who and the places where and the days when, in
    memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
    were black and poor and small and different and nobody
    cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;

For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
    be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
    play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
    marry their playmates and bear children and then die
    of consumption and anemia and lynching;

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
    Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
    Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
    people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
    people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
    land and money and something—something all our own;

For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
    being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
    burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
    and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
    who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;

For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
    the dark of churches and schools and clubs
    and societies, associations and councils and committees and
    conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
    devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
    preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
    false prophet and holy believer;

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
    from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
    trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
    all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;

Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
    bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
    generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
    loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
    healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
    in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
    be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
    rise and take control.

(from For My People, 1942)

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Sorrow Home

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, mango and coconut,
    breadfruit and rubber trees know me.

Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood. I belong with the smell of fresh pine, with the
    trail of coon, and the spring growth of wild onion.

I am no hothouse bulb to be reared in steam-heated flats with the music of El and subway in my
    ears, walled in by steel and wood and brick far from the sky.

I want the cotton fields, tobacco and the cane. I want to walk along with sacks of seed to drop in
fallow ground. Restless music is in my heart and I am eager to be gone.

O Southland, sorrow home, melody beating in my bone and blood! How long will the Klan of
hate, the hounds and the chain gangs keep me from my own?

(from For My People, 1942)

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Southern Song

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 southern song— the fusion of
    the South, my body’s song and me.

(from For My People, 1942)

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Dark Blood

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.

(from For My People, 1942)

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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.

(from This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1989)

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Lineage

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?

(from This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1989)

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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?

(from This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1989)

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Childhood

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.

I also lived in low cotton country
where moonlight hovered over ripe haystacks,
or stumps of trees, and croppers’ rotting shacks
with famine, terror, flood, and plague near by;
where sentiment and hatred still held sway
and only bitter land was washed away.

(from This is My Century: New and Collected Poems, 1989)

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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;
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from the me to you.
There is a journey from the you to me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.

Ours is a struggle from a too-warm bed;
too cluttered with a patience full of sleep.
Out of this blackness we must struggle forth;
from want of bread, of pride, of dignity.
Struggle between the morning and the night.
This marks our years; this settles, too, our plight.

(Originally published in Poetry Magazine, 1938)

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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.

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October Journey

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.

(October Journey, 1973)

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Jubilee by Margaret Walker

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