Follow Harriet on Twitter
For Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker, accomplished poet and onetime Chicagoan, died fifteen years ago this month. Walker has been an important influence on many poets working today, from Amiri Baraka to Nikki Giovanni, but she remains less well-known than some of her contemporaries, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Walker came to Chicago in the 1930s to study at Northwestern University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of nineteen. She first appeared in Poetry just a few years later, in November 1937. That poem was “For My People,” one of her most famous:
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learnto know the reasons why and the answers to and thepeople who and the places where and the days when, inmemory of the bitter hours when we discovered wewere black and poor and small and different and nobodycared and nobody wondered and nobody understood.
You can hear Margaret Walker reading “For My People” on the Bronzeville section of our Chicago Poetry Tour Podcast.
That poem became the title poem of Walker’s first book, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1942. She was the first African-American woman to win such a national literary competition. For My People was so popular that only a year later it was already in its fourth printing. Nelson Algren reviewed the collection in Poetry in February 1943, finding Walker “intense and forthright without being oratorical; she is terse and demanding without loss of rhythm. She depends upon meanings more than metaphysics.”
Walker met Algren while working with the WPA’s Writer’s Project in Chicago. She found a home in Chicago’s arts scene at the time, which included Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham, Frank Yerby, and others. During that time she went on to publish two more poems (“The Struggle Staggers Us” and “We Have Been Believers”) and two reviews in Poetry. If you want to hear more about Chicago’s African-American poetry community, Ed Hermann’s radio documentary “Confronting the Warpland: Black Poets of Chicago” offers a rich trove of readings and background information.
You can read about Walker’s long life and career on her biography page, where we feature several more of her poems. To delve even further, head over to Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center, where they are at work digitizing her papers.