Although Margaret Walker has published three volumes of poetry since the 1970s—Prophets for a New Day (1970), October Journey (1973), and This Is My Century (1989)—her reputation as one of the most accomplished African American poets of the twentieth century was established with the 1942 publication by Yale University Press of her first book of poems, For My People. As the winner of the Yale University Series of Younger Poets Award, Walker became the first black woman to be so honored. That the book belongs to the category of first black American achievements is less significant than the craft and historical consciousness that give the poems enduring value and secure their special place in the literary history of African American poetry and in the cultural narrative of African American people.
For My People, particularly its title poem, can be read as a successful fulfillment of the yearning expressed in the early poem “I Want to Write” (1934). It is also, within the evolution of African American poetry, a model of how the individual locates herself in foundational orality and the tradition of formal verse, blending folk speech and fluid lyricism, biblical typology, and the disciplined genres of ballad and sonnet with the freer forms of modernist sensibility to construct a collection that is governed by the logic of response to a people's special history. Also very important for literary study is Walker's heeding of James Weldon Johnson's call for a poetry that judiciously represented the souls and gifts of black folk, as well as her building on the antecedents of Harlem Renaissance poetry to create works that at once demonstrate mastery of language and the revolutionary vision of the 1930s. Less overtly political than contemporaneous work by Langston Hughes, for example, such poems as “We Have Been Believers”, “Since 1619,” and “Delta” illustrate Walker's unyielding commitment to the themes of liberation and social justice. Stephen Vincent Benét was perceptive in noting in his preface to For My People that the poet's voice was living, passionate, and replete with “lasting music.”
“For My People”, which had been published in Poetry in 1937 and in the landmark anthology The Negro Caravan (1941), and the twenty-five other poems in the book are divided into three sections that focus on the South as place of origin and lineage, on the tragicomic existentialism of folk characters, and the redemptive qualities of belief. As critics such as Eugenia Collier, Eleanor Traylor, and R. Baxter Miller have asserted, the distinguishing features of this volume are Walker's historical and prophetic vision, deft handling of symbols and biblical rhetoric, and use of myth and lore.
For My People endures as a poetic model of the signal emphasis in African American literature on matters of history, and it is the use of history that links Walker's poetic vision with those of her contemporaries Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Melvin B. Tolson. The iconic status “For My People” has achieved in African American cultural life serves as one warrant for continuing study of this book. Margaret Walker's lyric and narrative poems resonate with the deep structures of African American philosophy and humanism as they imaginatively look forward to the future of her people.