‘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.
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‘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.
- 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.
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
‘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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
If you enjoyed reading ‘For My People’ by Margaret Walker, you are sure to like these poems:
- ‘For Malcom X‘ by Margaret Walker: a poem paying homage to Malcolm X and his fight for the liberation of blacks.
- ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats: a poem portraying a speaker’s desire to live a carefree life like that of a nightingale.
- ‘Middle Passage’ by Robert Hayden: a poem portraying the sufferings endured by Africans on their way to America during the Atlantic Slave Trade.