Margaret Walker at 100: The Century that Belonged to Her (July 7, 1915 – July 7, 2015)

“I didn’t know what poetry was until I heard her read ‘For My People.’”

“Reading Jubilee was a life changing experience for me.”

“I will never forget the speech she gave at my high school graduation.”

“Hers was the best class I took in college.”

People who are over 50 might make such comments. People under 50, however, are likely to have no such stories, no memories centered on Margaret Walker. She died in 1998, but had she lived, July 7, 2015 would have been her 100th birthday.  She would have celebrated royally, for nobody loved pomp and circumstance more than she did.

Each month since January, some institution, organization, festival or conference has paid tribute to her.  The state of Mississippi has remembered her with readings, book discussions, and exhibits, from Oxford in the North to Natchez in the South. Part of this celebratory spirit will culminate in Jackson, Mississippi, this weekend as Randy Klein brings Walker’s poetry to life in song with the support of the Jackson State Chorale and the Margaret Walker Center, her most visible legacy.

But we have to ask ourselves: how does one writer who tastes fame at an early age—Walker was 22 when she penned the poem that became her signature—drift so easily into obscurity? Many have speculated that by the end of her life, Walker was more infamous than famous. She sued Alex Haley for copyright infringement, challenging the legitimacy of Roots, a book that won every award there was, including the Pulitzer Prize. Then she dared to explain Richard Wright, a man whose genius she considered daemonic. The American legal system and the court of public opinion conducted a massive assault on her character for suing Haley.  Decades later when “The Roots of a Lie” was finally discovered, no one bothered to thank Margaret Walker. Those who agree that Richard Wright was a genius, who turned his rage and bitterness into art, rarely engage her biography of the man.

Margaret Walker was that artist who lived with and through the visions of herself and the world in which she was born. Defeat was not in her vocabulary. She was determined to rise above it, consistently filling the ancestral silence with voices, if not hers, then those of others she helped to facilitate, especially women and those “countless generations” she so famously wrote about in the closing lines of “For My People.”

Walker saw the mask of twentieth century politics, the illusions and false promises of social progress, and the disguises of postmodernism.  She insisted upon exposing those discourses that supported injustice, war, pollution, and greed.  We now know that Walker dug deeper and planned better than most, that she may well have invented the term sustainability. She was certainly environmentally aware and proclaimed the advantages and dangers of our technological age. One finds in her final volume This Is My Century ample warnings about the world that we now inhabit.

We would do well to use the centennial of her birth to look back at the 20th century through Margaret Walker’s eyes so as to better understand where we are now. Reading the past, she saw the future, but she was bound to the century of her birth and accepted its boundaries. Even if she is the most famous person nobody knows, in Nikki Giovanni’s words, she left her imprint on the 20th and 21st centuries.

We celebrate 100 years of a life well lived by a woman who showed us how to be extraordinary in an ordinary world. Walker always thought there was something special about being born on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. So close to the nation’s day of independence, she inherited a seventh sense, using it to her advantage.  Walker’s words from her 1976 bicentennial speech seem appropriate to mark this 100th year of her birth.

Let us celebrate a festival of the United States when we celebrate the
 traditions of all her peoples—multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural.  
Let us celebrate the diversity of our cultures as we celebrate together 
our nation’ s oneness, her indivisible sovereignty. Let us look ahead 
at the future as we view the horizons of today. Let us share today, let 
us set goals for tomorrow, let us secure the blessings of liberty to 
ourselves and our posterity.  Let us involve every citizen, let us lift 
up our eyes and our heads and view the utopia of tomorrow.   

   On Being Female, Black and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker 1997

Maryemma Graham