[by C. Liegh McInnis]
Before I can discuss how “For My People” speaks to people today, I must begin by discussing the manner in which Dr. Alexander began her writing career by providing her readers with a literary manifesto, which shows that Dr. Alexander understood poetry to be an engagement of critical thinking through which societal ills can be resolved through creative approaches. With “I Want to Write,” Margaret Walker Alexander provides her literary manifesto that she wants to produce well-crafted poetry that shows African people how beautiful they are, which will encourage or inspire them to continue the struggle against white supremacy and toward the fulfillment of their humanity and citizenship.
The manifesto is two-fold statement. She declares that she wants to write well, which means to master literary device--more specifically imagery, repetition, and the cadence of the black Baptist preacher--and she wants that writing to be used in the upliftment of African peoples. With “I Want to Write” and later with all of her works, Dr. Alexander affirms and achieves W. E. B. DuBois’s notion that “in the final analysis all art is propaganda.” Yet, Dr. Alexander also affirms that utilitarian art must be well-crafted art; in fact, the only way that art can be utilitarian, which is to cause the desired catharsis, is that it must be well-crafted. The how (literary device) and the what (subject matter) of the creative work must be given equal attention by the writer. Since “I Want to Write” is not an essay but a poem, she does not describe (tell) the literary devices that she plans to use but rather provides (shows) them as sonic examples of the imagery, repetition, and cadence of the black Baptist preacher that will be the core elements of all her creative works.
“I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn throats. I want to frame their
dreams into words; their souls into notes. I want to catch their sunshine laughter in a bowl; fling dark hands to a darker sky and fill them full of stars then crush and mix such lights till they become a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.”
The image of “sob-torn throats” functions as an adverbial explaining to what extent African people have suffered. They have not merely suffered, but their suffering has been to an extent that the suffering itself, and not just the cause (white supremacy) of the suffering, is negatively impacting the physical, emotional, and psychological state of African people. And, yet, taken in context of the poem, “sob-torn throats” has a dual meaning in that African people have suffered and moaned for so long that they soon will be unable to voice the pain of that suffering because their “sob-torn” throats will be unable to voice that pain. So, the existence of “sob-torn throats” must also be seen as a precursor to a point or moment when African people shift from moaning to some other way of expressing their pain and frustration. The “sob-torn throats” must exist before one becomes sick and tire of being sick and tired. Then, once one becomes sick and tired of being sick and tired, the only natural occurrences left are implosion or explosion. African people will either implode (die of depression from carrying what Hughes, in his poem "Harlem," categorized as a “heavy load”) or they will explode (which is to manifest Hughes’ final option, which prophesizes the coming of the Black Power Movement.) And by connecting Dr. Alexander’s image with the moment of Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, readers can realize that the image of the “sob-torn throats” is as much a warning as it is a statement of fact, which is a meta-textual connection and affirmation of the warnings of “Harlem” and Native Son (about which Richard Wright warned that he created the novel to scare the hell out of America so that it would not continue to create and maintain conditions that produced millions of Bigger Thomases). To this point, readers must be both empathetic and wary of the race that has suffered to the point of having “sob-torn throats” because the image implies that something else is on the verge or edge of occurring.
Next, Dr. Alexander’s poetic act of framing black people’s dreams into words and framing their souls into notes is an act of making them human by showing African people as critical and creative beings with desires to transcend the arresting of their natural human development and fulfill their human potential. With this image she is, again, troping Hughes’s “Harlem” and, in doing so, is affirming Hughes’ notion that arresting the development of any people is a crime against humanity and an act that will only lead to chaos and human destruction. The only reason that anyone places anything into a frame is because one deems it worthy of display, perceiving it as aesthetically beautifully and culturally and personally significant. The act of framing anything is the act of telling everyone who enters one’s house, “Look at this thing that I have framed. It is beautiful. It is wonderful. It is valuable! You must see it!” This is what Dr. Alexander does to and for the dreams and souls of black folks. She just doesn’t indicate that black folks have souls and dreams; she shows that their souls and dreams are equal to the beauty of anyone. As such, any act or law that inhibits those souls and dreams from flowering is, again, a crime against humanity and against the Creator. Further, this act of framing is designed to convince black folks of their own worth and beauty, which is necessary for them to be successful in liberating themselves from the oppression of white supremacy. If one does not feel worthy of success, then one will never accomplish success. A woman in an abusive relationship will never leave that relationship until she realizes that she is worthy of more. As such, Dr. Alexander’s framing of the dreams and souls of black folks informs them that they are worth much more than for what they are settling.
The final multiple image affirms and symbolizes her desire to craft poetry that will allow African people to see and realize just how beautiful they are. What is most brilliant about this last image—other than its being well-crafted—is that Dr. Alexander illuminates the brilliance of African people by showing their ability to overcome their internal and external struggles. In all of her work that follows “I Want to Write,” she never presents pristine characters. For Dr. Alexander, a hero or role model is not one who has never struggled or failed but one who has overcome internal and external hurdles to survive and thrive. This tension, juxtaposition, and resolution of the internal and external struggle is a major device in all of Dr. Alexander’s work because her goal is not to deify African people but to enable them to see that they are “wonderfully made” creatures, despite their circumstances and their own dysfunction that often enables white supremacy to arrest their development. To be the “mirrored pool of” brilliant shining lights is to have been well-made by the Master and then polished by the trials of life so that their lives are now glowing examples to others trying to survive.
These three types of images and their ideals are evident in all of Dr. Alexander’s work, especially “For My People,” which is the perfect example of a work that fulfills the manifesto proposed in “I Want to Write.” The imagery of “For my People” paints a vivid picture that forces readers to face the horrors of black life while also being encouraged by its beauties and successes, as the repetition and cadence is an inspiring drumbeat, marching readers through the photo collage of black life and toward the mission of surviving and thriving. Dr. Alexander achieves her imagery using the poetic structure of the Hebrew psalm, which is called the “balance of ideas” by which she provides several affirming or contrasting ideas or behaviors that are symbolic of specific ideas that become more meaningful when they are combined with other behaviors. By themselves these actions or behaviors are not “ideas,” per se, but connected to the other behaviors or circumstances, they become poetic ideas that serve to symbolize the internal and external struggle of African people. One example of this is her use of “hair.” Alone, the word is meaningless, but when contextualized within the historical collage of black life, the word “hair” becomes an idea or a symbol of the most tangible struggle of black people against white supremacy and self-hatred.
Stanza eight is a good example of this. It begins by detailing the dysfunction or misguided efforts of African Americans, but Dr. Alexander layers the behaviors with the excellent use of alliteration so that the reader does not recognize the shift or change of blame until it is too late to see that although African people often engage in negative or dysfunction behavior, it is because they have been “deceived” and “devoured” by the man-eating machines—“money hungry glory-craving leeches…” Now, their dysfunction or misguided efforts are not just understood but contextualized, which fulfills Alexander’s desire to create poetry that is an example of critical thinking or poetry that forces readers to think critically, which is why the poem is not just a barrage of lamentations over white evil. The poem is a well-constructed—objective—examination of the internal (self-inflected) and external (white supremacy) elements that must be overcome before African people can reach their human potential. Racism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc. are complex issues that demand that one seek to identify multifactorial elements of cause rather than the big “one” cause and solution. Through her layering of the internal and external struggles of African people, Dr. Alexander is demanding that her readers not only read with a critical eye but engage life and its problems with that same critical eye. Black self-hatred is a symptom of white supremacy. There is, then, no way to cure the self-destructive actions of black self-hatred without acknowledging its root of white supremacy.
Yet, to be clear, Dr. Alexander is not concerned about going to or begging white people for help because she lays the responsibility of improving black life at the feet of black people. For Dr. Alexander, the problem with black life is not the institutions of black life but the misuse of those institutions. In stanza eight, she is not denouncing the institutions but the poor use of them. “…blundering and groping and floundering in the dark of churches and schools and clubs and societies and associations, and councils and committees and conventions…” As a professor of a university, an officer of a church and several social organizations, and an active delegate in a political party, Dr. Alexander often waged war to make those institutions do and be more than status symbols. This is her charge to her readers: stop being mindlessly led by these organizations and develop the courage and work ethic to use them to improve the community.
The goal of “For my People” is to simultaneously soothe, inspire, and chastise black people. The goal is not to create an overly romantic and unrealistic celebration of black people but to explain to black people that although they have the ability to seize control of their own destiny, they continue to dismantle their own liberation. As Claude McKay stated in defense of Home to Harlem, he wanted to create human beings not gods: “I will leave no subject, however degraded, untouched…I make my Negro character yarn and backbite and [fornicate] like people the world over” (McKay xv, xvi). In a similar fashion of showing the totality of the African-American struggle, at the core of “For My People” is the tension between intellectual ability and moral conviction. Dr. Alexander shows that black folks clearly have the intellectual ability to be masters of their own fate but that by relinquishing their moral conviction they are perpetuating the demise that has been established by their oppressors.
So, on a certain level, Dr. Alexander is engaged in psychological warfare, attempting to do as Frantz Fanon did when suggesting that African people discard the oppressor in their minds so that they can no longer suffer and be limited by what DuBois called double consciousness. (Much of the current art, especially much of reality television, which now passes for or is accepted as art, does the opposite; rather than fighting to liberate African people from dysfunctional behavior, much of reality television works to perpetuate the mental enslavement of African people by perpetuating/glorifying dysfunctional behavior.) To this end, stanzas six and seven unflinchingly shows the elements that must be discarded from African-American life and how those elements enable the oppressor to control the race. Specifically, Dr. Alexander focuses on man’s rejection of the intellectual and spiritual and embracing of physical pleasure as a primary demise of the race: “filling the cabarets and taverns and other people’s pockets…drinking when hopeless.” To this end, she declares that the people, like the biblical Israelites, are “lost disinherited dispossessed” people who need to reject their oppressors' ways because they need “land and money and something—something all our own.” Like the biblical Israelites, it becomes clear that, to Dr. Alexander, her people, black people, are in a negative circumstance, wandering in the wilderness of white supremacy because they have misused their intellectual prowess and rejected moral righteousness.
In an effort to discard the oppressor that has been inscribed within the minds of African people, Dr. Alexander stresses the importance of formal and informal education in stanzas three and four. The issue for Dr. Alexander is: with what are African people shaping their minds—nihilism or righteousness? As it relates to informal or the cultural education that must occur within the home and community, in stanza three Dr. Alexander is showing that the home and community education, indoctrination, and blueprint are equally if not more important than one’s formal academic education. Thus, what children play informs and becomes an example of their aspirations. The “playing baptizing and preacher 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” show the manner in which children internalize and manifest what the community adults provide for them. The games that they play provide constructive sensibilities on which to build life. Even in the playing of cops and robbers, for these children the maintenance of law and order is the goal. Now, some 50 years after its publication, many of today’s children play hustler and thug and video vixen and drug dealer, all provided and glorified by their community adults. Then, in stanza four, Dr. Alexander is showing the importance of education as a transformative device or tool: “the cramp 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…” At the core of her discussion of formal education, she is highlighting that all education, especially one’s formal academic education must allow for self-discovery and must provide one the tools needed to be a socio-political philosopher (problem solver) so that one’s education does not perpetuate one’s negative circumstance. Ultimately, by emphasizing the inquisitive nature of academic education, she is informing readers that education must serve to create people as leaders and completers of their own fate and destiny, and not create them as followers to be slave labor. They went to school with the purpose to know the world, to know life, so that they could master it. Today, “For my People” is asking if we—all of us—still have the notion of school, and, if so, how has changing that notion or understanding of school helped us?
Finally, Dr. Alexander ends with the imagery of transcending the physical and embracing the metaphysical or spiritual. Go to God, but don’t go to God blindly or meekly. Go to God with the wisdom of Solomon, the critical thinking of Paul, and the fighting spirit of David. The first nine stanzas make it clear that, for Dr. Alexander, one’s belief in God is something that must manifest itself in one’s daily socio-political life. So, by the time readers arrive at stanza 10, they know that she’s not just offering “pie in the sky” theology but rather that she’s reminding, affirming, and demanding that the readers, especially African Americans, realize that “faith without work is dead.” As James 2:14-22 states, “If you have a friend who is in need of food and clothing, and you say to him ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ and then don’t give him clothes or food, what good does that do?”
Now readers feel the full effect of the poetic layering of the first nine stanzas. Dr. Alexander is calling for a warfare of righteousness. And it will be a warfare that must entail the fashioning of a “bloody peace.” There is work that must be done, not just praying, and this work entails engaging enemies of justice and righteousness no matter who they are. With the imagery of stanza 10, Dr. Alexander is not just troping the book of Revelations; she is troping the core teachings of Christ, that only love can save humanity, no matter how evil one’s attacker or oppressor may be. Thus, she makes clear that the struggle of African people to liberate themselves from white supremacy is itself but a trope or metaphor of humanity’s struggle to liberate itself from its jail of selfishness so that we will be able to “fashion a world that will all the people/ all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations.”
Originally presented on March 26, 2015, at Medgar Evers Library as part of the series of events presented by the JSU MWA Research Center and the Jackson-Hinds Library System to Celebrate Dr. Alexander’s Centennial. Re-printed here by permission of the author.
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