Margaret Walker Alexander, a poet, novelist, biographer, and essayist, was groomed from birth for a literary life. She entered the world on 7 July 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama, joining an educated and gifted family: her grandfather, father, and mother all received college degrees and expected the same of their children. She finished elementary school by the age of eleven and graduated from high school by fourteen to attend the University of New Orleans. She received a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University before attending the University of Iowa for graduate school, receiving a master’s in 1940 and a doctorate in 1965. She and her husband, Firnist James Alexander, had four children.
Alexander belonged to an illustrious group of African Americans writing in the 1940s. Her college poetry was published in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis, and she was the first African American writer to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Her true literary career began, however, with the publication of her first book of poetry, For My People (1942). In her first published poem, “Why I Write,” which appeared in Crisis when she was just nineteen, Walker made clear the connection between her life as a poet and the voices of African Americans. The poem begins, “I want to write / I want to write the songs of my people / I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark.” “For My People,” her best-known, most-loved, and most-often-recited poem, is a work for African Americans: she writes of their beauty, wisdom, music, religion, anger, frustration, certainties and uncertainties, hopes, and determinations. The poem opens, “For my people everywhere singing their slave songs repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees,” and ends with a flourish that recalls biblical language: “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.”
Alexander’s most critically acclaimed work is her only novel, Jubilee (1966). Jubilee won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award and breathed new life into her career, igniting new academic interest in her poetry. Jubilee follows Alexander’s great-grandmother from slavery to her new life after Reconstruction, developing a major theme in her work: black people’s ability to overcome obstacles. Alexander believed that she was a social activist, fighting for the rights of African Americans. “I’m always looking back in order to understand what’s happening today, and what may happen tomorrow,” Alexander said in an interview. “If we understand yesterday, then we know what’s happening tomorrow.”
Alexander’s other literary endeavors include Prophets for a New Day (1970), October Journey (1973), and A Poetic Equation: Conversations between Nikki Giovanni and Margaret Walker (1974). She also published two collections of essays, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays of Life and Literature (1990) and On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992 (1997). In Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (1988), Alexander offers a biography of her famous friend and literary contemporary.
Alexander also dedicated herself to education, serving as a professor of English at Jackson State University for thirty years before retiring in 1979. Alexander played an integral part in building the university’s humanities and honors programs, but her most lasting effort was the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People, which she founded in 1968 and which was later renamed the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center. Her work is the subject of a lively and growing body of scholarship. She died in Chicago on 30 November 1998 at the age of eighty-three.
- Carolyn J. Brown, Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker (2014)
- Hazel Carby, in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (1989)
- Joanne V. Gabbin, Callaloo (1999); Maryemma Graham, African American Review (Summer 1993)
- Maryemma Graham, ed., Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker (2001)
- Robert A. Harris, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)
- The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Spring 1999)