Criticism On For My People
Stephen Vincent Ben�t, Editor
Excerpt from the Foreword to For My People
Straightforwardness, directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry. And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people older voices are mixed with hers--the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices--I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving poetry because it was written by a Negro. It is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage--and poetry must exist in its own right. These poems keep on talking to you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and passionate speech.
"We Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My People"--they are full of the rain and the sun that fall upon the faces and shoulders of her people, full of the bitter questioning and the answers not yet found, the pride and the disillusion and the reality. It is difficult for me to read these poems unmoved--I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her "playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker--she is interested in people wherever they are. In the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits--figures of legend, like John Henry and Stagolee and the uncanny Molly Means--figures of realism like Poppa Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn't die--figures of "old Man River, round New Orleans, with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans." They are set for voice and the blues, they could be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and last, they are a part of our earth.
Miss Walker can write formal verse as well; she can write her own kind of sonnet. But, in whatever medium she is working, the note is true and unforced. There is a deep sincerity in all these poems--a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and seen--this is the song of her people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its candor. And this is not far away or long ago--this is part of our nation, speaking.
From Stephen Vincent Ben�t, foreword, For My People, by Margaret Walker, Yale Series of Younger Poets. 41. ed. Stephen Vincent Ben�t (New Haven: Yale UP, 1942) 5-6.
Excerpt from "The Atlantic Bookshelf"
It is often argued that the critic's business is to judge poetry entirely as poetry; but poetry cannot exist apart from its subject matter, and most of the subject matter of this volume has a specific interest. It evokes immediately in the reader the whole social and human situation in America between the colored and the white peoples.
Miss Walker speaks in a variety of verse forms. The poem which gives its name to the volume uses a chanting rhythm, Biblical in pattern but entirely modern in vocabulary; there is a section of rhyming ballads, creating character sketches of figures of legend or reality; and there are original experiments in the sonnet form. All have a peculiar genuineness of tone quality--the quality of the speaking voice, not of literary artifice.
From Elizabeth Drew, "The Atlantic Bookshelf," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1942: 166.
Excerpts from "Songs for a Journey"
[Whipple reviews Edna St. Vincent Millay's The Murder of Lidice, Margaret Walker's For My People, Franklin P. Adams' Innocent Merriment, and Alfred Noyes' The Edge of the Abyss.]
Chant and ballad, ode and elegy and hymn--we stand in need of such communal poetry, of songs that will release our emotions and voice our hope for the union of peoples, after war. We do not mean battle-songs or paeans of victory, but the poems that become our common prayer. The poetry we seek--and know not where to find--is that of the true maker who can, by the power of his feeling and the glory of his word, sum up the national ethos, and the national suffering, and bestow upon the heroic event a universal and timeless meaning. The communal poets of the Bible created a people and a faith. Whittier and Walt Whitman and Lincoln, the poet, spoke a vision for America. Today, the occasions for poetry are supreme and worldwide, not in the deeds, but in the spirit of men: in the men of Dunkirk and the people of Russia, in all the Expendables, in the tragedy of refugee and guerilla. Is not the dream of the four freedoms worth celebration? Do not the very words, United Nations, challenge an ode of a poet of the inter-nation, from China, or India?
Prose will not do--even though Mr. Churchill, not as war-leader, but as voice of the British people in peril, spoke with magnificent eloquence, and Vice-President Wallace proclaimed the noble creed within many hearts. The journalist has recorded better than ever before the courage and sacrifice of plain men, but his words fade with the day. The advertiser, publicity man, and propagandist, rouse our emotions, but for small or ephemeral ends. We distrust them, and the politician, even when they speak truth.
The people now discipline themselves to endure in silence, with the stoic courage that is ever their glory. Men go to war, into silence, and silence fills their homes. What man or woman can say what each suffers? The poet can, and can offer catharsis for the emotions that endanger the spirit. We need the comfort of sharing in communal hymns that may soften loss and endow senseless death with meaning. The poet can restore our faith and vision. Poets are the final creators of morale.
. . .
The poems of Margaret Walker of Alabama are communal singing, distilled from the long suffering of her race, that holds in memory the bitter past--and questions today. This is American poetry for Americans, and beyond, for all races that suffer in bonds, the disinherited of the earth who seek now their heritage. What modern lines hold deeper meaning than these?
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 the a journey from the you to me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.
That is universal poetry--Asia and Africa echo this plea. What a proof of the miraculous power of impassioned language! What a mystery of Providence that this young girl can speak for millions! Because she does not speak for herself.
This wisdom has deep roots, deeper in southern life than the roots of its people, she declares, because of her communion through blood and bone with sun and earth. From the Delta the blood-line runs back "to the tropical lands of my birth that, on return to Mobile, may reconcile the pride and pain in me." With this emotion she composed the title poem, "For My People," an epitome of Negro sufferings and weakness, both a history, and an indictment. Again she speaks for many Peoples: "trying to fashion a world that will hold all people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations."
The verse form is compressed, yet free. This poet returns to the Bible. "The controlled intensity of emotion and the language have something of the surge of biblical poetry," says Stephen Vincent Ben�t, in his fine introduction to this volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The spirituals, too, have lessoned her tongue, and the personal ballad and work song to which she gives a sardonic moral twist in the odd characters of Molly Means or Bad-Man Stagolee. She has confronted life in streets and fields, and by her genius enlarges experience into universal symbols that arouse emotion. Such poems can help save the future from the past.
From Leon Whipple, "Songs for a Journey," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, Survey Graphic, Dec. 1942: 599.
Excerpts from "Let My People Grow!"
Margaret Walker, the young colored woman whose poems are the latest to be included in the series [Yale Series of Younger Poets], comes forth, however, with the anachronous assumption that poets are entitled to be heard on the problems of living in a real, hard-time world of depression and war. She speaks for a minority group, the one to which she belongs, to the majority; and it would be interesting, if one had the leisure and inclination, to compare her findings--arrived at intuitively--with those of the surveys.
Miss Walker, for example, looks forward to the evolution of "The Great Society" in a "world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations." She sees her people rebelling against hypocrisy--meaning, presumably, against the dissimulation by which the bitter, offended black man is often forced to live in some sections. She marks a struggle between pride and pain, the near-hopeless task of trying to maintain dignity under indignities. And she pins the blame for all the distress on the "money-hungry, glory-craving leeches." Simply put, her complaint is that her people are deceived and cheated.
The Negro's progress, so called, his quick achievement, his contribution to music, and all of that, leave Miss Walker quite cold.
[. . . .]
Yet there is anything but despair in "For My People":
Now the needy no longer weep
and pray; the long-suffering arise,
and our fists bleed against the bars
with a strange insistency.
[. . . .]
The ballads and sonnets of the second and third sections of this book are interesting for other reasons. They show that preoccupation with the greater problems of her "playmates in the clay and dust" have in no wise detracted from Margaret Walker's understanding of their folk ways. She has a genuine sympathy for low-down folks like "Molly Means," "Poppa Chicken," and "Kissie Lee."
From Arna Bontemps, "Let My People Grow!," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The New York Herald Tribune Books 3 Jan. 1943: 3.
Excerpt from "Cream of the Verse"
[For my People was one of eleven books reviewed by Louis Untermeyer in the following article.]
Margaret Walker's "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year's selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the competitive honor. The title is not only apt but more than ordinarily expressive. These are poems which reflect the individual and a race, poems in which the body and spirit of a great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues, swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston Hughes turned soft or Paul Laurence Dunbar turned sour.
The first section of Miss Walker's first book is verse of quite another genre. It is emotional but seldom hysterical, disillusioned but not easily despondent; it is sharply contemporary and grimly unflinching. Its occasional crudities, its over-ready reliance on clich�s are more than balanced by the firm candor and the intensity--an intensity so racially deep and so personally affecting that it must move any but a determinedly careless, or callous, reader.
From Louis Untermeyer, "Cream of the Verse," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The Yale Review 32 (1943): 370-71.
Excerpts from "The Poetry of Margaret Walker"
Simply and directly, she [Walker] speaks for the Negro, North and South, . . .
. . .
--It is her acceptance of difference, and her ability to put it in its proper place, without posing, without forcing a role of Negro poet in distinction to any other kind of poet which gives her freshness of content, and the promise of becoming an important voice in American poetry. This first section shows rather well that she has comprehended and accepted her role as artist and artisan, and met the challenge of her specific situation in an adequate fashion.
The second section of the book, composed of ballads, is less fortunate. The ballads are, as academic artifacts, rather remarkable. They are part of the equipment of the technical virtuoso, proof that Miss Walker can write ballads as well as her own forms. But the writer who attempts the imitation of traditional, popular forms is perilously close to the writer who does an imitation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It is possible for the replica to be excellent, qua replica, but the division between artistic creation and the fashioning of reproductions is a rather classic one.
[. . . .]
The six sonnets which conclude the volume are additional evidence of the writer's ability. Better than the ballads, they convey the strength of the first part of the volume. One wonders, considering her use of these three different forms, if Miss Walker is trying to demonstrate a facility with verse-forms, or is a bit unsure of herself. The latter ought not to be true: she has written a distinguished first volume, which is at once a promise of things to come, and an achievement in itself.
From George Zabriskie, "The Poetry of Margaret Walker," rev. of For My People, by Margaret Walker, The Saturday Review of Literature, 11 Sept. 1943: 19.
Richard K. Barksdale
Excerpts from "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy"
Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa--the master's degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966--were granted because of her achievements in creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master's degree; her prize- winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But Margaret Walker's poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of Hayden's poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker's poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and sonnets. It is now clear in retrospect that Hayden and Tolson were influenced by the academic poets of the 1930s and 1940s--Ciardi, Tate, Lowell, Wilbur, Auden, Dickey. Their poetry has an academic gloss, suggesting richly endowed libraries in the sophisticated suburbs of learning. Only rarely do they seem sensitized to problems and dilemmas confounding an unintellectualized, urbanized, and racially pluralistic America, a concern which dominates Margaret Walker's poetry.
Although Walker, too, spent all of her days in academia, she was never as a writer held captive by it. An analysis of her poetry reveals that in subject, tone, and esthetic texture, it is remarkably free of intellectual pretense and stylized posturing. One finds instead the roots of the Black experience in language simple, passionate, and direct. . . .
[ . . . . ]
The title poem [of For My People] is itself a singular and unique literary achievement. First, it is magnificently wrought oral poetry. It must be read aloud; and, in reading it aloud, one must be able to breathe and pause, pause and breathe preacher-style. One must be able to sense the ebb and flow of the intonations. One must be able to hear the words sing, when the poet spins off parallel clusters like
. . . 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.
This is the kind of verbal music found in a well-delivered down-home folk sermon, and, as such, the poem achieves what James Weldon Johnson attempted to do in God's Trombones: fuse the written word with the spoken word. In this sense the reader is imaginatively set free to explore what Shelley called the beautiful "unheard melody" of a genuine poetic experience. The passage is also significant in its emphasis on repetitive "work" words describing the age-old labors of Black people. The activities are as old as slavery--slavery in the "big house" or slavery in the fields. Adding "ing" to these monosyllabic word-verbs suggests the dreary monotony of Black labor in slave times and in free times. Without the "ing," they remain command words--enforcing words, backed up by a white enforcing power structure. And behind the command has always lurked the whip or the gun or the overseer or the Captain or the boss or Mr. Charlie or Miss Ann. Indeed, Black laborers, long held captive by Western capitalism, were forced to work without zeal or zest--just "Dragging along." Somehow they remained outside the system of profit and gain; no profits accrued to them for their labor; thus, they dragged along, "never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding." In just these few lines, Margaret Walker performs a premier poetic function: she presents a succinct historical summary of how the Black man slipped into an economic and social quagmire when, first as a slave and then as a quasi-free man, he was forced to cope with the monster of European capitalistic enterprise.
Not only does For My People have word power, but it is a poem filled with subtle juxtapositions of thought and idea. When the scene shifts from the rural South to the urban North-- to "thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New York"--the poet describes her people as "lost disinherited dispossessed and happy people." At another point, they are depicted as "walking blindly spreading joy." This Donnesque yoking of opposites linking happiness with dispossession and blind purposelessness with joy reveals the depth of Margaret Walker's understanding of the complexities of the Black experience. In fact, the poet here is writing about the source of the Black peoples' blues, for out of their troubled past and turbulent present came the Black peoples' song--a music and a song that guarantee that happiness and joy will somehow always be found lurking behind the squalor of the ghetto or behind the misery of the quarters or in some sharecropper's windowless cabin in the flood-drenched lowlands. For whenever there is trouble, a Bessie Smith or a Ma Rainey or a Bill Broonzy or a B.B. King or someone with the gift of song will step forward to sing it away. . . .
[ . . . . ]
Although one cannot say that the rest of the poems in Margaret Walker's initial volume meets the same criteria for high poetic quality, they reflect the young poet's sense of "word power" and her sharp awareness of the importance of Black orature. The poems in Part II contain a series of Black folk portraits--Poppa Chicken, Kissee Lee, Yallah Hammuh. In many of these, one can trace the influence of Langston Hughes' 1927 volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which contained many verses portraying Black folk and celebrating the Black urban life style. Indeed both Poppa Chicken and Teacher remind one of Hughes' "Sweet Papa Vester" in that poet's "Sylvester's Dying Bed." All three are sweet men--men who pimp for a living and generally walk on the shady side of the street. There are differences, however, between the Hughes portrait and those by Margaret Walker. Hughes' version is comically objective. Nowhere does the author obtrude an opinion in the brief story line, and everything, as in any good comic routine, is grossly exaggerated. As he lies dying, "Sweet Papa Vester" is surrounded by "all the wimmens in town"--"a hundred pretty mamas"--Blacks and 'brown-skins" all moaning and crying. On the other hand, both "Poppa Chicken" and "Teacher," written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter, lack the broad comic touch one sees in the Hughes poem. In fact, the protagonist is a "bad dude" and not to be taken lightly . . .
[ . . . . ]
Three other poems in Part II of For My People, "Kissee Lee," "Long John and Sweetie Pie," and "Yallah Hummuh" reflect a Hughesian influence. Although all three are written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter that Hughes never used in his Black folk portraits, they all reveal a finely controlled and well-disciplined narrative technique. There is just enough compression of incident and repetitive emphasis to provoke and sustain the reader's interest. And all of the characters--Long John, Sweetie Pie, Kissee Lee, and Yalluh Hamma--come from the "low-down" social stratum where, Hughes believed, Black men and women lived in accordance with a life style that was to be treasured simply because it was distinctively Black. Theirs is an environment filled with heroic violence, flashing knives, Saturday night liquor fights, and the magnificent turbulence of a blues-filled weekend of pleasure and joy. . . .
[ . . . . ]
The ballad "Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie" presents another story which has been repeated many times in Black folklore--the story of a very stressful romantic relationship that ends in disappointment, separation, grief, and death. There is the inevitable triangle involving Long John, who is ever a lover, but never a laborer; Sweetie Pie, who cooks real good and eats far too well; and a "yellow girl," who has "coal black hair" and "took Long John clean away / From Sweetie Pie one awful day." The brief story ends when Sweetie Pie, her lover gone, wastes away and dies. To historians and literary scholars, it is a story of small, almost mean, insignificance; but to a Black folk poet interested in the rich orature of her people, this little story opened another window on the world of the Black experience.
[ . . . . ]
One other poem in this section of For My People merits some comment. "Molly Means" is a well-crafted poetical description of a "hag and a witch; Chile of the devil, the dark, and sitch." . . . What is interesting about this poem is that it was written in the mid-1930s, shortly after the period known as the Harlem Renaissance had drawn to a Depression-induced end, but in no way does the poem reflect, in theme or in style, the poetry of that period. Like the title poem of the award-winning volume, "Molly Means" speaks with a new voice in Black American poetry. It is not a poem of racial or romantic protest, nor does it ring with social or political rhetoric. Rather it is a poem that probes the imaginative vistas where witches and elfins dwell--a poem that demands "a willing suspension of disbelief." And, as indicated above, "Molly Means," in its balladic simplicity, is a far cry from the carefully cerebrated poetical statements coming from poets of the academy during the mid-1930s.
From Richard K. Barksdale, "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 104-17.
R. Baxter Miller
Excerpts from "The 'Intricate Design' of Margaret Walker:
Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History"
Margaret Walker learned about Moses and Aaron from the Black American culture into which she was born. As the daughter of a religious scholar, she came of age in the Depression of the thirties, and her career, like those of Margaret Danner, Dudley Randall, and Gwendolyn Brooks, has spanned three or four decades. Much of her important work, like theirs, has been neglected, coming as it does between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Most indices to literature, Black American and American, list only one article on Margaret Walker from 1971 through 1981.1
Walker knew the important figures of an older generation, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. She heard Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes sing, and she numbered among her acquaintances Zora Neale Hurston, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois. What does the richness of the culture give her? She finds the solemn nobility of religious utterance, the appreciation for the heroic spirit of Black folk, and the deep respect for craft.2 . . . She knew, too, Willard Motley, Fenton Johnson, and Arna Bontemps. Walker's lifetime represents continuity. From a youthful researcher for [Richard] Wright, she matured into an inspirational teacher at Jackson State University, where she preserved the spirit of her forerunners, the intellect and the flowing phrase, but she still belongs most with the Black poets whose careers span the last forty years. Her strengths are not the same as theirs. Margaret Danner's poetry has a quiet lyricism of peace, a deeply controlled introspection. No one else shows her delicacy of alliteration and her carefully framed patterns. Dudley Randall's success comes from the ballad, whose alternating lines of short and longer rhythms communicate the racial turmoil of the sixties. He profits from a touching and light innocence as well as a plea and longing for the child's inquiring voice. Purity for him, too, marks an eternal type.
In For My People Walker develops this and other paradigms in three sections . . . . The reader experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity, trickery, and deceit of men and women alike; finally, the significance of physical and spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the visionary poem, the folk secular, and the Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets. She opposes quest to denial, historical circumstances to imaginative will, and earthly suffering to heavenly bliss. Her poetry purges the Southern ground of animosity and injustice that separate Black misery from Southern song. Her themes are time, infinite human potential, racial equality, vision, blindness, love, and escape, as well as worldly death, drunkenness, gambling, rottenness, and freedom. She pictures the motifs within the frames of toughness and abuse, of fright and gothic terror. Wild arrogance for her speakers often underlies heroism, which is often more imagined than real.
The myth of human immortality expressed in oral tale and in literary artifact transcends death. The imagination evokes atemporal memory, asserts the humanistic self against the fatalistic past, and illustrates, through physical love, the promise of both personal and racial reunification. The achievement is syntactic. Parallelism, elevated rhetoric, simile, and figure of speech abound, but more deeply the serenity of nature creates solemnity. Walker depicts sun, splashing brook, pond, duck, frog, and stream, as well as flock, seed, wood, bark, cotton field, and cane. Still, the knife and gun threaten the pastoral world as, by African conjure, the moral "we" attempts to reconcile the two. As both the participant and observer, Walker creates an ironic distance between history and eternity. The Southern experience in the first section and the reclamation in the second part frame the humanity of folk personae Stagolee, John Henry, Kissee Lee, Yallah Hammer, and Gus. The book becomes a literary artifact, a "clean house" that imaginatively restructures the Southland.
But if Dudley Randall has written "The Ballad of Birmingham" and Gwendolyn Brooks "The Children of the Poor," Walker succeeds with the visionary poem.4 She does not portray the gray-haired old women who nod and sing out of despair and hope on Sunday morning, but she captures the depths of their suffering. She recreates their belief that someday Black Americans will triumph over fire hoses and biting dogs, once the brutal signs of white oppression in the South. The prophecy contributes to Walker's rhythmical balance and vision, but she controls the emotions. How does one change brutality into social equality? Through sitting down at a lunch counter in the sixties, Black students illustrated some divinity and confronted death, just as Jesus faced his cross. Walker deepens the portraits by using biblical typology, by discovering historical antitypes, and by creating an apocalyptic fusion.5 Through the suffering in the Old and New Testaments, the title poem of For My People expresses Black American victory over deprivation and hatred. The ten stanzas celebrate the endurance of tribulations such as dark murders in Virginia and Mississippi as well as Jim Crowism, ignorance, and poverty. The free form includes the parallelism of verbs and the juxtaposition of the present with the past. Black Americans are "never gaining, never reaping, never knowing and never understanding."6 When religion faces reality, the contrast creates powerful reversal:
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 play-
mates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia
Through biblical balance, "For My People" sets the white oppressor against the Black narrator. Social circumstance opposes racial and imaginative will, and disillusion opposes happiness. Blacks fashion a new world that encompasses many faces and people, "all the adams and eves and their countless generations." From the opening dedication (Stanza 1) to the final evocation (Stanza 10) the prophet-narrator speaks both as Christ and God. Ages ago, the Lord put His rainbow in the clouds. To the descendants of Noah it signified His promise that the world would never again end in flood. Human violence undermines biblical calm, as the first word repeats itself: "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."
[ . . . . ]
The religious types in the second and third sections of For My People rival neither those in the first section nor those in Prophets for a New Day. When Walker ignores biblical sources, often she vainly attempts to achieve cultural saturation.7 Without biblical cadences her ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In "Yalluh Hammer," a folk poem about the "Bad Man," she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money.
1. See Paula Giddings, "Some Themes in the Poetry of Margaret Walker," Black World (Dec. 1971), 20-34. Although it fails to emphasize the importance of literary form, the essay gives a general impression of historical background and literary tradition. (back to text)
2. See Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni, A Poetic Equation: Conversations (Washington, D.C.: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), 56. Through logic Walker has the better of the friendly argument. (back to text)
4. Poems mentioned, other than those by Walker, are available in Dudley Randall, The Black Poets (New York: Bantam, 1971). (back to text)
5. See Joseph Greenborg, Language Typology (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); Paul J. Korshin, "The Development of Abstracted Typology in England, 1650-1820," in Literary Uses of Typology, ed. Earl Miner (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977); Mason I. Lawrance, "Introduction," The Figures or Types of the Old Testament (New York: Johnson, 1969); Roland Bartel, "The Bible in Negro Spirituals," in ibid.; Sacvan Bercovitch, Typology and American Literature (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972); Emory Elliott, "From Father to Son," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Theodore Ziolkowski, "Some Features of Religious Figuralism in Twentieth Century Literature," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Ursula Brumm, American Thought and Religious Typology (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970). (back to text)
6. Primary texts used are Margaret Walker, For My People (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977) and Margaret Walker, Prophets for a New Day (Detroit: Broadside, 1970). (back to text)
7. See Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 62-66. (back to text)
From R. Baxter Miller, "The 'Intricate Design' of Margaret Walker: Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 118-35.
Excerpt from the "Introduction" to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology
Published in October 1942, the forty-first book in the [Yale Younger Poets] series, Walker's For My People went through six cloth editions with Yale and has been in print elsewhere ever since. Like [Muriel] Rukeyser's volume, For My People, has had an impact on a wide spectrum of writers. Readers often react to Walker's book as they do to Whitman's Leaves of Grass (a book that strongly influenced her), feeling that if it speaks for one people, yet it speaks to people everywhere, engaging each of us on grounds at once aesthetic and moral. For My People is standard in black studies curricula, but writers involved in the agon of social change in all areas have taken it to heart. Walker's book is expressly concerned with racial constraint, but it has traveled beyond ethnic barriers.
From George Bradley, introduction, The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, ed. George Bradley (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) l.
Margaret Walker's signature poem is "For My People." Widely anthologized in Black collections and often read at dramatic presentations, it is the work most closely associated with her name. Some years ago, when I was involved in compiling an anthology of ethnic literature for high schools, the editor (white) refused to permit us to include this poem. It was too militant, he said. The man was unutterably wise: the poem thrusts to the heart of Black experience and suggests a solution that would topple him and the culture he represents from its position of power. White response to African American literature is often, and for obvious reasons, diametric to Black response; this poem is indeed a case in point.
"For My People" exemplifies Walker's use of Black myth and ritual. The poem first evokes the two mechanisms which have never been a source of strength to Black folk: music and religion. But even in the first stanza is implied a need to move beyond historical roles, for the "slave songs" are sung "repeatedly," the god (lower case) to whom the people pray is "unknown," and the people humble themselves to "an unseen power." Then the poem catalogues the rituals of the toil which consumes the life of the people, hopeless toil which never enables one to get ahead and never yields any answers. The stanza jams the heavy tasks together without commas to separate them, making them all into one conglomerate burden: "washing, ironing, cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting . . . . " The poem rushes by, as indeed life rushes by when one must labor "never gaining never reaping never knowing and never understanding. . . ."
Walker now changes focus from the general to the specific--to her playmates, who are, by extension, all Black children playing the games which teach them their reality--"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 . . . . " She shows us the children growing up to a woeful miseducation in school, which bewilders rather than teaches them, until they discover the overwhelming and bitter truth that they are "black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood . . . ." The children grow, however, to manhood and womanhood; they live out their lives until they "die of consumption and anemia and lynching.
The poem then returns to the wide angle of "my people" and continues its sweep of Black experience, cataloguing the troubled times wrought by racism.
The form of the first nine stanzas supports their message. Rather than neat little poetic lines, they consist of long, heavily weighted paragraphs inversely indented. The words and phrases cataloguing the rituals of trouble are separated by "and . . . and . . . and." There is little punctuation. Each stanza begins with a "for" phrase followed by a series of modifiers. Finally the long sentence, with its burden of actions and conditions, ends with one short, simple clause which leaves the listener gasping: "Let a new earth rise." Five words. Strong words, each one accented. Five words, bearing the burden of nine heavy stanzas, just as Black people have long borne the burden of oppression.
The final stanza is a reverberating cry for redress. It demands a new beginning. Our music then will be martial music; our peace will be hard-won, but it will be "written in the sky." And after the agony, the people whose misery spawned strength will control our world.
This poem is the hallmark of Margaret Walker's works. It echoes in her subsequent poetry and even in her monumental novel Jubilee. It speaks to us, in our words and rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.
From "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret Walker." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evan. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1984. Copyright � 1984 by Anchor Press.
Return to Margaret Walker
"While in Washington, I won my first poetry prize...I wrote many poems...They always seemed good when I wrote them and, usually, bad when I would look at them again. So, most of them were thrown away."
I spent the first ten years of my writing life trying to be Langston. Because of one essay. It was classic Langston. Bold and correct, harsh and funny. He called it "How To Be A Bad Writer." Published over a half century ago, it is a wonder (and a sorrow) that its literary lessons still ring true. This, of course, is the phenomenon that defines Langston Hughes: the ability to speak truth that lasts. An inherent remembering of one man's words that moves beyond all circumstance. A small Black man with a timeless knack for making folks the world over laugh to keep from crying.
James Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and raised by his grandmother. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico with his father. His life experiences during his formative years were wide and varied: college student, assistant cook, launderer, busboy, and seaman--traveling to Africa and Europe.
During the early 1920s, Black Washington--home to Alain Locke, Angelina Grimké, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Sterling Brown--was experiencing a literary rebirth. In the fall of 1924, the 22-year-old Hughes decided to give collegiate life a second chance, moving to Washington, D.C. to enroll at Howard University. He lived at first with relatives in LeDroit Park, then moved to 1749 S Street NW, and later to a room at the YMCA just south of U Street (still standing; now the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage at 1816 12th Street NW).
After college, armed with a liberal arts degree and a passion for literature and theatre, I made my way to Washington, DC--via Greensboro, NC, and Norfolk, VA--to put my creative skills to use--as a waiter at Bennigan's Restaurant. But I was not deterred. The tips were good, and there were plenty of starving artists waiting tables with whom I could discuss my plans. The primary goal was to publish my poetry and start a performance troupe grounded in the neo-revolutionary ideals and energy of the Hip Hop Generation. (At least, that's what the press release stated.) So it was quite a bold move to feature, in my first community theatre production, the verse of Langston Hughes. Not quite the hip hop, Hughes's poetry nonetheless struck a chord with the audience almost 70 years after it was written. As evidence, one need only read "Montage of a Dream Deferred," still the most insightful and accurate portrayal of Black life (and strife) in America.
While in Washington Hughes worked a number of jobs, hoping to earn enough money to afford the tuition at Howard. (In 1926 he would enter Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia, instead. Lincoln was less expensive, and was where his friend and fellow poet, Waring Cuney, was also a student. He graduated from Lincoln in 1929.) The two years he spent in the District were lonely and somewhat unhappy times for the poet, but a very productive period for his writing. During this time he published his first prose, "Mexico Games," in Brownie's Book, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's periodical for children. Hughes accepted an advertising job at the Black weekly, The Washington Sentinel, worked at a laundromat, and eventually landed a coveted position as assistant to historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
During his leisure hours he spent time on Seventh Street NW. Along the storefronts, he observed ordinary Black people eating fish sandwiches and barbecue. Seventh Street residents were poor but lively. They shot pool and told tall tales. Here, Hughes saw something else of interest. People sang and played the blues. Although the songs were happy or sometimes sad, they often contained the theme of the underdog moving on despite social unrest. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, "I tried to write poems like the songs on Seventh Street...Their songs...had the pulse beat of a people who keep on going."
After leaving the job with Dr. Woodson (Hughes complained that the work hurt his eyes), he landed a gig at the Wardman Park Hotel as a busboy. (This hotel still exists, as the Marriott Wardman Park at 2660 Woodley Rd., NW.) Hughes wrote feverishly, starting many new poems and finally completing several old ones. One of those poems, "The Weary Blues," he slipped to famed Russian poet Vachel Lindsay, then a guest at the Wardman Park. Due to the city's segregated policy, Hughes was unable to attend the poet's reading in the auditorium. The next day, Hughes read an article in a Washington daily with the headline "Russian Poet Discovers Negro Bus Boy Poet." Even though Hughes had been writing for years, the publicity brought new celebrity that did wonders for his career in poetry. Soon after, he would win the famed Opportunity Magazine poetry contest, and, with the assistance of his pal Carlo (Carl Van Vechten), receive a publication deal from Blanche Knopf for his first collection of poems, The Weary Blues.
Inspired by the creative productivity of Hughes, I set out to do the write thing. Between 1994 and 1998, I wrote and published four books and produced four plays. For myself and many of my fellow poets in the Washington area, Hughes was our Shakespeare. We emulated his jazzy poetic stylings. Conversed about his ideas and ideals. Speculated about his sexuality. He was who we aspired to be. Literally, and literarily. When my first book was published in August of 1994, I gave Bennigan's my two weeks' notice and set out to take my poetry on the road. Teaming with an artist friend for the next six months, I drove halfway around the country reading, performing, selling books and artwork--at colleges such as Duke University and Fisk University, and also theatres, coffeehouses, churches, and the occasional home of friends and friends of friends. Book tours were not in vogue yet, but I learned this bit of guerrilla marketing from two men and a Ford in 1926.
Hughes wrote in the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander: "...I did not want a job. I wanted to continue to be a poet. Yet sometimes I wondered if I was barking up the wrong tree. I determined to find out by taking poetry, my poetry, to the people...I began to write to the presidents of all the Negro colleges in the South. Almost immediately, answers came back from several institutions offering to book me...I bought a Ford. But I could not drive, and I had no license. I found a former classmate of mine at Lincoln University, Radcliffe Lucas...He could drive and had a good business head, I knew, because he had worked his way through college running a weekend taxi service...So we set out about five o'clock one October morning, headed South. The back seat of the car was filled with luggage and books of mine to sell on tour. I carried along also a large number of books by other contemporary Negro writers for a cultural exhibit. As we left Harlem the sun was rising. All was well."
Most readers know Hughes by his poems, such as "Mother to Son" and "Dream Deferred." My first introduction to The Black Bard of Harlem came via his plays. In college we staged "Soul Gone Home," a one-act play about the relationship between a mother and her dead son, and "Limitations of Life," a parody of the 1930's film Imitation of Life. Later, we would take his blues-inspired poems, which were obviously "mini-musicals", and stage those as well:
I woke up this morning
'Bout half past three
The doctors and undertakers
Both at my do'
Sweet gals was a moanin'
Sylvester's gonna die
And a hundred pretty mamas
Bowed their heads to cry...
("Sylvester's Dying Bed")
While compiling pieces of Hughes's work for a theatrical celebration in 1993, a writer friend of mine ran across a book entitled Simple's Uncle Sam. This collection of stories, featuring the hilarious musings, pseudo-intellectual rants, and plain commonsense riffs of one Mr. Jesse . Semple, originated as a column in the Chicago Defender. Semple, also known as Simple, was the unchained voice of Black America during the Jim Crow era. As we read these stories, nearly a hundred or so, we were amazed at how the content was still relevant--racial profiling, war, unemployment, Black leaders, police brutality, Black vs. white colleges, etc.--50 years after Hughes had written them. We realized that the Simple stories were ripe for the stage, with the consistent barroom setting of each story, the running plot line of Simple's relationship woes, and the high-brow and sophisticated humor that was characteristic of Langston Hughes. That year, we produced the first of three tributes to Hughes's Simple stories: Jazz Jive & Jam at the Gunston Arts Center Black Box Theatre in Arlington, VA. In 1998 we produced Simpleminded at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. And as if to complete our Metro-area Simple assault, we staged a new Jesse B. Semple adaptation as part of the Morgan State University Reading Series in 2003. The Simple stories are by far the most wondrously meaningful writing I've ever read. My favorite is "Feet Live Their Own Life":
"These feet have stood on every rock from the Rock of Ages to 135th and Lenox. These feet have supported everything from a cotton bale to a hongry woman. These feet have walked ten thousand miles working for white folks and another ten thousand keeping up with colored. These feet have stood at altars, crap tables, free lunches, bars, graves, kitchen doors, betting windows, hospital clinics, WPA desks, social security railings, and in all kinds of lines from soup lines to the draft. If I just had four feet, I could have stood in more places longer. As it is, I done wore out seven hundred pairs of shoes, eighty-nine tennis shoes, twelve summer sandals, also six loafers. The socks that these feet have bought could build a knitting mill. The corns I've cut away would dull a German razor. The bunions I forgot would make you ache from now til Judgment Day. If anybody was to write the history of my life, they should start with my feet...Do you see that window in that white man's store across the street? Well, this right foot of mine broke out that window in the Harlem riots right smack in the middle. Didn't no other foot in the world break that window but mine. And this left foot carried me off running as soon as my right foot came down. Nobody's else's feet saved me from the cops that night but these two feet right here. Don't tell me these feet ain't had a life of their own."
As I've matured in my writing, two things have become clear to me: First, a good writer must be courageous enough to share the soul eternal. To speak truth, and do it in a way that makes the reader feel something other than what was felt before. Secondly, a great writer must write all the time, until that last bit of juice is squeezed from the lemon, and even then, she must find another lemon. This is the sweetness of life that Langston has taught and brought us.
A writer of novels, short stories, plays, operas, librettos, television and film scripts, children's books, lyrics, essays, reference manuals, as well as poetry, Langston Hughes moved to Harlem, suitcase in one hand, with a rich cast of Black Washington's characters and unforgettable experiences to flavor his writings for decades to come.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway...
He did a lazy sway...
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He plays that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied--
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Selected Books by Langston Hughes
The Panther and the Lash (poetry, 1967)
Simple's Uncle Sam (fiction, 1965)
Five Plays by Langston Hughes (drama, 1963)
Something in Common and Other Stories (fiction, 1963)
Ask Your Mama (poetry, 1961)
Best of Simple (fiction, 1961)
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry, 1959)
Tambourines to Glory (fiction, 1958)
Famous Negro Heroes of America (biography, 1958)
The Langston Hughes Reader (anthology, 1958)
Simple Stakes a Claim (fiction, 1957)
I Wonder As I Wander (autobiography, 1956)
The Sweet Flypaper of Life (fiction, 1955)
Famous Negro Music Makers (biography, 1955)
Famous American Negroes (biography, 1954)
Simple Takes a Wife (fiction, 1953)
Laughing to Keep From Crying (fiction, 1952)
Montage of a Dream Deferred (poetry, 1951)
Simple Speaks His Mind (fiction, 1950)
One-Way Ticket (poetry, 1949)
Fields of Wonder (poetry, 1947)
Shakespeare in Harlem (poetry, 1942)
The Big Sea (autobiography, 1940)
The Ways of White Folks (fiction, 1934)
The Dream-Keeper (poetry, 1932)
Not Without Laughter (fiction, 1930)
Fine Clothes to the Jew (poetry, 1927)
The Weary Blues (poetry, 1926)
Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes (two volumes), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988
Maureen Honey and Venetria K. Patton, eds., Double-take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Brian Gilmore, "The Seventh Street Blues: DC Colored the Life of Langston Hughes, Born 100 Years Ago This Week," The Washington Post, January 27, 2002.
Also see The Literary Traveler: http://www.literarytraveler.com/langstonhughes/langstonhughes.htm.