Monday, June 15, 2015

Songs of My Life: The Biography of Margaret Walker, Poet and Author of "Jubilee"

Growing up my mom would leave the books she was reading around the house and I would pick them up. Often I sat and read them through. One of those books was Jubilee, published in 1964.

I had not thought about that book in years and I knew nothing about the author Margaret Walker. When I saw a biography on Margaret Walker on NetGalley I requested it and am so glad I did. The book is short, richly illustrated, and fascinating. It is appropriate for young adult readers.

Margaret's father was a Methodist clergyman who had studied at Tuskegee Institute with classmates Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.  Her mother Marion Dozier taught music.

Margaret was a precocious child. For her ninth birthday she wrote an operetta which was performed by the local children. At ten years she was placed in the seventh grade. Margaret began writing poetry at age twelve. And by fifteen she was attending college. At Northwestern she began writing her Civil War Novel Jubilee.

At the time of her graduation the country was in the Depression. Margaret was hired by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writer's Project. Her office was near that of Poetry magazine and she connected with the editor, other writers, and most importantly novelist Richard Wright. Wright introduced her to modern literature, local writers and writers groups, and critiqued her poetry.

It was a big breakthrough was when she was accepted into the University of Iowa and their new Iowa Writer's Workshop. Stephen Vincent Benet was so impressed with her submission For My People to the Yale Series of Younger Poets he strong-armed the judges panel to give her the award; he said it was perfect.
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 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.
At twenty-seven she married Firnist James Alexander, a disabled military veteran with little formal education but who was intelligent and supportive of her career.

Her novel Jubilee had its roots in stories she heard from her grandmother Elvira Ware Dozier. She learned all she could about the Wares, even locating her grandmother's youngest sister. Receiving the Ford Fellowship allowed her to travel for her research on the novel. But from 1955 to 1962 she published nothing, focusing on family and working to support them.
It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular job and write. Margaret Walker, "How I Wrote Jubilee"
In 1961 she she returned to Iowa to complete her PhD in English with her novel as her dissertation. It provided a haven from the turmoil in the country. Her Jackson, MS neighbor Medgar Evans was assassinated in front of his home. She was shaken by the assassinations of Rev. King, Malcolm X, and President Kennedy; the Birmingham church bombing; the murders of civil rights workers; the marches and protests. She was inspired to write a series of civil rights poems.

Her dissertation adviser directed her to the songs of slavery, negro spirituals, and other folk songs which would come to inform her novel. By early 1965 she had the first draft finished, and after a few months of serious revising and cutting she obtained her degree--and a contract from Houghton Mifflin. It was the first novel about the Southern African American experience in the 19th c., and the first from a female view point.

The award-winning book was a best seller. Margaret went on to establish the first black studies program in the country. She created the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival which hosted prominent African American female writers.

In 1976 Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published and won the Pulitzer and National Book Award, spawned the first mini-series Roots, and made Haley a household name. Two lawsuits were taken against Haley for plagiarism. Margaret saw fifteen scenes, six characters, and 150 verbatim expressions from her novel in Roots. She did not win her case, but Haley did admit to plagiarism of The African by Harold Courlander and settled out of court.

Margaret continued to receive awards. She became active in politics, supporting Jesse Jackson for the presidency. She wrote a biography of Richard Wright.

I am so glad to learn more about Margaret Walker. Why have we 'forgotten' her while Haley is still a household name? I have to put Jubilee on my to-read shelf. Its been fifty years and its time to reread it.

The book has numerous photographs. I noted many taken by photographer Roland L. Freeman, who wrote the very interesting book A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and their Stories which I have in my library.

Read poems by Margaret Walker at The Poetry Foundation and the Internet Poetry Archive.

Songs of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker
by Carolyn Brown
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN: 9781628461473
$20 hardcover
Publication Date November 4, 2014

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