Lineage by Margaret Walker

Lineage‘ by Margaret Walker is a short two stanza, twelve-line poem, that is not structured by any patterned rhyme scheme. Throughout the poem, Walker makes effective use of repetition and the carrying through of a refrain that is the backbone of the piece. 

Lineage by Margaret Walker

 

Summary

Lineage‘ by Margaret Walker describes the strength of a speaker’s enslaved female ancestors and how they suffered for that strength.

The poem begins with the speaker describing the strength of her forbearers, particularly, the female ones. These women to whom she is related, either by blood or race, were forced to labor on plantations and farmlands. They were extraordinarily sturdy in their dispositions and physical ability as they “bent to toil.” These women were extremely strong in both mind and body.

In the second stanza Walker continues to speak on all that her female ancestors had to go through. Their memories are rich with painfully strong memories that the speaker seems to be able to get a glance of. These women persevered and even though they suffered greatly, they still have “many clean words to say.” 

In the final lines of the poem the speaker asks whys is not as strong as they are. 

 

Analysis of Lineage

Stanza One 

My grandmothers were strong.

They followed plows and bent to toil.

They moved through fields sowing seed.

They touched earth and grain grew.

They were full of sturdiness and singing.

My grandmothers were strong.

The majority of ‘Lineage’ is focused on the power of the speaker’s ancestors, specifically, her female ancestors. The first line, “My grandmothers were strong” is repeated three times in the poem, making it a very consequential refrain. This one statement incapsulates the entire message of the poem. All that comes after is based around this one fact. 

In an effort to show the strength of her grandmothers the speaker describes the kind of lives they lived when they were her age. Through his description she is actively comparing their experiences to her own, and inviting the reader to do the same.

When they were her age these women followed behind “plows” in the fields and “bent” to the laborious task the were forced to. After reading this statement it becomes clear that these women were slaves and were suffering this way through no choice of their own, making their strength even more remarkable. 

These women “moved through fields sowing seeds,” the grandmothers were able, through a touch of their hand, to make grain grow. This is a testament to their power as well as their remarkable resilience. They held within themselves a contrast, one that played in their favor. Their strength allowed them to continue on, and their “singing” empowered their strength. They were, the speaker repeats, “strong.” 

 

Stanza Two 

My grandmothers are full of memories

Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay

With veins rolling roughly over quick hands

They have many clean words to say.

My grandmothers were strong.

Why am I not as they?

When the speaker thinks on her grandmothers she sees them as being “full of memories.”  They lived lives that must have, she thinks, imprinted vivid images on their consciousnesses. She can see some of these past actions playing out and is even able to experience a bit of what they did. She can smell the soap and the onion in the kitchen and she can feel the “wet clay” that covers her grandmother’s hands as they work in the fields and gardens.

In the last there lines of the poem the speaker makes a point to say that even though these women suffered ferociously, they still had “many clean words to say.” Their lives were not ruined or destroyed by what they suffered, it has become part of them and increased their strength. 

With one more repetition of the refrain the speaker concludes ‘Lineage’ by saying that her “grandmothers were strong,” but she is not. She wonders aloud why she does not have the same tenacity, and will to live, that they did. These women, who suffered so much, have more than this speaker does. 

 

About Margaret Walker 

Margaret Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in July of 1915. Her family was well educated and provided a stimulating environment for their daughter. She attended Northwestern University in Illinois and received a B.A. at the young age of 19. While Walker was living in Chicago she was associated with a number of writing groups and later, she would work for the Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression. 

While continuing her education at the University of Iowa, Walker wrote one of her best-known pieces, For My People. This work earned her the Yale Younger Poets Award. She was the first African American to win this award. This piece solidified her place as an American activist poet, she would now be associated with other writers such as Genevieve Taggard and Joy Davidman. Walker’s poetry would focus on showing African Americans as “emblems of the working class.” For My People was Walker’s first major step in crafting a career of well-thought-out poetry that speaks on political and social injustices. 

In 1943 she married James Alexander and soon thereafter accepting a teaching position at Jackson State University in 1949. She would work there until her retirement. From 1962-1965 Walker completed her doctoral thesis in the form of a Civil War novel. The novel was published as Jubilee in 1966. The novel describes the life of Walker’s great-grandmother. She died in November of 1998,

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Avatar J. Brooks says:

    “Clean words to say” does this have to do with the resilience of these women, or did they have clean words to say because they were not allowed to use their true voices? In the climate of today’s BLM protests, black people are still asked to “have many clean words” when society condemns them for “rioting,” and demands peaceful protest, not allowing the true expression of the anger from built-up oppression. Is the author “Not as they” because she is unable to continue to contain her anger, refrain from violence, or to maintain the same civility?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      It’s really hard to answer this question. I think the poem is deliberately designed with that ambiguity ingrained within.

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