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  • In Memoriam: Margaret Walker Alexander (1915–1998) *
  • Joanne V. Gabbin

Margaret Walker Alexander

A Mirrored Pool of Brilliance

While not yet twenty years of age, Margaret Walker wrote a poem that signaled the trajectory of her career.

  • 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.

In a career that spanned more than sixty years, Margaret Walker fulfilled the desires of her heart, to write the songs of her people. Author of nine books including five volumes of poetry, a biography of Richard Wright, two collections of essays, and a novel, she learned to believe in the efficacy and beauty of her poetic voice. Her first book of poems, For My People (1942), which was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, is a stunning social and psychological portrait of black people during the Depression years of the 1930s and provides the first glimpse of the spiritual sensibility, morality, and humanistic vision that gave rise to her creative imagination. [End Page v] Against the violent and tumultuous landscape of Mississippi, Margaret Walker wrote poems saturated with its blood-soaked red clay, poems that revealed her love-hate relationship with the South, poems that sought to reclaim a land where the love of the soil was rewarded by southern suns, where freedom and justice would not be waylaid by mobs marauding on moonless nights, where young people whom she called “black-eyed Susans” would come to growth.

In 1966, twenty-four years after For My People, she published Jubilee, her highly acclaimed historical novel that presents slavery, the Civil War, and its bitter aftermath with honesty and insight. In the novel she combined painstaking research with the vivid stories of slave life told her by her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier. Over the long period when Walker incubated the stories, absorbed the culture and honed the skills she needed to complete this work, she took on the responsibility of wife, mother of four children, and educator. A professor of English at Jackson State University for thirty years until her retirement in 1979, she established the humanities and honors programs, taught courses in the Bible as literature and creative writing among others, organized conferences such as the historic Phillis Wheatley Festival in 1973, and founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People (later renamed the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center).

After the publication of Jubilee, Margaret Walker entered her most prolific phase, turning out Prophets for a New Day (1970), October Journey (1973), and A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974). After much personal turmoil, she completed the biography of Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988). With the editorial assistance of Maryemma Graham, she also published How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990) and On Being Female, Black and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992 (1997).

In August 1998 I visited Margaret Walker in her home in Jackson, Mississippi, on the street that bears her name. Though she was then battling the cancer that would eventually take her life, she was preoccupied with showing me her autobiography, which she had almost finished, titled Call Me Cassandra. As ill as she was, she raised herself from the brown leather easy chair that was the focal point of the room and started toward the den where the walls were lined with books and boxes of manuscripts. Her son, knowing that she could not make it there unassisted, gently guided her back to the chair. Her will to finish this work was so strong because of her belief in the prophetic role of the writer: “to write about that future that you do not see, but that is...

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