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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.

—Margaret Walker

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.

Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney

Read “He Never Had It Made” by Nikky Finney

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

Margaret Walker

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