Margaret Walker (b. 1915)
Contributing Editor: Maryemma Graham
Classroom Issues and Strategies
When she won a major award (the Yale Younger Poets Award), Walker was put in the public eye, but her writing always had a public dimension to it. Students might want to explore the pressures a writer would face if he or she were called upon to speak from more than a singular perspective. Can general experience form an urgent literary message? Can the students detect any change in Walker's style from the earlier poems and those published in the 1980s?
In the language of her novel, Jubilee, the rhetoric is shaped in part by a need to be informative about a subject that many people had never explored or even considered. In her poems, the use of "public" forms of expression--chants, litanies, and sermons--to generate structure as well as feeling should be explored and compared/contrasted with the novel.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Freedom--in all its simplicity and complexity--is clearly the main subject of Walker's work. Much of her writing is informed by the experience of the Great Depression (she was fourteen years old when the stock market collapsed), and so racial freedom and economic freedom are intermingled in her consciousness. In some ways, the promise of post- Reconstruction political freedom for African-Americans (and equally important, the nonfulfillment of that promise) stands behind her "call" to both the future and the past. The concern with hope and tradition-- neither being ultimately satisfying by itself, but both being indispensable for a full consciousness of the story of her people--is a personal focus as well as a subject matter she must engage.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Clearly, the poetry uses forms drawn from sermons and chants, the so-called "folk" tradition. Yet Walker was an educated, trained writer who spent years perfecting her craft. Students should be encouraged to examine precisely how the poetic structures are adapted and where they are altered in the expression of a more "modern" consciousness.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The novel should be compared to the various slave narratives, some of which are available in Volume 1 of The Heath Anthology, providing a useful contrast between "first-person" and "third-person" narrative frameworks. Also, the poems and the novel both can be read in the context of Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who begin the "Modern Period" in Volume 2. Here especially the theme of balancing the acknowledgement of past oppression and future hope can be fruitfully unfolded.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Does the passage from the novel read exactly like a newspaper account, or what is sometimes called "feature journalism"? If not, where does it most differ?
2. What effect is created by using specific names in the poems when the "general" context of the poem's language is so dominant?
3. Look at Langston Hughes's poetry and compare his use of rhythms and idioms to that of Walker.