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Margaret Walker

When fame is not enough: Margaret Walker and the twentieth-century South

It is hard for most of us to imagine a young Black girl growing up in the Black Belt South in the early twentieth century aspiring to be a writer. Even though revisionary attempts by white Southern critics who claimed a Southern Renaissance with William Faulkner as a leading figure had succeeded in masking some of the South’s harshest realities, most knew there were at least two Souths. That harsh reality existed, but it was not Margaret Walker’s South.

Although her family struggled financially, Walker experienced a nurturing culture, an excellent education despite segregation, and a sense of dignity and worth within a multigenerational household. Failure was not an option. What others might have seen as lacking, Walker never did. She had the ability and needed the opportunity to become whatever she wanted. At 15, she met the poet Langston Hughes, who was on a speaking tour of Negro Colleges. He had one message for her family: “Get her out of the South.”

What happened over the next decade, except for the one year she and her sister had to sit out school due to financial reasons, was a dream come true. She could not have been better positioned for the career she wanted. Studying under poets associated with the new modernist poetry movement meeting W. E. B. DuBois, who published one of her first poems in The Crisis magazine, Walker had enhanced her education beyond the average person.

Fully immersed in Chicago’s left politics and culture, she balanced her idealism with the social realism that was singularly important for any writer’s career at that time. We now know that Chicago was as influential as Harlem, New York, in launching the careers of prominent Black writers and the first golden age in Black America.

A few years after she met Harriet Monroe, leading critic, editor, and patron of the arts, Walker’s most famous poem, “For My People,” appeared in Poetry, the most prestigious journal of the period. It became the name of her first collection, winning a national award. 

Writing The Life of Margaret Walker

The House Where My Soul Lives: The Life of Margaret Walker is the complete, authorized biography of America’s first award-winning Black writer. The biography follows Walker throughout her career, marriage, birth of four children, and another award-winning publication, Jubilee, in 1966. The novel opened the door to a new era of American publishing and Black writing—the neo-slave narrative.

I was expecting a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s life like any other biographer when I began to interview Walker late in her life. After several years of working closely with her, I discovered what it means to become the custodian of someone’s story. Each visit left me with more questions than answers. Although she was still vibrant, actively organizing and leading significant events, another story had emerged, and another journey was nearly complete. Many thought her early return to the South before the publication of For My People had damaged her career, but I realized how much it had rescued and restored her. Chicago had brought a vibrant life and transformed her worldview despite a failed relationship, culminating in her success as a writer. The literary fame she quickly acquired she just as easily exchanged for motherhood and marriage, even as she would publish 10 more books. The North asked her questions; the South gave her answers and an identity that she could comprehend fully.

“The North asked her questions; the South gave her answers and an identity that she could comprehend fully.”

Walker became an entire generation’s most famous midwife. Everyone knew her, went to her for advice, claimed an affinity with her, and dared not cross her. It didn’t take me long to see that Walker was a new model, especially with the appearance of more and more Black women writers. She was a champion for them and gave new meaning to the idea of a Southern woman writer. She could claim it all: writer, teacher, scholar, mentor, sister, daughter, wife, and mother.

What had replaced her desire for fame? Why had a writer with two award-winning books become almost invisible on the literary scene when she died in 1998? The writing was there, I would discover. I had already begun to read the unfinished work in her archives at Jackson State University: unpublished manuscripts, outlines of sequels to Jubilee, historical studies, multiple versions of her autobiography, more poetry, political writings of various sorts, and a long list of essays derived from speeches she’d given over the years.

A critical essay, “On Being Female, Black and Free,” made a single appearance that started me on my journey to uncover why fame was insufficient. I stumbled upon a memorable quote:

“As a woman, I have come through the fires of hell because I am a black woman, because I am poor because I live in America, and because I am determined to be both a creative artist and maintain my inner integrity and instinctive need to be free.”

I had seen this intense side of her many times, but what particular claim to freedom did she have?

“Walker was a champion for Black women writers and gave new meaning to the idea of a Southern woman writer.”

I was uncovering a path—Walker’s discovery of a more profound passion and a larger story she saw herself creating. “For My People,” her signature poem, was a promise and fulfillment. Walker sought to make an impossible mission possible because of her choice to live in the South. She wanted the freedom to do something new, the message that came through clearly. Her extraordinary knowledge, perseverance, and access as a writer could produce more than books. But could it change how other people saw the South and Southerners saw themselves?

Settling in the majority-Black city of Jackson, Mississippi, had given Walker a distinct advantage. She rediscovered where she belonged and saw herself as a bridge for others to cross over. That bridge extended to writers like herself and a community that her presence helped to uplift. She knew how easy it was to affirm a distaste for the South: its violence and racial norms, regional differences and Jim Crow politics, white gentrification at the expense of black poverty, and its preoccupation with religious values that disguise all forms of ethical backsliding.

Walker’s oppositional tactics began to work almost immediately. Resisting the all-too-common narratives about the South, she reimagined a progressive world and developed a custodial relationship to it, inventing new relationships that required acts of human engagement. She believed we don’t need to leave the South to transform ourselves; we only need to develop deeper connections to the place and its people. Walker’s branding of complex, multicultural, interdisciplinary space in a multi-vocal South allowed her to become a “Twentieth-Century Voice from the South.” The reference was to an 1892 book by Anna Julia Cooper that had raised parallel questions about the role of women.

For the 50 years between 1942 and 1992, in her published work, speeches, and every gathering she oversaw, Walker created an inseparable connection between the South and the rest of America, challenging the perceived notions of a people and a place as unliveable and unbearable. She refuted the idea of a closed society with openness, mobilizing those who displayed literary and artistic excellence and those who had become high-level political operatives. Jackson State University was a regular meeting place for writers and artists, politicians and global activists, religious leaders, and educators with an agenda for change. Walker provided America with a new model. Today, we’d describe Walker’s methods and practice as the “public humanities” and producing new forms of knowledge to guide us as “engaged scholarship.” Her vision was interdisciplinary, and she remained committed to Martin Luther King’s idea of a “beloved community.” The recognition came from everywhere, including Mississippi and President Jimmy Carter. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, Walker was one of the most revered women of her time.

“Walker created an inseparable connection between the South and the rest of America, challenging the perceived notions of a people and a place as unliveable and unbearable.”

Ultimately, that beloved community was not hers to have. While she was famous, she was not known as a great author. She took great satisfaction in believing and demonstrating that the South could show us a better way. But the version of humanity that Walker saw was yet to be. Her idealism blinded her even as she warned us of an increasingly inhumane world overtaken by greed and corruption. In her later essays, she did not hesitate to call out the sexist, racist, and fascist tendencies she saw. She told us to watch out for those who viewed themselves outside this culture’s pale. Acts of commission are too often linked to acts of omission.

In Walker’s case, it was the realization that her love for and dedication to the South could not protect her. Her values, her ethics, and her belief in humanity were being tested. Two instances stood out: her suit against Alex Haley for plagiarizing Jubilee and Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, her 1986 biography of the famous writer she had known well. The public condemnation of her reflected powerful outside forces threatening her excellent work and reputation. The later proof that Haley had plagiarized her work and that of others made no difference. The damage done was most visible in the negative reception the Wright biography received. Despite her best intentions, Walker had gone from the height of fame to infamy. Her family alone stood by her.

In Margaret Walker’s story of self-making and remaking, I understand what can happen when fame alone is not enough.

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