Margaret Walker: A Writer and Poet of the Black Chicago Renaissance

Margaret Walker (b. July 7, 1915 – d. November 30, 1998).

Margaret Walker was a poet and writer of African descent born in Birmingham, Alabama. The eldest of five children, her father was Sigismund C. Walker, a Methodist minister, linguist and professor. Her mother was Marion Dozier Walker, a musicologist and professor. In 1925, Walker's family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. She underwent her early education in New Orleans, including two years of college at New Orleans University (now Dillard University). Encouraged by Langston Hughes, Walker moved to Chicago and attend Northwestern University. In 1934, she would earn her B.A. in English, with a focus on Romantic poets, at the age of 19 years. 

The home of Walker's first published poem was The Crisis magazine, published by W. E. B. Du Bois. By 1935, she was active in the South Side Writers’ Group of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Her award-winning poem For My People was first published in 1937. Walker soon became part of the thriving Black Chicago Renaissance, a cultural arts movement among African Americans that began in the 1930s. Her most well-known work is her classic novel Jubilee, published in 1966.

For Walker, Chicago was a cultural boom city.  The Great Migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago's neighborhoods brought the hope of a people to the city. While not as well known as its sister renaissance in Harlem, the movement included such famous African American writers as Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Margaret Walker and Richard Wright. Musicians active during the Black Chicago Renaissance were such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Thomas A. Dorsey and Earl Hines. Live Jazz and Blues clubs, such as the Palm Tavern, were many in Chicago's predominantly African-American Bronzeville community.

For My People

by Margaret Walker
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.

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