Black History Month is not a time to remember the mistakes of our nation, not a time to revel in the restraints of our past. It is a time to build on the strengths that hoisted up and bolstered the progress of a people, to commemorate the incarcerations that we escaped. During Black History Month, we remember the black men and women, from slavery until the Civil Rights Era, that existed, stifled by an air hung with the horrors of lynchings. We remember the black men and women that survived, lamenting the lore of injustices heard and seen. Margaret Walker Alexander was one such woman, daring to raise her voice for these muted masses of blacks, narrating their sullen sentiments.
Widely known as a Mississippi writer, Margaret Abigail Walker Alexander actually began life in Birmingham, Alabama. The year, 1915, welcomed Margaret into the world. She was born to parents, Sigmund C. Walker and Marion Dozier Walker. The methodist minister and his wife doted on their daughter, filling Margaret’s life with religion and philosophy. After the family moved to New Orleans when Margaret was ten, the city became new background to her childhood. Her parents began careers as teachers at New Orleans College and fostered a familiararity with poetry that lead to Margaret's influence from the black writers of the time. The essay, "My Idol Was Langston Hughes", details Margaret's early interest in black literature and poetry. Talking of her youthful affinity for Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers, Margaret is quoted as saying: "As a small child in the 1920s, I was very much affected by the Harlem Renaissance. As early as age eleven, I had read poetry by Langston Hughes.”
Margaret completed her early education in the city of New Orleans. The website, www.ibiblio.org, informs that: "Walker completed her high school education at Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, Louisiana. She went on to attend New Orleans University (now Dillard University) for two years.” During her studies, Margaret was confronted with the world of social conflict around her. Margaret was maturing amid the despair of the Great Depression and a city of disinfrachised blacks searching for work and hope. Margaret heard many black leaders and writers address the state of the black race at that time. In the essay, "My Idol Was Langston Hughes", Margaret recalls: "In that early period between
age ten and seventeen, I saw and heard in lecture recitals Langston Hughes and
James Weldon Johnson, and Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes. These were significant events in my life." After meeting Margaret and reading her writings, Langston Hughes urged Margaret's parents to send her to the North to complete her schooling. Following Langston's urgings, Margaret would spend her final, undergraduate years at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. The transfer was a defining change in Margaret's lfe and she and Langston Hughes became close friends.
In 1935, Margaret graduated from Northwestern University and, in 1936, she "began working with the Federal Writer’s Project along with writers such as Frank Yerby and Gwendolyn Brooks", according to the website, www.olemiss.edu. Later, in 1942, Margaret received her Master's degree in Creative Writing from The University of Iowa and, in turn, reached back to set her collective experiences to paper in the poem, For My People. Her words were colored by the scenes of segregation and unemployment that her surroundings had been wrought with. The website, www.olemiss.edu, further denotes that Margaret was awarded the Yale Award for Young Poets for her efforts in writing the poem.
Already a nationally noted writer, Margaret ended her time abroad and came to roost in Mississippi in 1943, marrying her husband, Firnist Alexander, and mothering their four children. Her subsequent tenure as professor of literature at Jackson State University; the writing of the critically acclaimed novel, Jubilee, in 1966; and the founding of The Institute for the Study of History, Life, and Culture of Black People (now The Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center) in 1968 has forever deemed Margaret Walker Alexander a Mississippi writer and sealed her association with distinct, Mississippi women writers like Eudora Welty and Alice Walker.
Mississippi has repeatedley honored its adopted citizen. There is a library and a street in the city of Jackson dedicated to Margaret in her namesake. Although Margaret's voice was quieted in 1998 when she died of Breast Cancer, the words that prodded a people still ring clear.