Nikky Finney reads Margaret Walker’s “For My People”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
For My People
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; 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; For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn to know the reasons why and the answers to and the people who and the places where and the days when, in memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we were black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood; For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and play and drink their wine and religion and success, to marry their playmates and bear children and then die of consumption and anemia and lynching; For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy people filling the cabarets and taverns and other people's pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and land and money and something—something all our own; For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures who tower over us omnisciently and laugh; For my people blundering and groping and floundering in the dark of churches and schools and clubs and societies, associations and councils and committees and conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches, preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by false prophet and holy believer; For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations; Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second generation full of courage issue forth; let a people loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control.
Nikky Finney on Margaret Walker's "For my People"
Transcription of Commentary
If I could tell you how much I treasure Margaret Walker, if I could tell you how much I miss her presence, her courage, her strength, her non-compromising eyes and intellect, I would. But I all I can do is read what she wrote and left for us, as map, as guide. So that’s what I will do.
This is Nikki Finney, and that was Margaret Walker. Margaret Walker’s epic, beautiful, stunning, ageless, “For my People,” which is the title poem from her collection, For my People, that was published in 1942 and won the Yale Younger Poets award. And it’s a book, and a poem, and a poet that have always meant a great deal to me.
“For My People” Margaret Walker from For My People.
Yale University Press, 1942.
By permission of the University of Georgia Press.
- Head off & split: poems, by Nikky Finney (catalog record)
- Margaret Walker Center. The Civil Rights History Project: Survey of Collections and Repositories Jackson State University.
- For my people, by Margaret Walker (catalog record)
Nikky Finney (1957- ) was born in South Carolina and educated at Talladega College. She is the author of four books of poems, including the National Book Award-winning Head Off & Split (2011). Finney is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of black Appalachian poets. In 2012 she was appointed the inaugural Guy Davenport Endowed English Professor at the University of Kentucky. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Learn more about Nikky Finney
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) was born in Birmingham, Alabama and educated at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. She is the author of several poetry collections and novels, including Jubilee (1966), and the For My People (1942), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. Walker taught at Jackson State University, where she founded the Institute for the Study of the History, Life and Culture of Black People in 1968.
Learn more about Margaret Walker at The Poetry Foundation