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Young People Finding a Passion for Expression

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The other week I drove from Washington, DC to the coast of Connecticut for the Poetry by the Sea conference. There I joined a panel of scholars honoring African American poet and novelist Margaret Walker. Her works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966), based on the story of her great-grandmother during the slavery era.

This year marks the centennial of Walker’s birth, and so Jackson State University, where she nurtured generations of writers for decades, has organized events to celebrate. Hopefully by December the world will know Walker’s vital work much better.

I first encountered her work nearly 15 years ago in research that led to my book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America. Along the way I found stories of many writers who came out of the Federal Writers’ Project and became more famous than Walker – including Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison. But I was struck by Walker’s experience as a young woman in the 1930s. She described how she and other young people in Chicago got on their feet with jobs as WPA writers. With a meager paycheck from the government, they took assignments to write about life in Chicago during one of the country’s darkest hours. Along the way, they found their true voices.

Walker grew up in segregated Alabama, a minister’s daughter, and after college she was prepared to marry a young minister when her mother urged her to chart a new path. So Margaret applied to the WPA (better known for its public works construction projects) and reported to a cavernous warehouse office in downtown Chicago. There she met other young writers Richard Wright and Nelson Algren.

The group in Chicago, Walker recalled, fostered “what nobody believed was possible at that time -- a renaissance of the arts and American culture… and some of the most valued friendships in the literary history of the period.” She said in that moment she saw an end to the “long isolation of the Negro artist.” Wright, too, came from the South, with just seven years of school. In time he would become poet of the Great Migration, as Isabel Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns.

As I studied Walker’s correspondence with her friends for Soul of a People, what struck me was how in that moment of national crisis these young people managed to connect with each other across conventional divides of race, gender, age and education. Those friendships also involved the tensions and drama involved in any relationship. Even after Wright moved from Chicago to New York in 1937 on his road to literary stardom, bursting on the national scene with the bestselling novel Native Son, he kept up correspondence with Walker and Algren (see my piece in the American Scholar). But Wright was a complex and conflicted personality, and no relationship with him was easy.

This tension and vitality lies at the heart of My People, a feature screenplay based on Soul of a People that received the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) Screenplay Reading Series award. Margaret Walker is a pivotal character in that drama, which I co-wrote with screenwriter Jim McGrath.

The story unfolds against a backdrop of suspicion and fear that swirled across America as a Texas congressman investigated the WPA with the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities. A precursor to Senator Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting investigation years later, the committee interrogated witnesses and raided offices across Chicago, claiming to have a list of suspected communists in that city, ranging from 144 newspaper reporters and 112 lawyers to 514 milkmen. Meanwhile the WPA writers were interviewing a comparable range of Chicagoans to share their life experiences.

When our screenplay received a stage reading from the WGA in New York in 2013, I was thrilled to see the drama come alive on stage and witness how the standing-room audience responded. They laughed, cried and applauded, mainly for Margaret. The script brings the chance for the universal story in Soul of a People to reach a new medium and range of audiences, and another way to share Margaret Walker’s singular voice.