Margaret Walker’s Gifts for Her People
Preface for the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial
Although The Gift of Black Folk (1924) is less well-known and less discussed than The Souls of Black Folk (1903), this historical survey by W. E. B. DuBois can be instructive as an early example of Black Studies. “Who made America?” DuBois asked in the first sentence of his brief “Prescript.” In the first quarter of the twentieth-century, the question was necessary DuBois argued because “there are those as always who would forget the humble builders, toiling wan mornings and blazing noons, and picture Americas as the last reasoned blossom of mighty ancestors; of those great and glorious world builders and ruler who know and see and do all things forever and ever, amen!” The flowery prose is a negative imitation of prayer, a prelude to DuBois’ understanding that America involved building “real democracy and not that vain and eternal striving to regard the world as the abiding place of exceptional genius with great black wastes of hereditary idiots.” His sarcasm is nicely pitched in the third, final paragraph: “We who know may not forget but must forever spread the splendid sordid truth that out of the most lowly and persecuted of men, Man made America. And that what Man has here begun with all its want and imperfection, with all its magnificent promise and grotesque failure will some day blossom in the souls of the Lowly” (1). Black assessment of America is forever and ever salted with ironies.
DuBois’ “splendid sordid truth” reveals a deliberate shortcoming in his historical memory, because he failed to deal forthrightly with the “forced complicity” of black folk in the genocide of indigenous peoples in America. The obvious limits of his historical narration or historiography still plague contemporary discussions of how black folk fit into the unfinished process of building America (forming the nation’s identity), because cultural discourses are subjective; purpose rather than not having all the facts governs our selectivity. Acquiring “new,” reliable facts, of course, does encourage revision or correction of history; so too, our efforts to improve and expand our assessments of writers inform our work as literary theorists, critics, and historians, although we are not immune to subjectivity.
The Gifts of Black Folk offers a guide for talking about Margaret Walker’s gifts for her people, a guide from an African American intellectual giant for whom she had lifelong respect. If quantity of output were the only measure, it is obvious that DuBois gave more gifts to his people than Walker. My motives for talking about Walker have little to do with quantity and much to do with a sense that the quality of her ideas and her creative works has not been emphasized enough in a field where DuBois’ quantity and quality have been richly documented. DuBois’ nine chapters provide handy categories for discussion of Walker’s gifts ---- exploration, labor, military service, emancipation of democracy, reconstruction of freedom, womanhood, folk song (music), art and literature, and spirit. Walker never served in the United States military, so I substitute “political investments” for “military service.” I replace DuBois’ emphasis on geographical exploration with exploration of ideas. What might we gain now from Margaret Walker’s gifts for people?
DuBois, W. E. B. The Gift of Black Folk. Boston: The Stratford Company, 1924; New York: Washington Square Press, 1970. Print.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
July 22, 2014