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.

—Margaret Walker

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.

Commentator's Poem

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
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
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
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

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

Rights & Access

“He Never Made It” Nikky Finney from Rice.

TriQuarterly, 1995.

By permission of the author.

  • 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

  • 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.