Margaret Walker and Contemporary Education
Margaret Walker's vision of education extended much beyond its incorporation in her signature poem "For My People" and spoke to us by way of the speeches and essays gathered in Part IV: What Is to Become of Us? Notes on Education and Revolution of the book On Being Female, Black, and Free: Essays by Margaret Walker, 1932-1992 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997). The vision resonates in her didactic poems "This Is My Century" and "Giants of My Century" in This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989). It informed her teaching at Jackson State University from 1949 to 1979 and her founding there , in 1968, of the Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black People (now the Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center). Her vision might serve us well in the practice of contemporary education. But who is willing to examine and adapt Walker's vision in dealing with the knotted and vexed issues of intellect and action in our 21st century?
The subtitle of the poem “This is My Century” is “black synthesis of time” and the first stanza addresses Man (a universal abstraction not a culture-marked particular) ----
O Man, behold your destiny.
Look on this life
and know our future living;
our former lives from these our present days
now melded into one.
(This Is My Century 129)
It is widely believed that Walker's poetry constitutes a specific or exclusionary address to her people as black people, but as she told Nikki Giovanni in A Prophetic Equation ( Washington: Howard University Press, 1974) -----
The thing that we have to see is what neither black nor white people want to face: that in this country we have developed and arrived at a point where our culture is neither black nor white but mulatto, a synthesis of the two…..It’s a terrible thing to say, but I have just as many white ancestors as I’ve got black. That as an American, I am no pure-blooded African. I am no pure-blooded European. I have ancestors who came from both continents. (130)
In this sense she created ideas and left legacies for humankind, for all Americans. Synthesis is crucial for education that is predicated on beliefs about humanistic and scientific thought that resist the whims and foibles of politics.
This point was not minimized when William Adams, current chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, addressed the Conference on the Liberal Arts: [Re]Defining Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century at Jackson State University on October 7. Adams amplified Walker's concept of the synthesis of time. "A new concept of education based in the realities of a new concept of the universe which the Einsteinian revolution has brought to the twentieth century," she had suggested in 1976 , "must give us through re-education new uses for our education. Career goals of vocational, industrial, and liberal or technical education must also afford disciplines for life's meaning and sharing" (On Being Female…., 230). Adams stressed the importance of communication skills, of having the capacity for analyzing and synthesizing, and of possessing intellectual depth and interpersonal skills in the arenas of work and economy, citizenship, morals, and culture. As he spoke, Walker's idealist belief that "respect for the divinity in every living human being is the first step toward world humanism and religious peace and understanding" (230) rumbled in my consciousness, and I found the stress Adams placed on utility or pragmatism, especially in partnerships involving the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences, was in accord with what Walker had said forty years earlier. Adams and Walker both proposed that education should eschew elitism and make itself relevant to the civic lives of all people. Just as Walker argued that Einsteinian paradigms necessitated knowledge of science, Adams argued that the rapid evolving of scientific and technological knowledge demands a critique that may result from a core curriculum model of education. Walker and Adams could agree on the centrality of synthesis.
Given that Adams was speaking about the challenges liberal education must confront at the university where Walker had forged much of her vision of education was a timely clue about what we need to remember and use as a foundation for future planning at HBCUs. Time and again, such African American teachers and poet-thinkers as Margaret Walker have [re]defined liberal arts pedagogy decades before such mainstream intellectuals as William Adams get around to contextualizing it. Perhaps PWIs might become better sites for education if they acknowledged their indebtedness to the pragmatic prescience of thinking about liberal arts in the history of HBCUs. Margaret Walker's vision can still serve us well in the conduct of American higher education.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. October 10, 2016