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Margaret Walkers For My People

Written in 1939, but published in 1942, when Margaret Walker was just 22 years old, For My People was rejected three times before winning the Yale Younger Poets competition (Graham, 1999, p. 37). Walker came into writing on the tail end of the era known as the Harlem Renaissance. A period in history from 1919 through the mid 1930s, that turned out a lot of writing from the Harlem district of New York, predominantly populated by African Americans. For My People, was Walkers first work in a lifetime of great accomplishments. It was with this poem that she began her theme of civil non-violent organization and action for her people. Born in Alabama, Walker knew of the struggles of the African American people. She was one of them and wrote For My People from the perspective of member, observer and omniscient being to her people. She could see where they were headed as a culture if they did not heed her challenge. Let a race of men now rise and take control, (Walker, 2001, p. 135). Literary Devices Walkers father was a Methodist minister and an influence on her style of writing. Written in a free verse style, For My People, invokes the writing styles of folk narrative and lyrical sonnet. Verse after verse begins with an anaphoric declarative For my, often people, but includes playmates, cramped bewildered years, and boys and girls, Walkers poem reads like a song whos strength is in its repetition (Walker, 2001, p. 134). Walker drives home her point utilizing these devices, that her people need to come together and rise as a coherent cultural group taking a stand in society, otherwise they will continue to be ignored. When we discovered we were black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood; The free verse style of no set metrical pattern gives strength to this poem with its chanting prose of repetition. washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging (Walker, 2001, p. 134). The verse is stated without commas, without hesitation, without any iambic pentameters. For My Peoples, language style and word choices depict a specific image in the readers mind. The image is an exhausted African American cooking and cleaning without hesitation or commas in their lives. Even the choice of the word dirges for example is used in the first stanza and the last to conjure an image in the readers mind. their dirges, and their ditties and their blues and jubilees, praying their prayers to an unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an unseen power; and let the dirges disappear (Walker, 2001, p. 135).

A dirge is a funeral song or tune, or one expressing mourning in commemoration of the dead (dirges, Collins English Dictionary, 2011). The reader imagines the African Americans in a group praying over the death of one of its members. Walker points out what has gone wrong in her culture with the drinking, poverty and laziness. She is mourning for her culture, which pushes her to be so compelled to end of the poem with a charge for them to stand up and rise. Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky (Walker, 2001, p. 135). Dirges are very common in African culture and embedded in the dirges, moreover, are cultural beliefs and practices (Ogede, 1995, p. 79). The dirges are used to teach the African people about their values, histories and to teach lessons. Walker invokes the power of the African dirges to teach her people, here in America. Teaching them how to overcome their slave histories and to use them to fuel their passion for a better life. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth, she states on lines 43-44. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear, she adds on lines 46-47. Closing on lines 47-48, let a race of men now rise and take control (Walker, 2001, p. 135). Walker is telling her people to stop grieving for themselves and to take action. The use of free style verse, repetition and anaphoric declaratives are not the only literary devices used by Walker to construct this powerful poem. The poem is written in 10 stanzas. The first 9 all begin with the anaphoric declarative of For my, but the tenth is different. The final stanza begins with Let a new earth rise (Walker, 2001, p. 135). When this poem was written in 1939, it was at the end of a very politically charged decade in the African American culture. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was going very strong, the Great Depression took place from 19291939 and the New Deal took place in 1933, which began the changes for civil rights (Coleman, 2010, p. 200). It was also from 1919-1924 that two key figures in African American history took a public stance on calling upon their people to stand up and rise in a non-violent civil disobedience like manner. W.E.B Dubois and Marcus Garvey both started the back to Africa movement known as the Pan-Africanism Movement and Zionism (MBayo, 2004, p. 22). Both of these men, along with all of the political changes taking place, changed the climate of the African American community, so when Walker wrote For My People in 1939, she was writing with this all in mind. Each stanza reads as though it were a year in the life of the African American community within the years 1929-1939. The final stanza, her

closing arguments, and call to action are in the same spirit that the nation was calling upon her people. Margaret Walker saw what ten years looked like, sitting idle in the face of the most politically charged decade they had seen to date. Walker declared a call to action. Let a race of men now rise and take control (Walker, 2001, p. 135).

In Closing From the rich history that Margaret Walker brings to the table, to the politically active decade preceding its birth, For My People is a poem that transcends time. Although written in 1939, this poem is still invoked today in civil rights marches. During the very tumultuous 1950s and 60s, the African American community reached out to this poem as an anthem to lead its people into the future. For My People, builds off of the lesson that one must know their past in order to make better choices for the future. The old adage that one must know their history or they are doomed to repeat it is key to the success of Walkers community. She talked to her people about where they came from, what they were doing and where they were going. Margaret Walkers theme in this poem is still alive and well, Let a new earth rise (Walker, 2001, p. 135).

Dr. Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander's contributions to American letters--four


volumes of poetry, a novel, a biography, and numerous critical essays--mark her as one of this country's most gifted Black intellectuals. These accomplishments, as well as fellowships and awards that she has earned, garner her much deserved praise, but they are even more remarkable given that she achieved most of them after 1943 when she was a college professor and a wife and mother of four children. Although the cumulative demands of these pursuits would have broken the spirit of others, Walker prevailed, and in so doing reached beyond her advantaged middle class background to strengthen her race by leaving them (and all of us) a nurturing literary legacy. Walker was born on July 7, 1915, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, a well educated minister, and mother, a music teacher, provided an environment in which their daughter thrived. Walker completed her B.A. at Northwestern University (Illinois) when she was only nineteen, and while living in Chicago, she was affiliated with several important writing groups. During the depression, she worked for the Federal Writers' Project and contributed a dialect piece, "Yalluh Hammuh," whose

folk hero would later appear in For My People (1942). As a member of the South Side Writers Group, Walker was a close colleague of Richard Wright. Walker completed her M.A. at the University of Iowa by writing For My People, a work for which she later became the first African American to win the Yale Younger Poets award. For My People also establishes Walker as a key player in the tradition of American female activist poets who used their work to champion marginal groups. Like Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Joy Davidman, and Muriel Rukeyser, Walker challenges a socio-economic hierarchy by advocating a more equitable system for disadvantaged people. Walker, however, gives her poetry a different twist by showcasing African Americans as emblems of the working class. She also broaches the controversial issue of using revolution or non-violence to effect change and in the last analysis opts for the latter. For My People consists of three parts, each of which is written in a different verse form: free verse, folk narratives in the ballad tradition, and sonnets. Part I is the beginning of a middle class female'sbildungsroman that collapses class distinctions as the speaker aligns herself with different groups of common Blacks and discovers her vocation as a political poet. As she imaginatively interacts with these people, they provide the impetus for her development, and as her vision matures, they become more powerful. Thus, the speaker and the groups reciprocate and augment each other's growth, a dynamic illustrated by the following sequence of poems. In "Southern Song" and "Sorrow Home," the speaker expresses her longing for the South which she re-visions as a place of freedom and beauty for African Americans. Because she has freed up emotionally, she has the capacity to imagine herself and Black field hands as courageous, self-sufficient people taking back the land that they believe is theirs ("Delta"). Although this vision initially exhilarates the speaker, it also causes her to take stock of her actual character. In "Lineage," she realizes that she lacks the strength of her grandmothers who, even though they stoop and follow plows, are robust women who bring the land to fruition. Moreover, the emotional strength of their singing complements that of their bodies, and their uttering "clean words" implies a wisdom consisting of moral truth and its practical application in daily affairs. By admitting that she lacks her grandmothers' strength, the speaker acknowledges these women as role models, and in "Since 1619," she begins emulating them within the parameters of her own experience. She scrutinizes her life by admitting her complicity in her people's oppression and then poses questions about wisdom that aggressively reshape her grandmothers' practical and moral virtues: When will I see my brother's face wearing another color? When will I be ready to die in an honest fight? When will I be conscious of the struggle--now to do or die? When will these scales fall away from my eyes?

What will I say when days of wrath descend: When the money-gods take all my life away: When the death knell sounds And peace is a flag of far-flung blood and filth? (5-12) The speaker not only emphasizes her need for practical knowledge that will enable her to assess people and events, but she also questions if she has the courage to remain faithful to her own group when she is tested. If her mettle is sufficient, she will emulate the Black defenders in "Delta" and like her grandmothers "utter clean words." When the speaker resolves to challenge tyrants, she claims both kinds of virtues. Because the speaker's imagined perceptions progressively empower herself and poorer Blacks, she gradually closes the gap between different classes of African Americans and vows to become a political poet who will defend all marginal people regardless of their race. In Part II, Walker also ensures that the Black community does not replicate a socioeconomic hierarchy that privileges status or wealth by interrupting her speaker's journey with a series of folk narratives that give voice to less educated Blacks. These tales are related by speakers whose speech patterns range from virtually replicating standard English to a vernacular that B. Dilla Buckner describes as subject-verb disagreement, dropping auxiliary verbs, and using double subjects and folk pronunciation ("Folkloric Elements in Margaret Walker's Poetry" 375). These tales have further political repercussions because Walker encodes revolutionary actions in the behavior of people who are physically small, but who exert immense energy or strength. However, Walker emphasizes that human beings are still vulnerable because character flaws can thwart them or because they cannot completely control any situation. Although Walker lauds the folk for their bravery, martial abilities, and quick wits, her caveats are important because they imply that the revolution lauded in "For My People" and "Delta" must yield to non-violent behavior. For example, the speaker who relates how Stagolee killed a policeman augments the hero's prowess by referring to his facility with knives and his escaping a lynch mob. By emphasizing that "nobody knows how Stagolee dies," he suggests that Stagolee defied the dominant culture by avoiding all attempts at apprehension and punishment, and then he makes him a supernatural figure whose ghost haunts "Old Man River" around New Orleans. Other forceful characters such as Kissie Lee and Trigger Slim confront the power structure, or tricksters such as May and Poppa Chicken outwit others or beat the system at its own game. However, Walker tempers their potency with defeated figures who fail to channel their energy in constructive ways or who are overcome by life which just is more powerful than any human being: Gus, a lineman who handles live wires and survives electrocutions, dies of drunkenness when he falls into a river and drowns, and Big John Henry, who has immense physical strength and

conjuring powers, is killed in a freak accident when a ten pound hammer falls on him and splits him in two. These real world limitations suggest that unlike the mythological Stagolee, human beings--including revolutionaries--are not invincible and can be killed. Because violence would exact too high a price on African Americans and by extension all working class people, the middle class speaker reappears in Part III and embraces peaceful means to change the status quo. Especially in "Our Need" and "The Struggle Staggers Us," she advocates a community of people who accept each other and actualize the moral and practical virtues of her grandmothers: Courageous, honest and reflective people who devise ways that ensure a better life for others are her alternative to revolutionaries. Although For My People is a first book, the well crafted poems and carefully thought out politics establish the work in its own right and also signal the productive career that Walker would create. She married Firnist James Alexander in 1943 and remained professionally active until her death on November 30, 1998. After teaching at various Black colleges, Walker accepted a position at Jackson State College (now University) in 1949 where she taught until her retirement. At Jackson, she also founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People which has been renamed in her honor. During the 1940s and 1950s, Walker researched and drafted a Civil War novel that she completed as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa (1962-65) and which was published asJubilee in 1966. Walker then returned to poetry. Prophets for a New Day (1970) was her contribution to the civil rights movement, and it was followed by a small volume, October Journey (1973) and an anthology of verse, This Is My Country: New and Collected Poems(1988). In A Poetic Equation (1974) Walker and Nikki Giovanni collaborated in discussions of literary and political issues. Walker continued mastering different genres, this time with the biography The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright: A Portrait of the Man, a Critical Look at His Works (1987). To date Maryemma Graham has edited several volumes of critical essays that Walker wrote throughout her career: How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (1990) and On Being Female, Black, and Free(1997). For My People is available from Ayer Company Publishers. By Donna Allego The analysis of For My People is excerpted from Donna M. Allego. The Construction and Role of Community in Political Long Poems by Twentieth-Century American Women Poets: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Joy Davidman, Margaret Walker, and Muriel Rukeyser. Diss. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1997. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997.