Maryemma Graham re-introduces the iconic Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander

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One of the writer’s most impressive experiences as a college student was being taught by Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander. She was a most intelligent Humanities teacher and she expected her students to be or develop into intelligent citizens. Although there were many other examples, two which stand out as characteristic include the occasion where the writer was sent to the library to get her a copy of the book “Negro Caravan,” from which she was planning to read to her class. Instead of that book, he returned with the book “Negro Vanguard.” Mrs. Alexander, as she was known, exploded right there in front of everybody. The student was thoroughly humiliated, but realized that as a student he must become more attentive as well as intelligent. The second example was listening to her lecture on Reconstruction, which was titled, “The Civil War, an Unfinished Revolution.” She brilliantly wove together literature, history, sociology, and political science to explain how expectations were raised and dreams were dashed by the horrors and cruelties of white Southerners after the Union troops withdrew, leaving the recently freed Black people on their own. The lecture had not only pristine scholarship but the unfailing passion and emotion to command and hold the attention of not only the students, but the other faculty members of the Humanities team.

Based upon such experiences as a student in her quiz section and later being a colleague of hers, the writer felt that he “knew” the scholar, who by that time had become Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander. Professor Maryemma Graham, however, in the closing months of last year, re-introduced a fully, more complex and even more brilliant Dr. Alexander in the nearly 700 page biography, “The House Where My Soul Lives.”

In the book, Graham tries to leave no stone unturned. One of the first things that may capture the attention of the reader is the inclusion of a “Timeline,” which runs from page xv through page xxi. Its inclusion is not just a filler, it captures the full scope of Alexander’s life and sets one up for what is to follow in a chronological fashion. The writer found himself returning time and time again to the Timeline as he read of the various events of her life. It served as a most helpful instrument.

A second thing that sets the book apart from many biographies is the fact that at every critical juncture, Graham goes beyond describing the events. She intersperses quotations from Alexander’s journals to let the reader know Alexander’s thoughts and feelings first-hand. It is amazing that Alexander had written and preserved such journals from the time that she had learned to read and write. It was Graham’s good fortune that the journals were available and accessible to her.

The biography is far more than the story of a gifted writer spanning the years from the publication of “For My People” in 1942 through the publication of “Jubilee” in 1966. It covers the circumstances surrounding and the development of the ideas included in each and every one of her publications, including: OCTOBER JOURNEY, A POETIC EQUATION, RICHARD WRIGHT: DAEMONIC GENIUS, THIS IS MY CENTURY, HOW I WROTE JUBILEE, and ON BEING FEMALE, BLACK AND FREE. If it included only those things it would be quite a life to behold.

The book additionally covers her multitude of relationships with the rich and famous, with southern whites and northern radicals. It covers her relationship with Richard Wright and other males, romantic and platonic. It covers her various close female friends. Also quite impressive was her political development, especially the fact that throughout her adult life she aspired to not just identify with but engage in some activity to relieve the plight of “her people.” It did not matter that many labelled some of her groups as socialists. She was concerned with affecting change for the “teeming masses of the north” and the “dirt poor strugglers of the south.”

It was quite eye-opening to read about her life growing up in Birmingham and New Orleans. Although it should not be surprising, she was greatly influenced by her father’s work as a pastor and a teacher of philosophy and theology. Her desire to teach “The Bible as Literature” at Jackson State College is an example of his influence. It was he who did most to influence her writing in her journals. On the other hand, she and her mother were often at odds throughout her life. Her propensity “to talk back” often got her in trouble with her parents. The health issues that plagued her throughout life are covered in some detail, including bouts with depression. 

The readers are taken through her academic pursuits in New Orleans, Illinois, and Iowa. They are taken through her stints as a worker, both as a writer and as a teacher. One gets to meet her siblings, her husband, and her children.

Graham talks freely about her role as a wife and a mother, especially the mellowing of her relationship with her husband, including his devotion to her. We meet the four children and the various ways in which she cared for them or had them cared for as she pursued her education and worked as a writer. The book showed her both as a public person and as a homemaker.

Graham does quite a service by explaining the legal dispute that she had with Alex Haley over the publication and filming of “Roots.” One gets the impression that many of her claims were valid and that, although she lost in the courtroom, she was vindicated by later revelations. Similar things can be said about her decision to write a book about Richard Wright and her relationship to him.

There is an excellent perspective on her attempts to develop and showcase the work of Black writers, especially Black women writers. This is shown through the poetry festivals that she sponsored, beginning with the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival and the establishment of the Institute for the Study of Negro Life and History, which is now the Margaret Walker Center. Graham is careful to illustrate her differences from, but collaboration with, major figures in the feminist movement and in the Black Power movement. Her political activism was not hidden under a bushel basket but quite open. She ultimately traveled to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. She was a proud delegate and took her entire family with her. 

Graham takes pains to point out that Alexander was a proud woman of the South, rubbing elbows with people from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as well as from the Mississippi Endowment for the Humanities, with Eudora Welty and Sonia Sanchez, with Medgar Evers and Lieutenant Governor Brad Dye. By sentiment and by culture, she identified with the South. In that same southern vein, it was also fascinating to hear how much she believed in astrology and engaged in southern cooking.

The narrative reveals what can happen when one has the genius, that is the ability as well as the opportunity and the determination to achieve. Margaret Walker Alexander decided early in life what she wanted to be and to do. She was determined, and with early encouragement from her father, she became one of the world’s best and most widely known poets and novelists. No matter the obstacles, she was determined to succeed as a writer and she did so marvelously. 

Among the surprises in the book as Alexander was re-introduced was her reference to God on several occasions by the term “Silent Unity.” It was also surprising that there was no mention of the Republic of New Afrika, which had made its headquarters in Jackson while she was still on the faculty. Similarly, there was no direct mention of her work to help create the Humanities program at Jackson State College.

Nevertheless, the book is well worth the time it takes to read it and the money it takes to purchase it. Who are we kidding, the book deserves a five-star rating. It is comprehensive, well-researched, and well-written. It reflects a deep friendship and appears to be a labor of love. Indeed, Professor Maryemma Graham has done an outstanding job of introducing to many and re-introducing to others, the genius Margaret Walker Alexander. 

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Maryemma Graham re-introduces the iconic Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 17, 2023