Editors, The Black Agenda Review
Margaret Walker was an intellectual of the highest order. Her uncompromising critiques of Black art, Black leadership, and the US racist oligarchy are sorely needed today.
If the task of the Black writer, of the Back intellectual, of the Black scholar is, at minimum, to speak truth to power, then surely the late Margaret Walker (July 7, 1915 – November 30, 1998) has fulfilled her role. Best known for the novel Jubilee and her collection of poems For My People (1944), the Birmingham, Alabama born Walker was also an intellectual of the highest order — unflinching in her critiques of everything from the state of Black art and artists, to the status of Black leadership, to the conditions of the US economy under Reagan. Take a look at her 1982 interview with The Black Nation: Journal of Afro-American Thought, published by the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) and led by Amiri Baraka. Significantly, Black Nation interviewed Walker for a special issue on “The Black Masses and Black Artists.” Her responses are incredibly wide ranging, provocative, and uncompromising, offering the kind of moral and political grounding that we can only wish from contemporary writers and scholars.
As we witness the genocide of the Palestinian people, the consolidation of fascism in the white west, as we face “oppression, depression and repression,” while watching a world led by whitesupremacist oligarchs lurch towards World War III, voices like Walker’s are sorely needed. Margaret Walker’s interview with Black Nation is reprinted below.
The Black Nation Interviews Margaret Walker
Black Nation: As a Black writer, would you make some initial observations on what you see in the country today for Black people.
Walker: Well, I feel very pessimistic and very concerned. We have a new form of government in the country today, and I don’t think it is especially friendly to Black people. I think the arch-conservatives, very much to the right of center, are actually taking us into a hard form of fascism. I think that we have always had tendencies in this society for fascism, and never had an ideal democracy. What we are looking at now is an oligarchy, which is government by the monied few, buttressed by force of the military. And this cannot be good for anybody, it’s not good for white people, much less Black people. But, Black people have always been on the bottom of the economic ladder. We’ve always suffered the most, because we’ve always been exploited the most. And what we face today is a very serious form not of repression or even depression so much as oppression, depression and repression. All three of these are eminent. I don’t know if in my lifetime I will see this trend turned around. It’s not just the government that’s in power, it’s the general consensus of opinion of a large section of white America.
Black Nation: What do you see as being the resistance to that? I know, for instance, in your poem (one of the most celebrated) “For My People,” you call for a new generation to rise. Do you see today amongst Black people resistance to the conditions?
Walker: No, really I do not. I don’t see it even in our young people who are always the vanguard of revolutionary change. Perhaps in the ‘60s and very early ’70’s you saw some of this. We saw a large rising up of Black nationalism, and it was revolutionary. And you had two revolutions in the ’60’s, one led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and one led by Malcolm X. Both of those revolutions were quite liberating in their intentions, and insofar as they went, they were very good, they just didn’t go far enough. King’s revolution brought very definite social change because it brought social legislation that outlawed segregation. Malcolm X’s revolution was a more internalized thing of changing the attitudes of Black people towards themselves. Of recovering a sense of manhood and womanhood for Black people. A sense of pride and of unity and power. But, that was purely on a moral and aesthetic, and shall we say, a kind of sociological level. It did not quite seriously deal with economic and political problems which of themselves determine our lives.
Black Nation: How would you assess the acquisition of various political offices and appointments?
Walker: Well, I think that insofar as that goes, it’s alright. But (and I have many friends who have believed that the way to power for Black people is through political office) I’m not so sure that we can hope for much from that. What we have happening there is not just tokenism, which it is in part, but really it’s an individual matter of personal achievement which doesn’t mean change on the mass level.
There’s got to be some radical change in the economic system. The system, as we know it, for the past seven years to a decade has really been broken down. It isn’t just the economic system of capitalism in this country that has been broken down for about seven to ten years (and you can list the evidences of this), but it is a breakdown in the western world and there is a crisis in western world capitalism. Despite all the haranguing we hear from our government or from western governments, whether it’s Great Britain or France or Wester Germany, the U.S.A. or Canada or even certain countries like Mexico, no matter what they say, the financial conditions of the western world is in crisis. And this is seen in so many ways, not only rising unemployment and inflation, the devaluation of the dollar, the end of the American gold supply, the problem in the banking world, the instability not only of currency, but of the banking world and the manipulation by the Federal Reserve System. All these are indications of a very sick economy and that economy isn’t going to get any better. As a matter of fact, it was falling when Watergate was partially exposed. The Oil Embargo of ’73 and the end of the gold supply as a result of sinking all that money in the Viet Nam War and trying to bolster up peace in the Middle East and investing in South Africa, those three things have been disastrous for the economy of this country.
Black Nation: In face of this growing economic and social crisis (and I think that is very accurate when you say we cannot see this government in any way bringing it out) it is not about to get better even though they’re promising it every day in the news…
Walker: Can’t get better, it’s no way. They have no method! No means by which they can improve it! The conservative supply-side economists think that by inflating the economy and increasing the unemployment rate, and by actually throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of work that the system will automatically, of itself, rejuvenate itself with fresh investments of capital and a balanced open market, which is ridiculous to expect. And their chief arbiter and architect, David Stockman [aka, the “Father or Reaganomics,” Eds.], says it’s not coming off; can’t come off.
Black Nation: Given there seems to be a growing activity amongst the traditional organizations, do you think that they can reshape a massive movement such as you mentioned as led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?
Walker: We’ve had five great mass leaders. Frederick Douglass and DuBois never had the kind of mass marches that Garvey and King had, but then they were mass leaders just as Malcolm X. I don’t think that we have anybody on the scene now with either the charisma or the philosophy or the following to achieve that kind of thing. I look at three or four people. Your own associate, nobody is more knowledgeable from the radical point of view than Baraka himself. But with all due respect to him and in his present condition, I don’t see that he can lead a mass movement. He might have a few years back when he was working with the formation of a national political party, but that failed. A man like Jesse Jackson has charisma and is knowledgeable, but aside from a small segment of Black people, his own people in Chicago don’t trust him. They don’t believe he is sincere and honest. They suspect that he has been cooped like Stoekely Carmichael and the King family and like [James] Farmer was. They cannot see him as being disconnected from the system. The same thing is true of our very good friend and marvelous person Andrew Young. He is certainly a brilliant man and was brilliant when he worked with King. He is a marvelous politician and tactician, but he has chosen the political role and it is within the system. It is perhaps a hope to reform, but not to revolutionize, and what we have to have is a complete change of the system.
Black Nation: I can understand your pessimism right now.
Walker: Yes, it’s nobody on the horizon, there is nobody on the scene who has the strength, the charisma, the knowledge and the power.
Black Nation: Do you think that this generation of young Black men and women can produce that?
Walker: I don’t know. I would not say no, because there is a law of life and nature that the rather racist Arnold Toynbee, the historian, understood. It is that every time making, or humankind, is faced with a challenge from nature, the response is invariably there. Every time Black people have been faced with a crisis or mankind in general, as he has had various revolutions and energy and power and his concepts of the universe have changed, he has responded to the natural crisis and the natural challenge. The challenge of nature, of humanity, of the social forces, of the social order. And whether we know it or not, those leaders will come forth because there will be always a human response to the challenge. Do you follow me?
Black Nation: Yes, I do, and I think that is a very eloquent statement. What do you see then in this situation as the direction of Black literature today?
Walker: Well, that’s a serious question and a difficult one to answer. I know the direction my work seems to be taking, and I’m not at all sure it will be welcomed in the society. I just completed a first draft, in fact I’m revising and working hard toward deadlines with a book that I’ve sold to Howard University Press on Richard Wright. Richard Wright was in a way a prophetic and brilliant political tactician. He understood a great deal, not just from Marxist analysis, but from his understanding of Pan-Africanism and Existentialism, all the great ideas of the 20th century, which he understood. He knew that certain things are inevitable and he was seeing them over and over again. But, Black writers today fall in, shall I say, two or three categories. There are first those who may have something to say and may even know how to say it very well, but can’t get an audience to see their work, can’t get published and probably never will. Then there are those who are lucky enough to get a publisher, Black or white or whoever it is, and put the stuff out. In this group they break down into two types. Those who write to acquiesce with the system and with whatever their white publishers and agents and editors want them to say. And those who are diametrically opposed and may have their works deleted and criticized and sometimes not even published, pushed aside on the shelf. Then, of course, there are those who, like Baraka, have dared for a long time to say what they thought. He may have changing philosophies and changing points of view and he may have changed color many times, but he’s always been outspoken. You have those kinds of Black writers. There are some of us whom nobody can hush. There are some of us whom all kinds of persecution and oppression cannot keep quiet, not unless we are dead itself. And that’s a possibility. But then there are those who want to be published so badly and are so conceited that they acquiesce with anything in order to be heard. They may be heard but they will not be followed. Have I answered you?
Black Nation: Yes, you have. I think there is a lot of debate around the direction of Black literature today.
Walker: Well, we have always had a very great tradition, a humanistic tradition, of personal freedom, truth and beauty, and social justice and human dignity and peace. These are part of all of Afro-American literature for more than 200 years. And we have always had people who were seriously devoted to the art of writing and who were committed to learn the craft. They have always existed and I presume as long as the universe exists, they always will. But, I do not see Black literature taking many very different and new directions.
I look at a woman like Toni Morrison who is considered by the white press and white publishers as the leading Black writer. Her work is very much that of the symbolist. I find that where she is most authentic to the Black experience, she is the least recognized. That when she takes us down paths of fantasy then the white literary critics are pleased. That is not the reality of our lives, however. And that is not the reality of our lives, however. And that is not what I think we ought to be about. I look at other Black writers, I wouldn’t say they’re different camps, they’re just various individuals. There are many young women and men on the horizon and I’m sure that they are going to be heard because they have something to say. But how much they will influence and affect the masses of Black people remains to be seen.
Black Nation: What do you see as being the task of the Black writers today, given the situation you’ve described?
Walker: Well, I think the task has always been, the Black writer is supposed to be avant-garde. He’s like the philosopher or the social scientist, he implements the new concepts of the universe. He seeks to inform the mass audience of his people for whom he writes of their human and spiritual destiny. He seeks to prepare them for the days ahead in which they may truly see a world of common humanity.
Black Nation: What is your current work? You mentioned the book on Richard Wright.
Walker: My book on Richard Wright is my most recent thing. I hope that it is going to appear by fall of the year. I hope I am going to live to see that.
Black Nation: Are you still lecturing?
Walker: Yes, I occasionally do. I have not accepted anything this month, because of the book. Next month, I may do two or three engagements. I do one or two things nearby, this month in the city, maybe. I refused to take anything for April because I thought I was going to be involved with a conference, but it’s now canceled. I think in May I may be in the Middle West, celebrating the anniversary of one of our small presses.
Black Nation: What would you say to young Black writers today? As just a statement from Margaret Walker to young Black writers today.
Walker: Well, I’ve often avoided offering advice. I don’t think people want it. They don’t take it even when you give it. People want sympathy and understanding, they don’t want advice. Sometimes, if you’re a teacher, you tell students what they have to do. The first thing they have to do is think hard about the reality of our lives. The second thing is to read everything that they can find so that they have models on which to base their work, and to develop the craft and to work to develop the art. To make sure that there is something to their personality so that they have something to say and then to work hard to be able to say it well. That’s about all I can say.
Black Nation: Well, Sister Walker, I tell you this has been most enjoyable and I’m sorry that I could not do this in person.
Walker: Well, I appreciate you doing it this way. Charles Rowell did this almost ten years ago, 1973. Just calling me from over in Tupelo. I was here in my house ill in bed, but that interview appeared in Black World in December of ’75. And I look at it and I’m still quite pleased and satisfied he got a good interview. Thank you very much.
Black Nation: Thank you. And I hope that you can continue to give us as much as you can. We need the work that you are producing, I’m looking forward to the book. Again, thank you.
“The Black Nation interviews Margaret Walker,” Black Nation: Journal of Afro-American Thought 2 No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1982)