Q&A with Carolyn Brown, author of Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker

 Author Margaret Walker (1915–1998) has been described as “the most famous person nobody knows.” It is a shocking misperception of a woman who was an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, educator, and activist as well as friend and mentor to many of our most prominent twentieth-century African American writers.

Song of My Life by Carolyn J. Brown intends to reintroduce Margaret Walker to readers by telling her life story—a story that many can relate to as she overcame familiar obstacles related to race, gender, and poverty. Walker's journey to become a nationally known writer and educator is an incredible story of hard work and perseverance.

Below we talk with Brown about her inspiration to study Walker's life, her research, and her future works. 

What inspired you to write a biography of Margaret Walker?

I discovered Margaret Walker after I moved to Jackson. I remember the moment exactly. I was reading an article in the January 2012 edition of Southern Living magazine entitled “Mississippi’s Literary Trail” when I first came across her name. I was excited to see the article in Southern Living because I knew it would mention the Eudora Welty House Education and Visitors Center, a place near and dear to my heart. However, after reading the section of the article devoted to the Welty House, the story continued and said to be sure to also visit “the Margaret Walker Center, home to the nation's second largest collection of a modern black female author's papers (second only to Maya Angelou's).” I was stunned.

Who was Margaret Walker? And, why, as well read as I profess to be, do I know nothing about her? I then quickly looked for information about her online, and discovered there was no book biography about her. As I collected more and more bits and pieces about this fascinating woman, I realized that I had found my next book subject—a second important woman writer from Jackson who has been sorely overlooked yet has had friendships with many of our most well-known twentieth century African American writers, such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez.

Where did you get the title Song of My Life?

The phrase “song of my life” comes from Margaret Walker herself. In an interview she gave to Dr. Jerry W. Ward that was published in the Mississippi Quarterly in 1988, Margaret Walker is looking back on her life and talking about writing an autobiography. She had various health issues, and said “I wonder if I can live to finish it. I keep feeling that it should be the best thing I’ve ever done. It should be a very good work. I wonder sometimes if the beauty I feel I have experienced in my life can be beautifully expressed there. . . .This book about my life will not be confessional. It won’t be purely social and intellectual history. But I do want it to be a song of my life.”

I love that phrase! Sadly, Margaret Walker did not live to finish it herself, but she left pages and pages of a draft of her autobiography at the Margaret Walker Alexander Center as well as many journals (she journaled all her life) which recently have been digitized by the staff at the Center and are accessible online. It was these materials that I used, along with interviews she gave at the end of her life, to write this biography.

What were some of the most exciting items you uncovered in your research?

I loved finding evidence of her life at various institutions where she attended school. For example, I went to the archives of Dillard University in New Orleans because Margaret attended Gilbert Academy and later New Orleans University (which today is Dillard) and there I found photographs of her parents who were both teachers there and Margaret’s name on the twelfth-grade graduation list. Northwestern University, where she went to school after New Orleans University, had a copy of her application. It’s a wonderful primary document; in it she responds to the question why she feels a college education will help her be successful. Seventeen-year-old Margaret responds that “I sincerely feel that a college education will best prepare me for the life of service I desire most to render to my people and country.” It is clear that she accomplished the goal she set for herself when she was a young woman.

For readers who are unfamiliar with Margaret Walker’s work, where would you suggest they begin?

Margaret Walker wrote in many genres, but she was first and foremost a poet, and I would recommend beginning with her most famous and award-winning poem “For My People.” That is her signature poem, and an excellent example of her work. I also would recommend Jubilee, the novel that was based on Walker’s great grandmother’s life and which took Walker over thirty years to write. Her great grandmother was born a slave in Terrell County, Georgia, and the novel is divided into three sections: the antebellum era, Civil War, and Reconstruction. It’s a landmark literary achievement as it presents the nineteenth-century African American experience from a female slave’s point of view. Walker’s research for Jubilee took her all over the South, and she draws on slave narratives and folk traditions to tell a powerful and emotional story of survival.

Are you planning to write any other biographies?

Carolyn Brown
Yes. My next biography is about Mississippi artist Kate Freeman Clark. I studied art history in college and thought it would be a nice change of pace after writing about two authors. I discovered Holly Springs artist Kate Freeman Clark in Patti Carr Black’s book Art in Mississippi 1720-1980 and her story intrigued me. After studying art in New York for several years with American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, Kate Freeman Clark abruptly returned to Holly Springs and apparently never painted again. 

What makes her story particularly fascinating is that in her will she bequeathed all her paintings to the city of Holly Springs as well as funds to build a gallery to store and show them. Over 1200 paintings sit in the gallery in Holly Springs and are the work of a first-rate American Impressionist painter! It is my hope that a book about her life will bring much-needed and well-deserved attention to Clark’s beautiful works of art.