Song of My Life

Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker

Carolyn J. Brown
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Song of My Life
    Book Description:

    Margaret Walker (1915-1998) has been described as "the most famous person nobody knows." This is a shocking oversight of an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, educator, and activist as well as friend and mentor to many prominent African American writers.Song of My Lifereintroduces Margaret Walker to readers by telling her story, one that many can relate to as she overcame certain obstacles related to race, gender, and poverty.

    Walker was born in 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama, to two parents who prized education above all else. Obtaining that education was not easy for either her parents or herself, but Walker went on to earn both her master's and doctorate. from the University of Iowa. Walker's journey to become a nationally known writer and educator is an incredible story of hard work and perseverance. Her years as a public figure connected her to Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, and a host of other important literary and historical figures.

    This biography opens with her family and those who inspired her--her parents, her grandmother, her most important teachers and mentors--all significant influences on her reading and writing life. Chapters trace her path over the course of the twentieth century as she travels to Chicago and becomes a member of the South Side Writers' Group with Richard Wright. Then she is accepted into the newly created Masters of Fine Arts Program at the University of Iowa. Back in the South, she pursued and achieved her dream of becoming a writer and college educator as well as wife and mother. Walker struggled to support herself, her sister, and later her husband and children, but she overcame financial hardships, prejudice, and gender bias and achieved great success. She penned the acclaimed novelJubilee, received numerous lifetime achievement awards, and was a beloved faculty member for three decades at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-079-2
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. xi-2)
    Carolyn J. Brown
  4. 1. Childhood Creativity on Display
    (pp. 3-12)

    When Margaret Walker was a twelve-year-old girl, she received two gifts from her father which instilled a love of literature and motivated her to write. First, he gave her a small book entitledFour Lincoln Poetsthat included the poems of, most notably, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. It was, she says in her unpublished autobiography, “my first acquaintance with Langston Hughes’ poetry,” and was a seminal moment in the development of the writer, as young Margaret would have the opportunity to meet the renowned poet four years later. The second gift was a datebook in which her father...

  5. 2. Education New Orleans and Chicago
    (pp. 13-24)

    New Orleans was a city unlike any ten-year-old Margaret had ever seen before. When the family arrived by train, Margaret was immediately struck by the Crescent City’s size and urban feel. In Birmingham, the Walker family had lived on the outskirts of town; in New Orleans they lived right in its heart, near New Orleans University, where her father was teaching and where her mother would soon join the faculty as a music instructor. Although Margaret missed her big backyard with all the fruit trees, she and Mercedes liked being able to walk to their new school, Gilbert Academy.


  6. 3. Chicago Richard Wright and the South Side Writers’ Group
    (pp. 25-32)

    When Margaret Walker graduated from Northwestern in 1935, the world was in political turmoil. Margaret writes in her autobiography that “Italy was moving into Ethiopia … Civil War broke out in Spain and I remember the thirties … as a time when there were rallies held everywhere.” In Chicago, Margaret met young people, in their twenties like herself, moved to action and leaving the States to volunteer on the dangerous frontlines of these war zones. Margaret did not go, but following graduation was determined to stay in Chicago and work. For seven months, Margaret and Mercedes looked for jobs, but...

  7. 4. Chicago Life after Northwestern
    (pp. 33-39)

    Margaret Walker’s job with the Works Progress Administration was the primary source of income for the two sisters from 1936 to 1938:

    I was considered the breadwinner on WPA although Mercedes certainly had jobs, but I made the money for our food and lodging and sometimes enough to pay on Mercedes’ tuition and sometimes enough to send home to help mama and daddy with utilities and house payments and once enough to bring my very young brother to Chicago to see Joe Louis fight and go to the Regal [T]heatre to hear Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald.

    Despite their financial...

  8. 5. Iowa Writing “For My People”
    (pp. 40-47)

    Margaret Walker left Chicago in September 1939 and took a train, alone, to Iowa City, Iowa, to continue her education at the university there. The University of Iowa’s famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop officially began in 1936, and it was to this new program that Margaret was destined. When Margaret arrived, her first meeting was with Norman Foerster, professor of English, and she recalls in her unpublished autobiography that upon hearing her name and seeing her standing in front of him he “stared at me as if he could not believe his ears.” “You’re Margaret Walker?” he asked, incredulously, and she...

  9. 6. Writing Jubilee A Balancing Act
    (pp. 48-56)

    In 1942, returning on a train from a reading, Margaret met the man she would eventually marry and with whom she would spend the next thirty-seven years: Firnist James Alexander, or “Alex.” At the age of twenty-seven she had only had one serious relationship before meeting Alex. In a 1977 interview with Marcia Greenlee, Margaret revealed that she believes her mother discouraged amorous advances from suitors because she had seen too many of her siblings make unfortunate marriages, and she did not want her children to struggle as she had—marrying and having children before the age of twenty. For...

  10. 7. Finishing Jubilee Back to Iowa
    (pp. 57-64)

    In the summer of 1961, Margaret returned to Iowa looking for help with her novel. Twenty-two years earlier, when she had come to Iowa the first time to pursue her MFA, she was alone; this time she arrived with her two youngest children in tow, ages six and eleven. Even though much time had passed and her circumstances had changed greatly, Margaret knew that in Iowa she could not only find the guidance and support she needed to finishJubilee, but she also could earn the highest academic degree in her field: her doctorate in English. And, again, it was...

  11. 8. Returning Home Establishing the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People
    (pp. 65-77)

    Jubileewas finally published, but it did not make Margaret Walker a rich woman. It brought her literary fame: in addition to the Houghton Mifflin Award, Walker was presented with the Mable Carney Student National Education Association plaque for scholar-teacher of the year and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Citation for Advancement of Knowledge. The following year, 1967, she sold the paperback rights to Bantam, and the folk novel has never gone out of print. Walker jokingly remarked to friend and Jackson State colleague Dr. Alferdteen Harrison that “the royalty checks were wonderful Christmas presents,” but that she has never...

  12. 9. Legal Battles The Cases against Alex Haley and Ellen Wright
    (pp. 78-87)

    Margaret’s four children were now grown and living their own lives, and in 1975, during the month of October, the month which Margaret had stated earlier held multiple special meanings for her, she received another special gift: her first granddaughter. Joy Dale Alexander was doubly special—not only was she born in October, but she was born on the seventh day of the month, and seven, too, always was an important and lucky number in the life of the new grandmother.

    Her happiness was dampened, however, by the publication of a book in 1976 that Margaret believed stole from her...

  13. 10. Final Years Awards, Recognitions, and Unfinished Work
    (pp. 88-97)

    The last ten years of Margaret Walker’s life parallels the final decade of the twentieth century, and, perhaps appropriately, the last two published works of Margaret’s career during this time are not new works but collections that look back—essays and speeches that reflect and consider both personal memories as well as major themes and ideas of the twentieth century. Her editor, Maryemma Graham, a former student of Walker’s who edited both of these volumes—How I Wrote “Jubilee” and Other Essays on Life and Literature(1990) andOn Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932–1992...

  14. Afterword The Legacy of Margaret Walker
    (pp. 98-104)

    In a 1992 interview with Jacqueline Miller Carmichael, Margaret Walker was very clear that she wanted her papers to be stored in a center at Jackson State University bearing her name. Even when the opportunity arose for her papers to go to the Library of Congress, she was insistent that they stay at her university for all to have access to them: “And when I’m told that my papers should go to the Library of Congress, I remind them that all the Library of Congress will do with my papers is take them to the basement where they have all...

  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 105-107)
  16. Appendix 1 Chronology of Margaret Walker’s Life
    (pp. 108-110)
  17. Appendix 2 List of Major Published Works
    (pp. 111-112)
  18. Appendix 3 Major Honors and Awards
    (pp. 113-114)
  19. Appendix 4 Major Adaptations, Recordings, Editions, Dramatic Performances, and Artwork Inspired by Margaret Walker’s Work
    (pp. 115-125)
  20. Abbreviations Used in the Notes
    (pp. 126-127)
  21. Source Notes
    (pp. 128-136)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 137-139)
  23. Credits
    (pp. 140-143)
  24. Index
    (pp. 144-147)