Criticism On For My People


Criticism On For My People Essay, Research Paper

Stephen Vincent Ben?t, Editor

Excerpt from the Foreword to For My People


directness, reality are good things to find in a young poet. It is rarer to find them combined with a

controlled intensity of emotion and a language that, at times, even when it is most

modern, has something of the surge of biblical poetry.

And it is obvious that Miss Walker uses that language because it comes

naturally to her and is part of her inheritance. A

contemporary writer, living in a contemporary world, when she speaks of and for her people

older voices are mixed with hers–the voices of Methodist forebears and preachers who

preached the Word, the anonymous voices of many who lived and were forgotten and yet out

of bondage and hope made a lasting music. Miss

Walker is not merely a sounding-board for these voices–I do not mean that. Nor do I mean that this is interesting and moving

poetry because it was written by a Negro. It

is too late in the day for that sort of meaningless patronage–and poetry must exist in

its own right. These poems keep on talking to

you after the book is shut because, out of deep feeling, Miss Walker has made living and

passionate speech.


Have Been Believers," "Delta," "Southern Song," "For My

People"–they are full of the rain and the sun that fall upon the faces and shoulders

of her people, full of the bitter questioning and the answers not yet found, the pride and the disillusion and

the reality. It is difficult for me to read

these poems unmoved–I think it will be difficult for others. Yet it is not only the larger problems of her

"playmates in the clay and dust" that interest Margaret Walker–she is

interested in people wherever they are. In

the second section of her book you will find ballads and portraits–figures of legend,

like John Henry and Stagolee and the uncanny Molly Means–figures of realism like Poppa

Chicken and Teacher and Gus, the Lineman, who couldn’t die–figures of "old Man

River, round New Orleans, with her gumbo, rice, and good red beans." They are set for voice and the blues, they could

be sung as easily as spoken. And, first and

last, they are a part of our earth.

Miss Walker

can write formal verse as well; she can write her own kind of sonnet. But, in whatever medium she is working, the note

is true and unforced. There is a deep

sincerity in all these poems–a sincerity at times disquieting. For this is what one American has found and

seen–this is the song of her people, of her part of America. You cannot deny its honesty, you cannot deny its

candor. And this is not far away or long

ago–this is part of our nation, speaking.


Stephen Vincent Ben?t, foreword, For My People, by Margaret Walker, Yale Series of

Younger Poets. 41. ed. Stephen Vincent Ben?t

(New Haven: Yale UP, 1942) 5-6.

Elizabeth Drew

Excerpt from "The Atlantic Bookshelf"


is often argued that the critic’s business is to judge poetry entirely as poetry; but

poetry cannot exist apart from its subject matter, and most of the subject matter of this

volume has a specific interest. It evokes

immediately in the reader the whole social and human situation in America between the

colored and the white peoples.

Miss Walker

speaks in a variety of verse forms. The poem

which gives its name to the volume uses a chanting rhythm, Biblical in pattern but

entirely modern in vocabulary; there is a section of rhyming ballads, creating character

sketches of figures of legend or reality; and there are original experiments in the sonnet

form. All have a peculiar genuineness of tone

quality–the quality of the speaking voice, not of literary artifice.


Elizabeth Drew, "The Atlantic Bookshelf," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1942: 166.

Leon Whipple

Excerpts from "Songs for a Journey"


reviews Edna St. Vincent Millay's The Murder of Lidice, Margaret Walker's For My

People, Franklin P. Adams' Innocent Merriment, and Alfred Noyes' The Edge of

the Abyss.]

Chant and

ballad, ode and elegy and hymn–we stand in need of such communal poetry, of songs that

will release our emotions and voice our hope for the union of peoples, after war. We do not mean battle-songs or paeans of victory,

but the poems that become our common prayer. The

poetry we seek–and know not where to find–is that of the true maker who can, by the power of his feeling and the

glory of his word, sum up the national ethos,

and the national suffering, and bestow upon the heroic event a universal and timeless

meaning. The communal poets of the Bible

created a people and a faith. Whittier and

Walt Whitman and Lincoln, the poet, spoke a vision for America. Today, the occasions for poetry are supreme and

worldwide, not in the deeds, but in the spirit of men: in the men of Dunkirk and the

people of Russia, in all the Expendables, in the tragedy of refugee and guerilla. Is not the dream of the four freedoms worth

celebration? Do not the very words, United

Nations, challenge an ode of a poet of the inter-nation, from China, or India?

Prose will

not do–even though Mr. Churchill, not as war-leader, but as voice of the British people

in peril, spoke with magnificent eloquence, and Vice-President Wallace proclaimed the

noble creed within many hearts. The

journalist has recorded better than ever before the courage and sacrifice of plain men,

but his words fade with the day. The

advertiser, publicity man, and propagandist, rouse our emotions, but for small or

ephemeral ends. We distrust them, and the

politician, even when they speak truth.

The people

now discipline themselves to endure in silence, with the stoic courage that is ever their

glory. Men go to war, into silence, and

silence fills their homes. What man or woman

can say what each suffers? The poet can, and

can offer catharsis for the emotions that endanger the spirit. We need the comfort of sharing in communal hymns

that may soften loss and endow senseless death with meaning. The poet can restore our faith and vision. Poets are the final creators of morale.

. . .

The poems

of Margaret Walker of Alabama are communal singing, distilled from the long suffering of

her race, that holds in memory the bitter past–and questions today. This is American poetry for Americans, and beyond,

for all races that suffer in bonds, the disinherited of the earth who seek now their

heritage. What modern lines hold deeper

meaning than these?

The struggle staggers us

for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.

And this is more than fighting to exist;

more than revolt and war and human odds.

There is a journey from the me to you.

There is the a journey from the you to me.

A union of the two strange worlds must be.


is universal poetry–Asia and Africa echo this plea.

What a proof of the miraculous power of impassioned language! What a mystery of Providence that this young girl

can speak for millions! Because she does not

speak for herself.


wisdom has deep roots, deeper in southern life than the roots of its people, she declares,

because of her communion through blood and bone with sun and earth. From the Delta the blood-line runs back "to

the tropical lands of my birth that, on return to Mobile, may reconcile the pride and pain

in me." With this emotion she composed

the title poem, "For My People," an epitome of Negro sufferings and weakness,

both a history, and an indictment. Again she

speaks for many Peoples: "trying to fashion a world that will hold all people, all

the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations."


verse form is compressed, yet free. This poet

returns to the Bible. "The controlled

intensity of emotion and the language have something of the surge of biblical

poetry," says Stephen Vincent Ben?t, in his fine introduction to this volume in the

Yale Series of Younger Poets. The spirituals,

too, have lessoned her tongue, and the personal ballad and work song to which she gives a

sardonic moral twist in the odd characters of Molly Means or Bad-Man Stagolee. She has confronted life in streets and fields, and

by her genius enlarges experience into universal symbols that arouse emotion. Such poems can help save the future from the past.


Leon Whipple, "Songs for a Journey," rev. of For My People, by Margaret

Walker, Survey Graphic, Dec. 1942: 599.

Arna Bontemps

Excerpts from "Let My People Grow!"

Margaret Walker, the young colored woman whose poems are the latest to be

included in the series [Yale Series of Younger Poets], comes forth, however, with the

anachronous assumption that poets are entitled to be heard on the problems of living in a

real, hard-time world of depression and war. She speaks for a minority group, the one to

which she belongs, to the majority; and it would be interesting, if one had the leisure

and inclination, to compare her findings–arrived at intuitively–with those of the


Miss Walker, for example, looks forward to the evolution of "The Great

Society" in a "world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams

and Eves and their countless generations." She sees her people rebelling against

hypocrisy–meaning, presumably, against the dissimulation by which the bitter, offended

black man is often forced to live in some sections. She marks a struggle between pride and

pain, the near-hopeless task of trying to maintain dignity under indignities. And she pins

the blame for all the distress on the "money-hungry, glory-craving leeches."

Simply put, her complaint is that her people are deceived and cheated.

The Negro’s progress, so called, his quick achievement, his contribution to music, and

all of that, leave Miss Walker quite cold.

[. . . .]

Yet there is anything but despair in "For My People":

Now the needy no longer weep

and pray; the long-suffering arise,

and our fists bleed against the bars

with a strange insistency.

[. . . .]

The ballads and sonnets of the second and third sections of this book are interesting

for other reasons. They show that preoccupation with the greater problems of her

"playmates in the clay and dust" have in no wise detracted from Margaret

Walker’s understanding of their folk ways. She has a genuine sympathy for low-down folks

like "Molly Means," "Poppa Chicken," and "Kissie Lee."

From Arna Bontemps, "Let My People Grow!," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, The New York Herald Tribune Books 3 Jan. 1943: 3.

Louis Untermeyer

Excerpt from "Cream of the Verse"


my People was one of eleven books reviewed by Louis Untermeyer in the following



Walker’s "For My People" has a double distinction: it is this year’s selection

in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and it is the first volume by a Negro to win the

competitive honor. The title is not only apt

but more than ordinarily expressive. These

are poems which reflect the individual and a race, poems in which the body and spirit of a

great group of people are revealed with vigor and undeviating integrity. The book is by no means flawless. The sonnets in the third section are loosely

rhetorical and, for the most part, commonplace. The

dialect verses which compose the second section are faltering imitations of gutter blues,

swaggering ballads, and hearty folk-stuff; they read like nothing so much as Langston

Hughes turned soft or Paul Laurence Dunbar turned sour.


first section of Miss Walker’s first book is verse of quite another genre. It is emotional but seldom hysterical,

disillusioned but not easily despondent; it is sharply contemporary and grimly

unflinching. Its occasional crudities, its

over-ready reliance on clich?s are more than balanced by the firm candor and the

intensity–an intensity so racially deep and so personally affecting that it must move any

but a determinedly careless, or callous, reader.


Louis Untermeyer, "Cream of the Verse," rev. of For My People, by

Margaret Walker, The Yale Review 32 (1943): 370-71.

George Zabriskie

Excerpts from "The Poetry of Margaret Walker"


and directly, she [Walker] speaks for the Negro, North and South, . . .

. .



is her acceptance of difference, and her ability to put it in its proper place, without

posing, without forcing a role of Negro poet in distinction to any other kind of poet

which gives her freshness of content, and the promise of becoming an important voice in

American poetry. This first section shows

rather well that she has comprehended and accepted her role as artist and artisan, and met

the challenge of her specific situation in an adequate fashion.


second section of the book, composed of ballads, is less fortunate. The ballads are, as academic artifacts, rather

remarkable. They are part of the equipment of

the technical virtuoso, proof that Miss Walker can write ballads as well as her own forms. But the writer who attempts the imitation of

traditional, popular forms is perilously close to the writer who does an imitation of

Shakespeare’s sonnets. It is possible for the

replica to be excellent, qua replica, but the division between artistic

creation and the fashioning of reproductions is a rather classic one.

[. . . .]


six sonnets which conclude the volume are additional evidence of the writer’s ability. Better than the ballads, they convey the strength

of the first part of the volume. One wonders,

considering her use of these three different forms, if Miss Walker is trying to

demonstrate a facility with verse-forms, or is a bit unsure of herself. The latter ought not to be true: she has written a

distinguished first volume, which is at once a promise of things to come, and an

achievement in itself.


George Zabriskie, "The Poetry of Margaret Walker," rev. of For My People,

by Margaret Walker, The Saturday Review of Literature, 11 Sept. 1943: 19.

Richard K. Barksdale

Excerpts from "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy"

Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the

shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa–the

master’s degree in 1940 and the Ph.D. in 1966–were granted because of her achievements in

creative writing. Her first volume of poems, For My People (1942), won the Yale

Series of Younger Poets Award and helped her to gain the master’s degree; her prize-

winning novel, Jubilee, fulfilled the central requirement for the doctorate. But

Margaret Walker’s poetry is quite different from that written by Hayden or Tolson. Many of

Hayden’s poems are full of intellectual subtleties and elusive symbols that often baffle

and bewilder the reader. Harlem Gallery, by Tolson, is often intellectually complex

and obscure in meaning. Margaret Walker’s poetry, on the other hand, is clear and lucid

throughout, with sharply etched images and symbols presented in well-formed ballads and

sonnets. It is now clear in retrospect that Hayden and Tolson were influenced by the

academic poets of the 1930s and 1940s–Ciardi, Tate, Lowell, Wilbur, Auden, Dickey. Their

poetry has an academic gloss, suggesting richly endowed libraries in the sophisticated

suburbs of learning. Only rarely do they seem sensitized to problems and dilemmas

confounding an unintellectualized, urbanized, and racially pluralistic America, a concern

which dominates Margaret Walker’s poetry.

Although Walker, too, spent all of her days in academia, she was never as a writer held

captive by it. An analysis of her poetry reveals that in subject, tone, and esthetic

texture, it is remarkably free of intellectual pretense and stylized posturing. One finds

instead the roots of the Black experience in language simple, passionate, and direct. . .


[ . . . . ]

The title poem [of For My People] is itself a singular and unique literary

achievement. First, it is magnificently wrought oral poetry. It must be read aloud; and,

in reading it aloud, one must be able to breathe and pause, pause and breathe

preacher-style. One must be able to sense the ebb and flow of the intonations. One must be

able to hear the words sing, when the poet spins off parallel clusters like

. . . 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.

This is the kind of verbal music found in a well-delivered down-home folk sermon, and,

as such, the poem achieves what James Weldon Johnson attempted to do in God’s Trombones:

fuse the written word with the spoken word. In this sense the reader is imaginatively set

free to explore what Shelley called the beautiful "unheard melody" of a genuine

poetic experience. The passage is also significant in its emphasis on repetitive

"work" words describing the age-old labors of Black people. The activities are

as old as slavery–slavery in the "big house" or slavery in the fields. Adding

"ing" to these monosyllabic word-verbs suggests the dreary monotony of Black

labor in slave times and in free times. Without the "ing," they remain command

words–enforcing words, backed up by a white enforcing power structure. And behind the

command has always lurked the whip or the gun or the overseer or the Captain or the boss

or Mr. Charlie or Miss Ann. Indeed, Black laborers, long held captive by Western

capitalism, were forced to work without zeal or zest–just "Dragging along."

Somehow they remained outside the system of profit and gain; no profits accrued to them

for their labor; thus, they dragged along, "never gaining never reaping never knowing

and never understanding." In just these few lines, Margaret Walker performs a premier

poetic function: she presents a succinct historical summary of how the Black man slipped

into an economic and social quagmire when, first as a slave and then as a quasi-free man,

he was forced to cope with the monster of European capitalistic enterprise.

Not only does For My People have word power, but it is a poem filled with subtle

juxtapositions of thought and idea. When the scene shifts from the rural South to the

urban North– to "thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New

York"–the poet describes her people as "lost disinherited dispossessed and

happy people." At another point, they are depicted as "walking blindly spreading

joy." This Donnesque yoking of opposites linking happiness with dispossession and

blind purposelessness with joy reveals the depth of Margaret Walker’s understanding of the

complexities of the Black experience. In fact, the poet here is writing about the source

of the Black peoples’ blues, for out of their troubled past and turbulent present came the

Black peoples’ song–a music and a song that guarantee that happiness and joy will somehow

always be found lurking behind the squalor of the ghetto or behind the misery of the

quarters or in some sharecropper’s windowless cabin in the flood-drenched lowlands. For

whenever there is trouble, a Bessie Smith or a Ma Rainey or a Bill Broonzy or a B.B. King

or someone with the gift of song will step forward to sing it away. . . .

[ . . . . ]

Although one cannot say that the rest of the poems in Margaret Walker’s initial volume

meets the same criteria for high poetic quality, they reflect the young poet’s sense of

"word power" and her sharp awareness of the importance of Black orature. The

poems in Part II contain a series of Black folk portraits–Poppa Chicken, Kissee Lee,

Yallah Hammuh. In many of these, one can trace the influence of Langston Hughes’ 1927

volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which contained many verses portraying

Black folk and celebrating the Black urban life style. Indeed both Poppa Chicken and

Teacher remind one of Hughes’ "Sweet Papa Vester" in that poet’s

"Sylvester’s Dying Bed." All three are sweet men–men who pimp for a living and

generally walk on the shady side of the street. There are differences, however, between

the Hughes portrait and those by Margaret Walker. Hughes’ version is comically objective.

Nowhere does the author obtrude an opinion in the brief story line, and everything, as in

any good comic routine, is grossly exaggerated. As he lies dying, "Sweet Papa

Vester" is surrounded by "all the wimmens in town"–"a hundred pretty

mamas"–Blacks and ‘brown-skins" all moaning and crying. On the other hand, both

"Poppa Chicken" and "Teacher," written in a swinging ballad rhyme and

meter, lack the broad comic touch one sees in the Hughes poem. In fact, the protagonist is

a "bad dude" and not to be taken lightly . . .

[ . . . . ]

Three other poems in Part II of For My People, "Kissee Lee,"

"Long John and Sweetie Pie," and "Yallah Hummuh" reflect a Hughesian

influence. Although all three are written in a swinging ballad rhyme and meter that Hughes

never used in his Black folk portraits, they all reveal a finely controlled and

well-disciplined narrative technique. There is just enough compression of incident and

repetitive emphasis to provoke and sustain the reader’s interest. And all of the

characters–Long John, Sweetie Pie, Kissee Lee, and Yalluh Hamma–come from the

"low-down" social stratum where, Hughes believed, Black men and women lived in

accordance with a life style that was to be treasured simply because it was distinctively

Black. Theirs is an environment filled with heroic violence, flashing knives, Saturday

night liquor fights, and the magnificent turbulence of a blues-filled weekend of pleasure

and joy. . . .

[ . . . . ]

The ballad "Long John Nelson and Sweetie Pie" presents another story which

has been repeated many times in Black folklore–the story of a very stressful romantic

relationship that ends in disappointment, separation, grief, and death. There is the

inevitable triangle involving Long John, who is ever a lover, but never a laborer; Sweetie

Pie, who cooks real good and eats far too well; and a "yellow girl," who has

"coal black hair" and "took Long John clean away / From Sweetie Pie one

awful day." The brief story ends when Sweetie Pie, her lover gone, wastes away and

dies. To historians and literary scholars, it is a story of small, almost mean,

insignificance; but to a Black folk poet interested in the rich orature of her people,

this little story opened another window on the world of the Black experience.

[ . . . . ]

One other poem in this section of For My People merits some comment. "Molly

Means" is a well-crafted poetical description of a "hag and a witch; Chile of

the devil, the dark, and sitch." . . . What is interesting about this poem is that it

was written in the mid-1930s, shortly after the period known as the Harlem Renaissance had

drawn to a Depression-induced end, but in no way does the poem reflect, in theme or in

style, the poetry of that period. Like the title poem of the award-winning volume,

"Molly Means" speaks with a new voice in Black American poetry. It is not a poem

of racial or romantic protest, nor does it ring with social or political rhetoric. Rather

it is a poem that probes the imaginative vistas where witches and elfins dwell–a poem

that demands "a willing suspension of disbelief." And, as indicated above,

"Molly Means," in its balladic simplicity, is a far cry from the carefully

cerebrated poetical statements coming from poets of the academy during the mid-1930s.

From Richard K. Barksdale, "Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical

Prophecy." Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter

Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 104-17.

R. Baxter Miller

Excerpts from "The ‘Intricate Design’ of Margaret Walker:

Literary and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History"

Margaret Walker learned about Moses and Aaron from the Black American culture into

which she was born. As the daughter of a religious scholar, she came of age in the

Depression of the thirties, and her career, like those of Margaret Danner, Dudley Randall,

and Gwendolyn Brooks, has spanned three or four decades. Much of her important work, like

theirs, has been neglected, coming as it does between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s

and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Most indices to literature, Black American and

American, list only one article on Margaret Walker from 1971 through 1981.1

Walker knew the important figures of an older generation, including James Weldon

Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. She heard Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes

sing, and she numbered among her acquaintances Zora Neale Hurston, George Washington

Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois. What does the richness of the culture give her? She finds the

solemn nobility of religious utterance, the appreciation for the heroic spirit of Black

folk, and the deep respect for craft.2

. . . She knew, too, Willard Motley, Fenton Johnson, and Arna Bontemps. Walker’s lifetime

represents continuity. From a youthful researcher for [Richard] Wright, she matured into

an inspirational teacher at Jackson State University, where she preserved the spirit of

her forerunners, the intellect and the flowing phrase, but she still belongs most with the

Black poets whose careers span the last forty years. Her strengths are not the same as

theirs. Margaret Danner’s poetry has a quiet lyricism of peace, a deeply controlled

introspection. No one else shows her delicacy of alliteration and her carefully framed

patterns. Dudley Randall’s success comes from the ballad, whose alternating lines of short

and longer rhythms communicate the racial turmoil of the sixties. He profits from a

touching and light innocence as well as a plea and longing for the child’s inquiring

voice. Purity for him, too, marks an eternal type.

In For My People Walker develops this and other paradigms in three sections . .

. . The reader experiences initially the tension and potential of the Black South; then

the folk tale of both tragic possibility and comic relief involving the curiosity,

trickery, and deceit of men and women alike; finally, the significance of physical and

spiritual love in reclaiming the Southern land. Walker writes careful antinomies into the

visionary poem, the folk secular, and the Shakespearian and Petrarchan sonnets. She

opposes quest to denial, historical circumstances to imaginative will, and earthly

suffering to heavenly bliss. Her poetry purges the Southern ground of animosity and

injustice that separate Black misery from Southern song. Her themes are time, infinite

human potential, racial equality, vision, blindness, love, and escape, as well as worldly

death, drunkenness, gambling, rottenness, and freedom. She pictures the motifs within the

frames of toughness and abuse, of fright and gothic terror. Wild arrogance for her

speakers often underlies heroism, which is often more imagined than real.

The myth of human immortality expressed in oral tale and in literary artifact

transcends death. The imagination evokes atemporal memory, asserts the humanistic self

against the fatalistic past, and illustrates, through physical love, the promise of both

personal and racial reunification. The achievement is syntactic. Parallelism, elevated

rhetoric, simile, and figure of speech abound, but more deeply the serenity of nature

creates solemnity. Walker depicts sun, splashing brook, pond, duck, frog, and stream, as

well as flock, seed, wood, bark, cotton field, and cane. Still, the knife and gun threaten

the pastoral world as, by African conjure, the moral "we" attempts to reconcile

the two. As both the participant and observer, Walker creates an ironic distance between

history and eternity. The Southern experience in the first section and the reclamation in

the second part frame the humanity of folk personae Stagolee, John Henry, Kissee Lee,

Yallah Hammer, and Gus. The book becomes a literary artifact, a "clean house"

that imaginatively restructures the Southland.

But if Dudley Randall has written "The Ballad of Birmingham" and Gwendolyn

Brooks "The Children of the Poor," Walker succeeds with the visionary poem.4 She does not portray the gray-haired

old women who nod and sing out of despair and hope on Sunday morning, but she captures the

depths of their suffering. She recreates their belief that someday Black Americans will

triumph over fire hoses and biting dogs, once the brutal signs of white oppression in the

South. The prophecy contributes to Walker’s rhythmical balance and vision, but she

controls the emotions. How does one change brutality into social equality? Through sitting

down at a lunch counter in the sixties, Black students illustrated some divinity and

confronted death, just as Jesus faced his cross. Walker deepens the portraits by using

biblical typology, by discovering historical antitypes, and by creating an apocalyptic

fusion.5 Through the suffering in the

Old and New Testaments, the title poem of For My People expresses Black American

victory over deprivation and hatred. The ten stanzas celebrate the endurance of

tribulations such as dark murders in Virginia and Mississippi as well as Jim Crowism,

ignorance, and poverty. The free form includes the parallelism of verbs and the

juxtaposition of the present with the past. Black Americans are "never gaining, never

reaping, never knowing and never understanding."6

When religion faces reality, the contrast creates powerful reversal:

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 play-

mates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia

and lynching.

Through biblical balance, "For My People" sets the white oppressor against

the Black narrator. Social circumstance opposes racial and imaginative will, and

disillusion opposes happiness. Blacks fashion a new world that encompasses many faces and

people, "all the adams and eves and their countless generations." From the

opening dedication (Stanza 1) to the final evocation (Stanza 10) the prophet-narrator

speaks both as Christ and God. Ages ago, the Lord put His rainbow in the clouds. To the

descendants of Noah it signified His promise that the world would never again end in

flood. Human violence undermines biblical calm, as the first word repeats itself:

"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."

[ . . . . ]

The religious types in the second and third sections of For My People rival

neither those in the first section nor those in Prophets for a New Day. When Walker

ignores biblical sources, often she vainly attempts to achieve cultural saturation.7 Without biblical cadences her

ballads frequently become average, if not monotonous. In "Yalluh Hammer," a folk

poem about the "Bad Man," she manages sentimentality, impractical concern, and

trickery, as a Black woman outsmarts the protagonist and steals his money.


1. See Paula Giddings, "Some Themes in the

Poetry of Margaret Walker," Black World (Dec. 1971), 20-34. Although it fails

to emphasize the importance of literary form, the essay gives a general impression of

historical background and literary tradition. (back to text)

2. See Margaret Walker and Nikki Giovanni, A Poetic Equation:

Conversations (Washington, D.C.: Howard Univ. Press, 1974), 56. Through logic Walker

has the better of the friendly argument. (back to text)

4. Poems mentioned, other than those by Walker, are available in

Dudley Randall, The Black Poets (New York: Bantam, 1971). (back to


5. See Joseph Greenborg, Language Typology (The Hague:

Mouton, 1974); Paul J. Korshin, "The Development of Abstracted Typology in England,

1650-1820," in Literary Uses of Typology, ed. Earl Miner (Princeton: Princeton

Univ. Press, 1977); Mason I. Lawrance, "Introduction," The Figures or Types

of the Old Testament (New York: Johnson, 1969); Roland Bartel, "The Bible in

Negro Spirituals," in ibid.; Sacvan Bercovitch, Typology and American Literature

(Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972); Emory Elliott, "From Father to

Son," in Literary Uses, ed. Miner; Theodore Ziolkowski, "Some Features of

Religious Figuralism in Twentieth Century Literature," in Literary Uses, ed.

Miner; Ursula Brumm, American Thought and Religious Typology (New Brunswick, N.J.:

Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970). (back to text)

6. Primary texts used are Margaret Walker, For My People

(New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977) and Margaret Walker, Prophets for a New Day

(Detroit: Broadside, 1970). (back to text)

7. See Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry

(New York: William Morrow, 1973), 62-66. (back to text)

From R. Baxter Miller, "The ‘Intricate Design’ of Margaret Walker: Literary

and Biblical Re-Creation in Southern History." Black American Poets Between

Worlds, 1940-1960. Ed. R. Baxter Miller. Tennessee Studies in Literature. 30.

Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986. 118-35.

George Bradley

Excerpt from the "Introduction" to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology


in October 1942, the forty-first book in the [Yale Younger Poets] series, Walker’s For My People went through six cloth editions with

Yale and has been in print elsewhere ever since. Like

[Muriel] Rukeyser’s volume, For My People, has

had an impact on a wide spectrum of writers. Readers

often react to Walker’s book as they do to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

(a book that strongly influenced her), feeling that if it speaks for one people, yet it speaks to people

everywhere, engaging each of us on grounds at once aesthetic and moral. For My

People is standard in black studies curricula, but writers involved in the agon of

social change in all areas have taken it to heart. Walker’s

book is expressly concerned with racial constraint, but it has traveled beyond ethnic



George Bradley, introduction, The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, ed. George Bradley

(New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) l.

Eugenia Collier

Margaret Walker’s signature poem is "For My People." Widely anthologized in

Black collections and often read at dramatic presentations, it is the work most closely

associated with her name. Some years ago, when I was involved in compiling an anthology of

ethnic literature for high schools, the editor (white) refused to permit us to include

this poem. It was too militant, he said. The man was unutterably wise: the poem thrusts to

the heart of Black experience and suggests a solution that would topple him and the

culture he represents from its position of power. White response to African American

literature is often, and for obvious reasons, diametric to Black response; this poem is

indeed a case in point.

"For My People" exemplifies Walker’s use of Black myth and ritual. The poem

first evokes the two mechanisms which have never been a source of strength to Black folk:

music and religion. But even in the first stanza is implied a need to move beyond

historical roles, for the "slave songs" are sung "repeatedly," the god

(lower case) to whom the people pray is "unknown," and the people humble

themselves to "an unseen power." Then the poem catalogues the rituals of the

toil which consumes the life of the people, hopeless toil which never enables one to get

ahead and never yields any answers. The stanza jams the heavy tasks together without

commas to separate them, making them all into one conglomerate burden: "washing,

ironing, cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting . . . . "

The poem rushes by, as indeed life rushes by when one must labor "never gaining never

reaping never knowing and never understanding. . . ."

Walker now changes focus from the general to the specific–to her playmates, who are,

by extension, all Black children playing the games which teach them their

reality–"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 . .

. . " She shows us the children growing up to a woeful miseducation in school, which

bewilders rather than teaches them, until they discover the overwhelming and bitter truth

that they are "black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody

wondered and nobody understood . . . ." The children grow, however, to manhood and

womanhood; they live out their lives until they "die of consumption and anemia and


The poem then returns to the wide angle of "my people" and continues its

sweep of Black experience, cataloguing the troubled times wrought by racism.

The form of the first nine stanzas supports their message. Rather than neat little

poetic lines, they consist of long, heavily weighted paragraphs inversely indented. The

words and phrases cataloguing the rituals of trouble are separated by "and . . . and

. . . and." There is little punctuation. Each stanza begins with a "for"

phrase followed by a series of modifiers. Finally the long sentence, with its burden of

actions and conditions, ends with one short, simple clause which leaves the listener

gasping: "Let a new earth rise." Five words. Strong words, each one accented.

Five words, bearing the burden of nine heavy stanzas, just as Black people have long borne

the burden of oppression.

The final stanza is a reverberating cry for redress. It demands a new beginning. Our

music then will be martial music; our peace will be hard-won, but it will be "written

in the sky." And after the agony, the people whose misery spawned strength will

control our world.

This poem is the hallmark of Margaret Walker’s works. It echoes in her subsequent

poetry and even in her monumental novel Jubilee. It speaks to us, in our words and

rhythms, of our history, and it radiates the promise of our future. It is the

quintessential example of myth and ritual shaped by artistic genius.

From "Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret

Walker." In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari

Evan. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1984. Copyright ? 1984 by Anchor Press.

Return to Margaret Walker

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