Nikky Finney reads and discusses Margaret Walker's "For My People"
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.
Rights & Access
“For My People” Margaret Walker from For My People.
Yale University Press, 1942.
By permission of the University of Georgia Press.
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.
He Never Had It Made
These words read upon the investiture of Ernest A Finney, Jr. as the first Black Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the state of South Carolina. December 1, 1994 Columbia, S. C. Just a plain brown paper sack boy from a place and people who sweet fed him everything in double doses just in case his man size should ever wear a hole An ordinary brown corduroy boy from folk who never had it made but still managed to make whatever they were to be from scratch A regular little fellow whose mother never got to bathe or watch him grow or even gaze him from the farmhouse window where he loved to sit on a summertime box of Virginia cured day dreams umbrallaed by the big oak tree and inbetween chores and stare away at the longest dirt road the only way in or out to grandpop’s farm the same country road that all country boys tried to stare down in their day wondering what or who could ever be at the end of all the dirt watching it for signs of life maybe somebody from the city might visit some somebody from one of those shiny ready made places who could make magic of a brown boy’s country fried beginnings Maybe one of those far away places would take him just as homespun as he was and grow him up to be something legal maybe handsome even dap debonair and he might just become the somebody who could easy talk the most complicated of things for the regulars and for all others be shiny as new money From the first he was looking to be one of those new Black men who came visiting from the North to talk pretty at the State College of South Carolina one of those kinds with the pocket chains and the shiny grey suits with a hundred pounds of law books under their arms just like some kind of natural growth stout with the law on their minds devotees of justice maybe he could be one of their kind He never had it made he only had a proud father and a circle of stubborn arms and wiggling fingers to keep his dying mama’s promise to raise the boy up at their sides and not just anywheres Don’t let no strangers have him knowing he would never have her there to see to any of the raising herself This one that one there had it sweetened and sifted chewed up and spit back on his plate he for sure had it prayed over then chicken scratched around in somebody’s kitchen who loved him through and through over somebody’s fire who pointed first to his pantslegs an then maybe a switch whenever he was off his daily chalk straight line And from beneath his granddaddy’s wagon wheels and form up under his people’s stern tutelage he was surely begun but it wasn’t nothing guaranteed you know the ways I mean all silver and engraved He might’a had it boiled up every morning explained and preached and on sunday gospelized by an early rising grandmother then a significant Claflin College And I’m quite sure he soda jerked it back and forth and baked his dreams in his own high hopes to try and make sure it could so maybe happen The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise But he never had it brought out on some royal platter never promised to him at his broken bones of a birth the making of this man’s silk deeds came straight from polyester dreams from tears and sea water sweat from love and dirt work and the graciousness of his God all following him like a North star He always loved the law even in the middle of all those many years when his own daughter argued history to him poeting always what wasn’t right fair or true how he with the calm of a sailor who had seen the ocean at its worst and then its best with all the faith two eyes could keep safe for her how he would always no matter say “The law works, Girl.” And his own poetry has kept what was right right and he has kept her and the law breathing A steady drop of water will wear a hole in a rock, Daughter. Such are the vicissitudes of life, Son. If you see me and the bear fighting, you go and help the bear, my friend. It’s alright Babygirl, you win some and you lose some. Just do the best you can with what you got everybody. He is the justice man and from his waiting tables as a young lawyer for the white and the privileged to this day here he has always believed back then as boy with only a road up here as man who never looks back the law works Girl Papa Daddy The Justice Man you never had it made but here you are making it and all of us cross over with you proud as peacocks in our brightest polyester maybe that’s what Pop maybe that’s what Mama Carlene would say
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
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.
- 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)
Rights & Access
“He Never Made It” Nikky Finney from Rice.
By permission of the author.