- Belonging to History:Margaret Walker’s For My People
My own interpretation [of Walker's novel,
Jubilee,] is that it is not only historical,
but also, and primarily, Historical. . . .
"Historical," in this sense, is a metaphor
for the unfolding of the Divine Will. . . . In
this view of things, human doings are only
illusions of a counterfeit autonomy;
[in Walker's novel] agents (or characters) are
moving and are moved under the aegis of a
Higher and Hidden Authority.—Hortense J. Spillers1
Readers of Margaret Walker's poetry and fiction have found it relatively easy to characterize (and occasionally dismiss) her work as simply the vehicle for a grand historical vision, while critics who have read her with greater care have often appeared somewhat perplexed in their efforts to discern the mechanism through which such a vision is actually rendered articulate and legible. One of her most astute readers, Hortense J. Spillers, interprets Walker's celebrated first novel, Jubilee (1966), as a supremely allegorical vision. Although she is justly attentive to the fact that Walker anchors each element of her narrative in a broad and significant historical context, Spillers also underscores the problem of how—due to the very magnitude of this context, with all of its implications—the task of interpretation repeatedly runs up against the challenge of separating, identifying, and reliably distinguishing between the specific strands of Walker's figural discourse. For example, Spillers notes that "Walker adopts a syntax and semantics [End Page 1083] whose meanings are recognizable in an explanation of affairs in human time. But these delegated efficacies register at a deeper level of import so that 'nature,' for instance, is nature and something more, and character itself acts in accordance with the same kind of mystical or 'unrealistic' tendencies" (Spillers 100–01). Spillers here points to the particular difficulty that readers encounter when they attempt to analyze the conceptual generality of Walker's key terms ("nature," "character"), and I find much to agree with in her assessment of the apparently mystical tendencies of Walker's language. Yet how might one understand the individual, conceptual movements of Walker's work as something more than—that is to say, without having to reduce these movements to—an instance of historical allegory? To take Spillers's example, how might the concept of "nature," invoked so frequently in Walker's texts, be interpreted as "something more" without framing the interpretive gesture, from the start, through the conventions of the allegorical mode? In other words, what might be gained from the attempt to account more precisely for the movement, or operation, of a passage from "part" to "whole," an operation which is so often taken for granted (or otherwise overlooked) as a self-evident theme of Walker's work? Indeed, if one were to track this operation through each of its stages, would it still resemble a movement from part to whole, strictly speaking, or would it, instead, reveal itself to be something wholly other?
In its conception, description, and presentation of a "people," Walker's first volume of poems, For My People (1942), can be read as a series of imaginative rememberings, or representations, of what it might mean, historically, to be and to belong to a people. The volume is divided into three parts.2 Part I poses questions about the formal construction of historical knowledge, Part II offers examples of historical figures ("folk" heroes), and Part III interiorizes and reflects on the transition effected between Parts I and II—the movement from historical knowledge to its production and depiction in examples. Throughout the volume, Walker explores the implications (temporal, spatial, and epistemological) of what it means to imagine historical "ideals," asking, further, what it means to see oneself as participating in and belonging to the "same" fabric of historical determinations—whether these are construed as primarily racial, economic, sexual/gendered, or national in character. In my reading of the volume, I will attend to a particular motif which surfaces in various forms and contexts in her poems: interruption. My concern with this motif is to account for the different ways it shapes, undermines, or reinforces what Walker [End Page 1084] understands as the process...