Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Voice of Margaret Walker

After discussing the repetitive theme of violence in Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, it is interesting to look back to Margaret Walker’s “For My People” for comparison. Written in 1939, this poem followed the emerging talent of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when black culture and art truly intertwined. Researching Walker has led me to find a theme of a non-violent call to action amongst her work. In a biography from the Poetry Foundation her writing is described as, “the first work by a black writer to speak out for the liberation of the black woman. The cornerstones of a literature that affirms the African folk roots of black American life… looking toward a new cultural unity for black Americans that will be built on that foundation.” “For My People” looked to the future with hope, aspiration, and, what seemed relatively new at that time, from a woman’s perspective. 

            I wanted to return to this poem after learning more about Walker in an attempt to better understand its meaning and purpose. Looking towards literary device as a foundation for any poem, “For My People” combines free verse narrative style with lyrical sonnet. As mentioned in her biography, Walker’s father was a minister and her mother was a musician. The inspiration for her poetic style in this poem can be tied to her upbringing. Each verse begins with “For my/the” except for the last stanza (“Let”), reminiscent of a song’s structure. In each of these verses she is calling on people, “my playmates” or “the boys and girls,” which all leads to her final call to action for these separate entities to unite. It is also important to recognize her syntax, especially her decision to exclude commas in certain sentences. When I read this poem for the second time I felt as if I could understand her voice and the power that came with these lack of commas.

            The final stanza, which begins with “Let a new earth rise,” is composed of separate sentences all beginning with “Let.” As a class, we discussed the importance of such a word- and I believe that Walker is speaking to the future by using it repetitively. She is not demanding violence or claiming that violence will bring forth unity, but rather, she is asserting that “courage,” “loving freedom,” and “strength,” more importantly, will “Let a race of men now rise and take control.” Each verse of “For My People” describes the life of the African American community within a span of time, from year to year and from struggle to struggle. Her last stanza makes a statement about the current, but more powerfully about the unforeseen future. Reflecting on a past of inaction, she declares that the young generations must set forth to make a difference. 



  1. I enjoyed reading Walker's "For My People." For me, the images were, though not particularly detailed, still poignant and touching. The poetic form reminded me of something that would be read at Church, especially because of the "For my people" and "Let" repetitions at the beginnings of the stanzas. The unifying theme of the poem also reminded me of the sense of community that religions can provide to its members. I especially like the final stanza of the poem and its urgent tone. As I was reading this poem, I imagined Walker fervently reading it aloud to an audience and an applause at the end.

    How would you compare and contrast Walker with Fanon? As you mentioned, Walker has a non-violent undertone in her work, while Fanon openly explains the important role of violence in his piece. Yet, as we discussed in class, the phrase "a race of men" in the last sentence of Walker's poem evokes Fanon's focus on manhood and humanism.

    When we start to read Malcolm X in class, I think it would be a fruitful discussion to compare him with Fanon and Walker.

  2. Your reading of Walker’s poem is subtle and attentive. I want to think a bit more about how the past is used or signaled to in this poem. I would argue that the poem does not suggest a past of inaction, but one of constant action. I think my reading underscores the ways in which we even understand resistance in day to day living. Notice her repeated use of gerunds. These verbals signify ongoing action and resist any division between the present and the past. Gerunds express action but actually function as nouns. You are write to notice the dramatic shift in the last stanza; here Walker transitions to verbs in the present tense. Do we read this shift as a division or as a gesture towards accumulation such that Walker is recognizing labor and forms of survival that can then be transitioned into active political resistance?

    Samantha brings up an interesting point in her comment. We did not spend too much time in class examining the way that Walker uses the word “race” in the final line. Race here can refer to kinship, family, to a race against time, and to race in the American context. Does Walker, like Fanon, view violence or the suggestion of taking up arms, whether this would be symbolic or actual arms, relate to the cleansing that violence can achieve as Fanon argues? Her "bloody peace" is an evocative and breathe-catching paradox.

    Your attention to the period in which we situation Walker is really spot on. For many years, scholars and other artists have not know where or how to position Walker, because the majority of her poetry was written between, what have too reductively, been thought of as the renaissances of black American literature in the twentieth century. The first is the Harlem Renaissance, in which black writers, African American, Caribbean, African, were forming a community of artistic expression and responsibility in Harlem. Their work was attracting at the time a very receptive audience in NY publishing houses and independent print publications were born in order to circulate black American literature. Well, Walker’s work does not fit into this paradigm. She was part of the Chicago school and later a Southern writer. Her work also came between the HR and WWII, the after WWII—a period dominated in our literary “history” by men: Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin. But also dominated by the novel: Ann Petry’s The Street, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Walker was a poet at the time. Walker’s poetry would also not fit into the narratives or poetics of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Nor would her work play a major role in the “renaissance” of black women’s radicalism, black feminists, in the 1970s, eg Toni Cade Bambara, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, and others; or fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, e.g. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Terry McMillan, Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid. All of this is to say that our literary histories of the 20th century are all too neat. How do these frameworks, constructed through the narratives scholarship tells, through syllabi, leave out some artists while elevating others? Moreover, how to shifts in aesthetic values impact a poet’s reputation in the academy and in the popular mind?


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