I like stories about women who conquer adversity to do what really matters to them. Margaret Walker is one such woman, scholar, writer, and mother of four, who succeeded in building a life for herself from humble beginnings in Alabama.
Born in 1915, she had a strong desire to write all her life. Thanks to the encouragement of her parents and their belief in providing the best education to all of their children, she was able to pursue her education, first close to home and then at Northwestern University in the Chicago area where she earned a degree in English Literature at the age of 20. While in Chicago she also belonged to a writers’ group and met a number of people who were later quite influential in her life. She then went on to complete an MFA at the University of Iowa. This sounds a lot easier than it was, in the absence of stable financial aid and continuing racial discrimination.
She also married a man who supported her in her academic career and achievement of her Ph.D., not an obvious thing for a woman of that generation, regardless of race.
Margaret Walker went on to become a published poet and novelist. Her most famous novel, Jubilee, loosely based on her family’s history, talks about the lifes of slaves before, during and after the Civil War period. Its publication predates that of Alex Haley’s Roots by about 10 years. When Roots came out, Margaret Walker found it to contain many elements from her own novel (events, characters, character’s names, etc.) She was unsuccessful in getting compensated for plagiarism, whereas another author successfully did. Alex Haley gained fame (and probably quite a bit of money) from his book sales and subsequent TV series. Not so for Margaret Walker although Jubilee has been in print since publication. It is interesting that she talked about this as a great occasion to learn about “fair use”.
Margaret Walker was instrumental in the institutionalization of the field of African American studies in the US, founding one of the first centers to focus on this at Jackson State.
This slim biography is meant for middle and high school students. It is an easy read with many wonderful pictures documenting Margaret Walker’s life. I stumbled upon this book without knowing what I was getting into and found myself unable to put it down once I started it. It does a wonderful job situating Margaret Walker’s personal journey in its historical context, highlighting the significance of her achievements as a writer and an academic within that context.
I had access to a review copy of this book through NetGalley.
Brown, Carolyn J. Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2014.