Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker
An interview about Song of My Life
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 Life reintroduces 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 novel Jubilee, received numerous lifetime achievement awards, and was a beloved faculty member for three decades at Jackson State University in Jackson,
“Carolyn Brown’s biography of Margaret Walker is a rich and timely addition to the scholarship and general public appreciation and understanding of one of the great American authors of the twentieth century. Over the course of her life and career, Margaret Walker produced indelible literary creations like her award-winning poem ‘For My People’ and her celebrated novel Jubilee, but she also stood at the heart of the Black Arts Movement and a nascent Black Studies Movement. As Brown shows us, committed to both the arts and activism, Walker founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now named in her honor) at Jackson State University, where she spent thirty years on the faculty, in order to guarantee the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of the African American experience. Passing on the mentorship she received from the likes of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, Walker lifted a new generation of artists into prominence, from Sonia Sanchez and James Baldwin to Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison. Now, Brown has helped lift Walker into the national consciousness, where she so richly deserves to belong.” Robert Luckett, director of the Margaret Walker Center and assistant professor of history at Jackson State University
"Song of My Life is a timely reminder of Walker’s importance to the South and to the nation in the century that she did not live to see. Opening up discussions that too many might think old-fashioned, like family loyalty and intellectual honesty, for example, Carolyn Brown has given us a book for all ages—sensitively written, preserving the integrity of the subject, and painfully accurate. The documentary format brings us directly to Walker as if she were still with us. I highly recommend this book, especially for anyone who has never heard of Margaret Walker." Maryemma Graham, PhD. Distinguished Professor of English, University of Kansas, Founder and Director, The Project on the History of Black Writing, and author of Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker
"Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker is a beautifully written portrait of one of the great figures in southern literature. Margaret Walker excelled as a writer, teacher, and mother during her long,productive life. Carolyn Brown offers a unique window on Walker and helps us understand both her struggles and her impressive achievements." William Ferris, author of The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists