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Margaret Walker

July 7, 1915 – November 30, 1998

Inducted in 2014

Works

For My People (1942)

October Journey (1973)

This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1989)

Jubilee (1999)

How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature, Maryemma Graham, ed. (1990)

Conversations with Margaret Walker, Maryemma Graham, ed. (2002)

I want my careless song to strike no minor key; no fiend to stand between my body's Southern song—the fusion of the South, my body's song and me.

The child of parents with high hopes and expectations, Margaret Walker, just two generations removed from slavery, made her mark on American literature with four volumes of poetry, a novel, a biography and many critical essays. Her body of work included For My People (1942), the title poem winning her the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, and Jubilee (1966), a story based on her great-grandmother's life as a slave that took her 30 years to write. Both works were groundbreaking. With For My People, Walker became one of the youngest published black poets of the 20th century and perhaps the first to win a national literary prize of such note; with Jubilee, she wrote, some contend, the first truly historical black novel and became a pioneer in championing the liberation of the black woman. Her legacy resides on a reputation as one of the foremost historians of African-American heritage.

Though born in Birmingham, AL and associated with many other places throughout her life, Chicago was a source for Walker’s education and inspiration. Walker was just 19 when she received her B.A. from Northwestern University in 1935, eventually earning both her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During her several years in Chicago working with troubled, “at risk” girls for the Federal Writer's Project under the Works Progress Administration, and living on Chicago's North Side, she became a part of the South Side Writers Group and partly through that association forged close relationships with other writers such as: James Phelan, Frank Yerby and Richard Wright—a friend she would later aid in researching his landmark 1940 novel Native Son. She would later write a biography of Wright. Walker’s contribution to the FWP included a dialectic piece, “Yalluh Hammuh,” whose folk hero would make its way into the pages of For My People. Chicago yielded her more literary inspiration in the form of an Italian-American neighborhood so fascinating to her she used it as the setting and title for another novel, never to be published, Goose Island.

In 1998, Walker was inducted into the African-American Literary Hall of Fame at Chicago State University. She died of breast cancer at the Chicago home of her daughter.

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