Some left the South for better educational opportunities. Margaret Walker was pushed to leave by none other than esteemed poet, Langston Hughes. In literary circles, we call him, “Uncle Langston,” because besides advocating for the beauty and culture of African Americans long before it was fashionable, he was a very generous supporter of young black writers. Margaret Walker’s parents were in prominent positions in their academic jobs at Dillard in New Orleans, Louisiana. They invited Langston Hughes to speak to the students and while there, he generously read some of her poetry, written by her at just sixteen years old.
He told her parents that in order for her to be the writer she could become, she had to get out of the South. Even though the Walkers worked at an institute of higher learning, Hughes believed that she should leave. She left, physically, when she was only sixteen years old, to transfer her college credits to Northwestern University. She graduated three years later.
Walker was educated in the north, first at Northwestern and then later at the University of Iowa, but the culture and richness of the South never left her. While she may have left physically, she never left emotionally. Her prize-winning poetry volume, For My People, was about the beauty and wonder of the African Americans who lived in the South.
It took her nearly thirty years to write the story of her great-grandmother that became Walker’s landmark novel of historical fiction, Jubilee. The story tells of the strength and power of a slave woman in Georgia in the years before, during and after the Civil War.
Despite leaving her homeland at the behest of a famous poet, Margaret Walker felt bound to share her educational gifts. She returned to teach for her entire career at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Her migration story speaks of the same kind of generous spirit that Langston Hughes shared with her when she was just sixteen years old.
Margaret Walker died in 1998, but if she had lived, today would have been her ninety-eighth birthday. Today, I write this post to say a Happy Birthday to a legend of historical fiction featuring African American characters.
Some literary critics call Jubilee “the black woman’s Gone With the Wind.”Have you ever read Walker’s seminal work?