". . . For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to be Man and Women, to laugh and dance and sing and play and drink their wine and religion and success, to marry their playmates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia and lunching . . ."
-from "For My People," by Margaret Walker, 1937.
Margaret Walker Alexander, the writer who sued Alex Haley last week charging the author of "Roots" with plagarism of her Civil War novel "Jubilee," has been a respected scholar and quiet force in American letters for more than three decades.
So it was considered out of character by her friends and intimates for this 61-year-old writer to generate the headlines that some thought smacked of bitterness. Her suit claimed Haley had copied parts of her southern family's story that has had 22 printings in the paperback alone since it was published in 1966.
From her outpost in the nonliterary center of Jackson, Miss., Walker has viewed the world with optimism, candor and intense feelings about the spiritual alliance among black writers. She has said, "Black literature is connected like a chain with people who are influential in one period knowing and influencing folk in the next."
O rare, usually private, occasions, resentment has surfaced about the successes of other writers. She has seen varying dimensions of recognition go to her contemporaries, including Saul Bellow, her Northwestern University classmate, now Nobel laureate, Walker was a close friend of Richard Wright whose pioneering novels of urban and political problems reached broad audiences and the best seller lists of the '40s and '50s. More recently she discussed research methods with Ernest Gaines, whose "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," translated into an award-winning television event.
Some literary watchers suggest that the success of "Roots," a work written in the oral history-geneological genre she reintroduced in recent times through "Jubilee," has upset her partly because of the sexism she feels black women writers have faced. "Black women have always been tokens" in the publishing world, Walker said at a conference of black women writers in 1973. "The textbooks haven't included them, no matter how well received or critically acclaimed they were."
Reached at her home where she is director of the Institue for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black Peopl at Jackson State College. Walker refused to comment on the suit but chatted enthusiastically about other projects. She was busy correcting final examination papers. "I'm not any busier than usual," she said. "I've given about seven lectures around the country lately and have been getting a lot of citations. But I don't get a chance to do half the things I want. There isn't time."
Several times during her life, Margaret Walker has experienced a renaissance.
Her first writing efforts grew out of the interest of Langston Hughes, the renowned poet, and Richard Wright. Both took in her work during their employment with the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project in Chicago in the late '30s.
In 1937 her famous poem, "For My People," was publsihed, and five years.
Shortly after World War II, Walker and her husbahe then published her first volume of poetry, giving it the title of her prize-winning poem. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote the introduction and it was a best-seller for 16 years.
Shortly after World Warr II, Walker and her husband, Firnist James Alexander, an interior decorator, moved to the South. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Walker taught at black colleges in North Carolina and West Virginia, before joining the faculty of Jackson State 24 years ago.
Very comfortable in her dual roles of teacher and mother of four, Walker began to shape the history of her family, especially the story of her great-grandmother in Georgia, into a novel. When "Jubilee" was publsihed it was translated into French, Spanish, German and Swedish and eventually sold over a million copies. A writer for The Saturday Review said Walker had "reversed the picture completely" of the black stereotypes traditionally found in the Civil War novel.
On an unexpected visit Margaret Walker's home on the outskirst of Jackson, last year, the writer was charming, frank, and always philosophical. Her home is crowded with paintings, many gifts from black artists, records and books. In an hour, Walker had cooked from scratch, collard greens, bar-b-qued-chicken, biscuits and strawberry shortcake. As she held court at the dining room table, sipping ice tea long into the humid night, she revealed the same down-homeness of her raspberry-colored Christmas letters.
At one point she discussed Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" and said that a publishing salesman once told her that if Walker had been a white, "Jubilee" would have had more promotion and would have been a runaway best seller like GWTW, but the story is related matter-of-factly, not bitterly.
Though she has considered herself a teacher first, Walker's literary output and her lecture appearances have been considerable. Her other books include "Prophets for a New Day" (1970), "October Journey" (1973), and "A Poetic Equation" (1974), an extemporaneous discussion between Walker and poet Nikki Giovanni publsihed by Howard University Press. For the past few years Walker has been working on a biography of Richard Wright and on her own autobiography."Those projects I let slip," she said yesterday, "because I wanted to see Jackson State though its Centennial Year."
The philosophy she passes on to her students is the essence of a woman who has lived with words.
"If you're going to be a revolutionary in the arts or elsewhere," she once told her students, "Please have something to say."