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Archive for Sunday, June 30, 2002

KU professor trying to capture the essence of her subject

June 30, 2002

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I want you to slip into the black skin of Margaret Walker.

You're now an African-American woman born in the South in 1915.

Your mother's a classically trained musician, your father a formally educated Methodist minister.

He hands you a blank journal in your 13th year so that when you decide to run your mouth, which is a habit you'll never really get over, you won't run it in front of somebody who might kill you for what you say.

He knows the risks.

He was, after all, chased home by a drunken policeman one night, who hated the sight of the fountain pen in his pocket.

Imagine that you go to Northwestern University to study English. At 22, you're the first African-American with work published in the prestigious magazine Poetry. At 27, you're the first African-American to have a volume published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.

Imagine that you hang with Richard Wright, who is to become the famous author of the classic "Native Son." He introduces you to Marxism; you serve as his editor so his prose won't give away his seventh-grade education.

You do this longing for a deeper intimacy with the man. Wright's career goes into orbit, but he never returns the professional favors you provide, much less opens his heart.

In fact, he eventually cuts you cold with paranoid accusations. You never speak again.

And then imagine that you return to the South and marry a supportive but unschooled carpenter with whom you cannot share the treasures in your fine and restless mind because he lacks your intellectual curiosity. Imagine, too, struggling against poverty, teaching for little money at black colleges, raising four children.

Your public voice falls silent. You stop publishing for more than two decades.

"Twenty-five years of silence will damn near kill a writer," says Maryemma Graham, a Kansas University English professor.

But it didn't kill Margaret Walker.

In part, that's because she never completely shut up or shut down. At a time when marches and protests were integrating restaurants and schools, Walker was keeping journals  and keeping journals  and keeping journals.

Graham, who helped Walker to edit her final works in the 1980s and 1990s, will, this fall, amplify Walker's voice in the world. Graham has edited for publication by the University Press of Mississippi a number of Walker's conversations.

A couple of years from now will come "The House Where My Soul Lives," Graham's biography of Walker.

The poem published in the journal Poetry, which made Walker's career, is called "For My People." That's also the title of the book that won the Yale prize for Walker back in 1942.

After the long silence came "Jubilee," a 1966 novel about the journey of a slave and her family to freedom as seen through the eyes of Walker's own great-grandmother. The novel was the literary fruit of having a family, Graham says.

Graham has read all but 30 of the 165 long journals Walker wrote.

"The journals were a kind of therapy," Graham says. "You find lines that later come into the poems. You can tell when Walker's in a rage  and the writing helps to reshape the rage. The poems are a further mellowing of the passion."

In one of Walker's earliest poems, "I Want to Write," there is evidence of feelings so powerful that they were barely tolerable, Graham says.

"Emotionally, she could go crazy and be out of whack," Graham says. "The journals were good at those times, but they just weren't enough. She had to see therapists and psychiatrists."

Slip inside the skin of Margaret Walker's life and it's easy to see why.

It's a good thing for her that when it comes to words, they can't take those away from you.

"She ALWAYS spoke her mind," Graham says. "She often angered people by what she said. She would say things about younger writers, and she didn't care what people thought about it. She would read things and say, 'This is a lie.' She could not stop her thoughts from coming out."

Now here's one more thing I want you to imagine.

Imagine you're Maryemma Graham. You've grown close to Walker. You've teamed up with her on books. And you've given your word that as you write her biography, you won't violate her privacy and will safeguard her reputation.

And now you've got to try to write the truth about a woman driven half-crazy by the absurdly taxing circumstances of her life, a woman who is blunt to a fault.

And you've got to safeguard this woman's reputation when she herself didn't much care what people thought. And you have to not violate her privacy when she herself would not be still.

Imagining all this, I don't envy Graham. But then I think, Graham can't shut up any more than Walker could.

Too much pressure has built up  from all that reading of the journals and all that personal knowledge of Walker and all that sense of the South way back when  for Graham NOT to say what needs to be said.




 Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ku.edu.

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