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 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.
“Using ... the language of the grass-roots people, Walker spins yarns of folk heroes and heroines: those who, faced with the terrible obstacles which haunt Black people’s very existence, not only survive but prevail—with style.”
- Eugenia Collier, The Poetry Foundation
“If the test of a great poem is the universality of statement, then ‘For My People‘ is a great poem,” remarked Barksdale. The critic explained in Donald B. Gibson’s Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays that the poem was written when “world-wide pain, sorrow, and affliction were tangibly evident, and few could isolate the Black man’s dilemma from humanity’s dilemma during the depression years or during the war years.” Thus, the power of resilience presented in the poem is a hope Walker holds out not only to black people, but to all people, to “all the Adams and Eves.” As she once remarked, “Writers should not write exclusively for black or white audiences, but most inclusively. After all, it is the business of all writers to write about the human condition, and all humanity must be involved in both the writing and in the reading.”
- The Poetry Foundation
A Process Appreciation of For My People
Wherever there is a struggle to survive, there is a voice. The voice can be expressed outwardly in actions or remain inside a person by choice or necessity, It can be liberated or stifled. Either way it speaks of what is and what has been and what can be. It says "here i am" and "here I've been" and "here I want to go." It is all "here" in different ways. The voice combines the influence of the past, the creativity of the present, and the hopes for what can be. Process theology calls it concrescence: the becoming concrete of a person, moment by moment, in the hear and now, by receiving the past, gathering influences in the present, and aiming at a future.
Process theology adds that all voices are connected. No voice is an island. As human beings we find our voices with the voices of others: other human beings and also the voices of the more than human world: plants and animals, fire and water, spirits and ancestors. We are co-vocal.
But much of this interconnectedness, this mutual entanglement, is not happy or fair. It is not a symphony, a jazz concert, or a chorale. It has tensions, contradictions, injustices, and dissonance. Some people have microphones and think they deserve being heard while others are silenced.
Indeed, many are born with microphones but don't know it. They are born into privilege and power and think that the social hierarchies are normal and natural, perhaps even divinely ordained because they have been blessed. They are offended by the very idea that people are born into privilege and don't want their children to be told this in schools.
One task of the poet is to be a channel for the voices of those who have been voiceless. She does not create their voices, she hears them and speaks them. People say that she is a voice for the voiceless, but in truth she is a voice for the unheard, because the other voices are so loud. She gives voice to already existing voices..
As she does this, we become better listeners ourselves. If we are among her people, we hear the voices of our people, Hear Nikki Finney, Tracy K. Smith, and Leah Ward Sears. As a supreme court justice, Sears emphasizes that her understanding of my people has expanded to include all the people of Georgia, not Black people alone, but also that it reaches out in a special way to her people. Picture a circle inside of which are many circles. In the past, the circles of people of color have been excluded from full participation; in the future, so she hopes, all circles will be included as full participants. This means that even the privileged and powerful are included, albeit in new and just ways.
It we are among the privileged and powerful, the poet who helps us hear is especially important but in a different way. We realize that we've been listening in the wrong ways and hearing only ourselves. We begin to recognize what we should have recognized all along: the dignity of each and every person, not apart from their ethnicity but in their ethnicity, not apart from their gender but in their gender. Part of this dignity is in their endurance and struggle, and in the sheer style in which they prevail against so many odds. Our sense of what is important changes. We see beauty in true grit: in "washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching dragging along never graining never reaping never knowing and never understanding."
Our sense of priorities changes. We no longer measure things in terms of appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement; we measure things in terms of beauty and grit, style and justice. We hear the hope, the challenge, that a "new earth will rise" and "another world be born" where "dirges disappear" and "a new race" takes control.
Can we live with this knowledge? Can we let go of our privilege and become a multi-racial world, where the new race is all races? From the perspective of process theology, this is what is needed. The need is for just and sustainable communities, where people measure their lives in terms of love not domination, mutual care not elitism, solidarity not supremacy, cooperation not mastery, with respect for the dignity of all work, especially work that heals: mending and planting and patching and sewing and washing.
Yes, we can live with this knowledge. if we listen to For My People by Margaret Walker. The God to whom process theologians point is felt within each of us a beckoning to hear the call of the future as expressed in the voices of the present, especially those who have otherwise been marginalized or silenced. The call is for everybody but in different ways. It is For My People in all its meanings.
It takes faith to hear this call. This faith can be nourished by traditions where "being a believer" has been sustaining. Hence the need, after hearing For My People, to hear another poem as well: We Have Been Believers. As the poem makes clear, what belief has meant in African and African-American experience has differed. Sometimes belief has been healthy, sometimes unhealthy, sometimes both. But it has been sustaining all the while.
Today such belief sustains by a relinquishment of the idea that God is in complete control of the world. If justice is to emerge, it must come from our cooperating with a spirit who needs our own hands, who beckons us to awaken to our own potential for building a different kind of world where laughter and love, not dirges, are the norm. What does it mean to be a believer today? Process theology invites us to think of God, not as a puppeteer in the sky, much less a bully, but as creative transformation itself, within us yet more than us. God is a lure toward novelty, and we are faithful to God when we becomes channels for divine grace. I cannot speak for Margaret Walker's belief, but I can say that her voice is a powerful call toward just this kind of fidelity.
- Jay McDaniel
We Have Been Believers
We Have Been Believers
by Margaret Walker
We have been believers believing in the black gods of an old land, believing in the secrets of the seeress and the magic of the charmers and the power of the devil's evil ones.
And in the white gods of a new land we have been believers believing in the mercy of our masters and the beauty of our brothers, believing in the conjure of the humble and the faithful and the pure.
Neither the slaves' whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the bayonet could kill our black belief. In our hunger we beheld the welcome table and in our nakedness the glory of a long white robe. We have been believers in the new Jerusalem.
We have been believers feeding greedy grinning gods, like a Moloch demanding our sons and our daughters, our strength and our wills and our spirits of pain. We have been believers, silent and stolid and stubborn and strong.
We have been believers yielding substance for the world. With our hands have we fed a people and out of our strength have they wrung the necessities of a nation. Our song has filled the twilight and our hope has heralded the dawn.
Now we stand ready for the touch of one fiery iron, for the cleansing breath of many molten truths, that the eyes of the blind may see and the ears of the deaf may hear and the tongues of the people be filled with living fire. Where are our gods that they leave us asleep? Surely the priests and the preachers and the powers will hear. Surely now that our hands are empty and our hearts too full to pray they will understand. Surely the sires of the people will send us a sign. We have been believers believing in our burdens and our demigods too long. Now the needy no longer weep and pray; the long-suffering arise, and our fists bleed against the bars with a strange insistency.
The Sustaining Power of African American Belief
"We Have Been Believers," another poem from Walker's first collection, follows the free verse form of the title poem, as do many pieces in the book. It is a poem about the sustaining power of African American belief, whether it be in "the black gods of an old / land," "the white gods of a new land," or the "conjure of the humble / and the faithful and the pure." Walker recognizes that such faith fosters the race's survival. She says, "Neither the slavers' whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the / bayonet could kill our black belief." Yet she also criticizes how belief in "greedy grinning gods" has taxed "our wills" and encouraged "our spirits of pain." (from Internet Poetry Archive, click here.)