Thursday Poem: For My People by Margaret Walker

So, last week’s experiment where I left the commentary up to you, dear readers? Epic fail. Y’all failed to get back to me. Luckily – or not, depending on your disposition – it’s a writer lot to shout into the void and expect nothing back, so I’m not terribly fussed by that. Also, WordPress gave me this nifty and weirdly specific notification the other day which made me feel better about it all.

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Right, let’s get to the goods. I was a little torn about what to choose today, I had two great poems I read yesterday but ultimately I’ve decided to go with For My People by Margaret Walker. Although it is the better of the two poems, often that’s not the deciding factor in my choices – better is a meaningless word when the default level of quality for any section is fucking good. Which is to say, it becomes subjective very, very quickly and what I’m looking for is something that resonates with a thought I’ve had recently, or emotion, or experience and Margaret Walker’s poem pretty much hit all those points.

I woke up today to yet more news about the Baltimore riots, about further (completely understandable) unrest in the States, and saw once more the familiar dispiriting narrative around young African American men unfold, the same abdication of responsibility from authority figures, the same obfuscation about what really happened, about the abuse regularly meted out by police officers. It is an ugly, ugly time we live in precisely because it’s not as bad as it used to be, not as clear cut — which is to say, that racism has gone underground and even when it erupts nowadays, those who shape media narratives do their best to cloud the picture.

Quite frankly, it fills me with despair. Not the individual tragedies themselves, though they break my heart, but the repetition. The mindless repetition, and what it says about our society, our capacity for change, that we allow it to continue. Well, some 70 odd years ago, Margaret Walker published this poem ‘For My People’ and in many respects it feels like it could have been written yesterday. It resonates just as strongly. 

It begins:

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
     unseen power;

It’s always hard to write about a people. Speaking as an Arab Australian writer myself, a man often forced to define himself and his people, his culture, in opposition to a dominant narrative or preconception, I can tell you there are about as many ways to go wrong as there are people. Perhaps more. The sheer range and scope of individual experience mandates this truth; we cannot all be encapsulated in words. There is a limit to the universal. With that said, Walker does about as good a job of it as you can, she ranges across all professions and emotions, from the hardworking to the lazy, and she spares no one from her love.

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
    gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
    washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
    hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
    dragging along never gaining never reaping never
    knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
    backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
    and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
    and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
    Miss Choomby and company;

This poem makes great use of the polysyndeton technique, one of my favourite literary devices, which you see in her rolling and relentless use of ‘and’ to push and build a powerful rhythmic momentum. It is not just in this that she succeeds, but as I continually say, also the sounds of the words she uses, which comes to life so wonderfully when read aloud, all of it combining to paint a deep picture of a diverse people who do not fit into any kind of easy categorisation.

In truth, there are many reasons to highlight this beautiful poem today, but for me, the main reason was for its optimistic ending, its call to future generations, for a new earth to rise. Do I actually think it will happen? No. I haven’t her hope, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.