For My People

Margaret Walker

‘For My People’ by Margaret Walker is a poem celebrating African American culture while highlighting several hardships African Americans have faced. The poem urges African Americans in the generations to come to not allow themselves to face the same hardships their ancestors did in the form of systemic racism, sickness, and a general deprivation of rights.

Margaret Walker

Nationality: American

Margaret Walker was an American novelist born in 1915 in Birmingham, Alabama.

She was influenced by authors like Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: One must fight for one's freedom

Speaker: Margaret Walker

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Freedom, Passion, Pride

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'For My People' encapsulates the African American cry for liberation using simple language. Walker wrote the poem to simultaneously commend her people's endurance and challenge them to fight against the years-long oppression they have suffered in America.

For My People’ by Margaret Walker is a bittersweet poem celebrating African American culture and character. It is also a call to future generations of African Americans to fight against oppression. ‘For My People’ is also the titular poem for the poetry collection, ‘For My People’, which won Walker the Yale University Series of Younger Poets Award.


For My People’ by Margaret Walker is a poem telling of the troubles and triumphs of African Americans. Though it highlights the African American struggles, it does so only to celebrate indomitable strength and hope.

For My People’ begins with Walker mentioning groups of people in her community. Walker does this throughout the poem while highlighting aspects of African American culture like music, hair, religion, and street life. Even though she also tells of various hardships black people face, Walker ensures that readers do not pity the subject of her poem. Rather, she emphasizes the strength her people have, enduring hardships like sickness and systemic oppression.

As the poem progresses, Walker weaves in the theme of racism in America, historical events like the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the subject of activism, specifically the Civil Rights Movement. She also shares her experiences growing up as a black woman, therefore identifying herself with her people.

With every stanza, the poet and speaker do not simply celebrate her people but also remind them of the systems they fight against. This leads to her call to action, which ends the poem. Following the theme of activism, Walker urges upcoming generations of African Americans to fight against the oppression their predecessors faced.


For My People’ by Margaret Walker is a ten-stanza free verse. This means the absence of a regular rhyme or meter. There is also an uneven number of lines per stanza. Stanza nine has the shortest number of lines: four. Stanza ten has the longest number of lines: eight. In addition, the poem heavily employs several forms of repetition (alliteration, assonance, anaphora, etc.) and enjambment throughout to emphasize its themes. In fact, the title of the poem is an anaphora Walker uses at the beginning of every stanza except the last.

Literary Devices

  • Anaphora: Anaphora is one of the prominent literary devices in this poem. The speaker repeats the phrase “for my people” at the beginning of every stanza. This emphasizes not only her target audience but also to whom Walker dedicates her poem. The phrase is also the title of the poem. In stanza ten, there is the repetition of the word “let.” This is representative of Walker’s desire to be free from the oppression she and her people face.
  • Parallelism: Parallelism is the occurrence of similar phrases, words, or grammatical structures in a sentence or within multiple lines of poetry. Lines and words with similar grammatical structures are present throughout the poem, especially in stanza two. Stanza two is the perfect example of parallelism as it mostly comprises verbs in the present progressive tense. This parallelism in stanza two emphasizes an aspect of African American culture.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds often within a line of poetry. In ‘For My People,’ this is evident right from stanza one, with wordplay like “dirges… ditties” and “praying… prayers.” Alliteration in this poem not only emphasizes an aspect of black culture and struggle, but it also creates a rhythm that hooks readers.
  • Assonance: Assonance also makes an appearance in the poem. This is the repetition of vowel sounds within a line of poetry. It creates a rhythm that makes the subject of Walker’s poem easy to follow and remember.
  • Imagery: The entire poem is full of imagery, courtesy of Walker’s descriptions. Walker uses simple but potent language to bring her people’s culture to life.
  • Allusion: The strongest instances of allusion lie in stanzas six and seven. In stanza six, Walker mentions historical places where African Americans ran businesses or were the market of select businesses. Stanza seven alludes to the Atlantic Slave trade and the suffering blacks endured on the ships that bore them to slavery.
  • Oxymoron: The mention of “bloody peace” in stanza ten, line 2 is the prime example of an oxymoron. With this juxtaposition, Walker makes it clear that her fight for freedom is not going to take a pacifist approach. Walker is ready to wage war for her freedom.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
unseen power;

For My People’ begins with the speaker elaborating on a particular kind of people. Considering the speaker is the poet Margaret Walker, who is African American, readers can tell right away that she is talking about all African Americans. The phrases “my people” and “slave songs” (with the history of slavery among African Americans) in line 1 confirm this. Through Walker’s eyes, readers glimpse the lives of African Americans in Walker’s time.

It is diverse as ever, yet unified, with people singing different songs but singing nonetheless. Walker contrasts their singing of “slave songs” and “dirges” to “jubilees” and reveals the undying hope of her people, who choose to be happy despite their circumstances.

The poem begins with a rhythm that invites readers. Walker artfully uses repetition of certain phrases and alliteration to emphasize the diversity of her culture. The particular phrase, “for my people,” which is repeated throughout the poem, reads like a toast. In a sense, Walker is raising a toast to her people, despite their history in America. By extension, one can also say Walker, just like her people, is choosing to sing a “jubilee” as opposed to a “slave song.”

Stanza Two

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the


    knowing and never understanding;

In stanza two, Walker uses a form of repetition known as parallelism to highlight the sufferings of her people. This is a bittersweet stanza because between lines 1 and 2, the hope of African Americans is evident, but the rest of the stanza reveals the adversity they hope against. “Lending their strength to the years” in line 1 represents this hope, although they remain uncertain of the future, represented by “maybe years” in line 2. These lines are particularly symbolic because they trace as far back as the Atlantic Slave Trade, which instilled so much fear among the first African Americans who hoped against hope, among the diseases spread on ships and the torture they endured, that they would live to see the following day.

Line 3 onwards also remains symbolic, as it is no accident. The only work mentioned within these lines is manual labor. This reveals the treatment of many black citizens then; they were often seen as second-class, and so only jobs like the ones mentioned in this stanza were allocated to them.

While the first stanza portrayed the physical state of Walker’s people, lines 5-6 of this stanza portray their mental state: confusion. Till today, many African Americans share this confusion as to why some people still see them as inferior. This makes Walker’s poem relatable and relevant even today.

Stanza Three

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama


    Miss Choomby and company;

Walker personalizes this stanza, thereby giving readers a glimpse of her childhood. Without reading her biography, readers know Walker is from Alabama and she grew up in a humble environment. It explains how she is able to effortlessly describe the plight and joy of her people. It is all she was surrounded with as a child. Here, phrases like “mama,” “cooking,” and “playhouse” balance warmth with the tension of words like “jail” and “soldier” bring. It shows that although Walker grew up surrounded by love and fun, it did not blind her to the realities of her living as a black woman in America.

This stanza also navigates readers through some other aspects of black culture, including hair, more music, and religion.

Stanza Four

For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn


    cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;

Stanza four of ‘For My People’ points to school segregation, another instance of the maltreatment of black Americans. Walker wrote this poem between 1930-1940 when the law separating white and black neighborhoods was active. So, more than writing about segregation, Walker was living it. Line 1 describes the condition of schools for black people. The rest of the stanza reveals the realization Walker and her schoolmates came to, that the rest of society outside her home did not appreciate who she was.

This stanza is symbolic of every black American who encounters racism for the first time. Walker’s feeling regarding the reality of racism is relatable on every count to African Americans. This again makes ‘For My People’ a timeless poem.

Although the previous stanza indicated that Walker was never a naïve child, this stanza remains universally relatable for representing the moment someone’s innocence is stolen. It symbolizes a moment people discover some terrible truth about reality yet have to adjust to it.

Stanza Five

For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to


    of consumption and anemia and lynching;

Stanza five starts off hopeful and ends, again, bittersweet. Walker transitions from sharing childhood memories to portraying adult truths. Although she only elaborates on the lives of African American men and women who endure racism, she stirs so much emotion in readers by simply contrasting their lives and deaths.

“Lynching” in line 5 was particularly common in those days and was, more often than not, a racially-induced hate crime. It goes to say that, in the end, these men and women did not survive racism. It warms one’s heart to know that Walker is raising a toast to these people. Through her ageless poem, Walker ensures her readers will not forget them.

Stanza Six

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox


    land and money and something—something all our own;

Stanza six of ‘For My People’ points to specific historical events and places. 47th Street in Chicago is particularly popular for being the pulsing life of black culture between 1920 to mid-1950s (when segregation was ostensibly abolished). Lenox Avenue in the 1930s and Rampart Street also represent the same things. However, Lenox Avenue comprised other people of color (majorly Latinos), and Rampart Street was filled with other minorities in America (Asians, Jews, etc.) whose clientele were African Americans.

In 47th Street, most African Americans stewarded businesses, though “filling… people’s pockets” in line 5 points to the historical fact that white Americans owned these businesses. Line 3 points to a time in history when African Americans were denied their social and economic rights. Because of that, they found community in these streets where no one treated them as second-class citizens and denied them access to the same basic needs (as stated in line 5) as the whites.

In all this, Walker reveals yet again the strength in the hope of the black community. Their resolve to be “happy,” which fueled activity in these historical places, makes readers even more inclined to celebrate Walker’s people with her.

Stanza Seven

For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time


     who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;

Stanza seven hints at the beginning of slavery for African Americans. Lines 4-5 specifically reference the Atlantic Slave Trade. Documentaries of this occurrence reveal descriptions that match the aforementioned lines. “Unseen creatures” refer to white Americans. The use of that phrase also gives readers more insight into the state of the Africans carried across the Atlantic. They would have to have been blindfolded to not see the people who laughed at them.

The rest of the lines can have a more universal meaning, considering they are all symptoms of depression. Walker describes actions people all over the world, despite their race, do when depressed. This makes the poem more relatable to people outside the black community.

Stanza Eight

For my people blundering and groping and floundering in


     false prophet and holy believer;

Stanza eight of ‘For My People’ points to systemic racism. “Preyed on by facile force of state” (line 6) is the clearest indication of this. It takes one back to mid-20th century America. Although African Americans were proclaimed free from slavery, not every institution, association, or committee was willing to see them as equals. Religious institutions, as indicated by line 7, are not excluded.

In many ways, African Americans were not free still, even today. This is why Walker’s ‘For My People’ remains socially relevant.

“Novelty” in line 6 refers to her people’s own innocence in these times. Being “free,” there was no doubt some confusion on how to navigate their new situation. This innocence should be a good thing. However, Walker says this also devoured and deceived them because it led them straight to the hands of the aforementioned institutions.

Stanza Nine

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way


    all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;

This stanza is special because it is directed at activists, people who have chosen to risk their lives to battle all forms of racism. Walker clarifies the aim of the activists, which is to ensure both white and black Americans co-exist peacefully in society. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, and many others who pioneered the Civil Rights Movement in America come to mind while reading this stanza. Walker herself was one of such activists.

Stanza Ten

Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a


    be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now

    rise and take control.

The last stanza of ‘For My People’ is a call to action. This stanza also makes it clear that Walker is part of the group she references in stanza nine. Therefore, like her colleagues, she also seeks to “fashion a world that will hold all the people.” However, the use of phrases like “martial songs” and oxymorons like “bloody peace” reveal to readers that she is ready not to achieve her aim peacefully if that is what it will take.

This shows a particular determination readers have not seen in Walker up till now. It also reveals Walker’s anger, whereas all we’ve seen is empathy and compassion concerning the plight of her people.

This last stanza ends ‘For My People’ on a strong note as it echoes to generations of upcoming African Americans. When Walker tells them to “take control,” she is asking if they have the courage to take control of their lives. Whether or not they have read Walker’s poem, many African Americans today are responding to her call.


What is the tone and mood of ‘For My People?’

The overall tone and mood of the poem is bittersweet. Even though Walker tells of struggle and death, and racism, she only does so to elevate her people and their courage. One can sense the jolliness in Walker’s rhythm, but also her anger and sadness in the final stanza of ‘For My People.’

What are the themes in ‘For My People?’

The major theme is freedom and equality. This is evident in the last stanza with Walker’s call to action. She invests nine stanzas building up the case for African Americans, telling of the culture to fight for and the oppression to fight against. Walker then uses the last stanza to charge the upcoming generations to fight for their freedom to live as equal citizens in America. Other themes highlighted in those nine stanzas include black culture, racism, and death.

What inspired the poem ‘For My People?’

According to Margaret Walker’s poem, “I Want to Write,” Walker wrote because, in her words, “I want(ed) to write/the songs of my people.” As proven by history, Walker’s writing was dedicated to elevating black culture; ‘For My People’ is no exception.

What is the setting of the poem is ‘For My People?’

The poem is set in America. Stanza six makes this evident with the mention of places (47th Street, Lenox Avenue, etc.) located in present-day America. Walker also mentions her hometown, Alabama, also situated in the United States.

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Poetry+ Review Corner

For My People

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Margaret Walker (poems)

Margaret Walker

'For My People' is one of the most notable poems of Margaret Walker. It won her the Yale Series of Younger Poets Awards and enabled her to make her mark in the community of worldwide poets as an activist and advocator for equality between whites and blacks.
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20th Century

This poem is famously part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. It not only encapsulates the African American cause for their freedom, but it also promotes it. This evidently makes it a timeless poem for that century up to the present one.
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Margaret Walker is an African American woman who wrote a poem about African Americans. The poem itself discusses the African American way of life as set in the United States of America. This poem is a great example of American poetry.
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The poem itself is a celebratory dedication to Walker's people and everything they stand for. The series of repetitions throughout the poem lend an upbeat, almost happy rhythm to 'For My People.' The titular phrase itself also connotes paying homage; one can envision Walker raising a toast to her people as she recites.
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There is an obvious display of desire in this poem, especially in the last stanza. In stanza ten, Walker lets readers know of her desire for her people to be free of the hardships she had described in previous stanzas.
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The various aspects of African American culture revealed in the poem cement the identity of the African American people in a reader's mind. It is almost as if Walker wishes to inform readers that African Americans are neither a monolith nor a people to stereotype.
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Anger is made especially clear in the last stanza of 'For My People.' Walker uses words like "martial songs" and "bloody peace" to bear the raw emotions in her heart. Clearly, she is ready to fight for her freedom, even if it means using militant means.
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Walker speaks of a desired freedom throughout the poem. In a sense, one may even say she had acquired her own freedom by liberating herself from the way white American society had taught her to think (that she was poor and black and inferior). This poem is dedicated to inspiring others to liberate themselves from such a way of thinking and fight for their physical freedom.
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Walker speaks with passion throughout 'For My People.' Her investment in the subject of her poem is evident in her creative descriptions and even the inclusion of historical details in her poem. Lastly, one may also view her tone in stanza ten as passionate, not necessarily angry.
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Though not obviously highlighted in the poem, Walker's underlying pride is obvious in 'For My People.' After all, one would not pay homage in the form of poetry to a subject they were not proud of. Walker shows pride not only in the enduring strength of her people but also in being part of them. Going by stanza nine, she is also proud to be an advocator for their freedom.
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African Americans

Many would agree that this is one of the best poems ever written about African Americans. It not only tells of the struggles but also the simple mundane joys of being part of the African American culture. It tells of music, street life, businesses, singing, and then sickness, racism, and oppression. It shows in no exaggerated detail the essence of being an African American.
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Black Lives Matter

Though not specifically tailored for the 21st century Black Lives Matter movement, the call to action in stanza ten echoes when one considers the fruits of the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement almost seems like a response to Walker's call, if anything, with generations of African Americans standing against racism and other forms of oppression.
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Stanza nine is the most obvious cry for equality in this poem. When Walker speaks of a world that will "hold all the people," she means a cause for an egalitarian society, where all people are treated equally regardless of race.
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The last stanza of 'For My People' calls for justice to be served. However, contrary to inclined assumptions, Walker is not calling for justice from the government. Rather, she is calling for her own people to be the advocators and executors of their own justice.
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Free Verse

'For My People' is a free verse. Mostly forfeiting the use of in-line commas and heavily employing enjambment, this poem is written to mimic a fast-paced rhythm that keeps readers entranced and engrossed.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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