Author, KU professor challenges stereotypes with Margaret Walker biography; community invited to author talk

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Lawrence scholar and author Maryemma Graham during an upcoming talk will delve into her recent biography, in hopes of giving long-overdue flowers to the Black woman who she said revolutionized education and humanities.

Graham, who’s a distinguished professor of English at the University of Kansas and the founding director of KU’s History of Black Writing program, authored a comprehensive biography about activist and writer Margaret Walker. “The House Where My Soul Lives,” published in December 2022, digs deep into Walker’s life — her personal experiences, poems and essays, revolutionary ideas and contributions to education and humanities.

Graham will speak about the book Thursday evening at the Raven Book Store.

“Without defining herself as a radical or even a feminist, Walker followed the precepts of both,” according to information from the Raven. “She promoted the idea of the artist of tradition and social change, a public intellectual and an institution builder. Among the first to recognize the impact of Black women in literature, Walker became a chief architect of what many have called the new Black South Renaissance.”

Through the 80 archival photos and documents, never-before-examined personal papers and interviews with those who knew Walker woven into the biography, Graham said her goal is to show readers that Walker’s impact was far beyond the “angry, Black woman” trope widely attributed to her.

Q & A with Maryemma Graham

Q: What inspired you to work on a biography of Margaret Walker’s life and be the first to do so?

A: I rewatched “Hidden Figures” last night on TV, and I realized, that’s the theme. There are all these hidden figures — they were famous in their time and in their communities and in their circles, but nobody knew their importance and their influence. [Walker] is a person in the literary field — and what I would say bigger than literature is the humanities. 

We have the Kansas Humanities Council, we have the National Humanities; we have such a big interest now in how we spread knowledge far and wide [and] how we engage people of many different publics. She was very much an original person in that regard. That is what she created for us to follow. She had these paradigms and she had a center that she created and she built in the ’60s and started doing all this stuff, and now we do it as just commonplace and don’t recognize that somebody had the idea that we need to be doing more in our institutions with the knowledge that we have. Educators can reach more people than just the students in their classrooms. 

Most times when you hear about people like that, they’re from some place in New York or in Europe or Germany. We tend to think about stuff coming from elsewhere, but this was a Black woman in the south. And that would make it even more remarkable — that she was thinking more broadly than anybody at the time and she not only thought the ideas, she executed them. So, she’s my “hidden figure,” I guess.

Q: How long had you been working on the book before publishing?

A: Twenty years.

My time was divided between what I was doing in my own research, trying to write this book, and of course teaching because that’s what I am: an educator. I was also trying to struggle with, “How do you tell this kind of story?” You want to make it interesting, you want it to be good storytelling, and [Walker] left so much material. I had to read every single thing, and it was not all online. It was in Jackson, Mississippi. My second home became Jackson.

I was determined to try to get it all right, not just go with the flow. I had to make a story that people would want to read, and that meant I had to spend time getting the story straight, telling it the right way, making it appeal to the readers who did not know who she was. If you knew who she was, that’s one thing, but if you didn’t what would make you pick up this book? [Walker] in fact impacted a lot of people’s lives because she was not only a poet and a novelist, she was an educator. 

I was doing what I call “literary archeology.” People discover bones of people who lived many years ago. I was discovering books that nobody bothered to read and talk about, so the “archeology” part is the “discovery” part. The “literary” is that history, that culture, the writing [and] the writers. This biography is a help and effort to recover Margaret Walker.

Q: In what ways does the biography challenge the “angry Black woman” stereotype imposed upon Walker?

A: Walker is a Black woman writing in the 20th century. She’s confronting all the stereotypes that if she raises a question, if she challenges anybody, right? She didn’t play the game. 

She wrote her family-based narrative, called “Jubilee.” It’s real popular — it was international bestseller translated into seven languages — but it was at the beginning of this whole interest in looking at slavery again, looking at the period of slavery in America. Her book was published in 1966. The most famous book about that period [of slavery] was published in 1976, and it was Alex Haley’s “Roots.” … Then, of course, it was adapted to film. Well, Walker challenged the veracity or the truth of that book. She found, unfortunately, he read other books and incorporated other books into his book, so he plagiarized. And [Walker] was the one who called him out.

She called him out and all the people called him out, too. They sued him for plagiarism, but her suit was the one that became so famous because she was a Black woman suing a Black man. If you can get the significance of that, that’s a no-no. Black people are supposed to stick together. The perception was that she was just mad because her book didn’t do as well. People bought that idea because why would you challenge Alex Haley? He had the motion picture industry behind him, he had lawyers behind him, he had scholars behind him — he had a whole system saying this was the greatest book of all time.

She had also had a relationship with writer Richard Wright, who’s another famous Black author from the earlier period, and she had differences with him. So she was seeming to be that woman who had problems with other Black male writers, and it was easy to say, “She’s just angry because she’s not getting the same attention.” This is before feminism, so she fell into that trap. And that was how people came to know her, unfortunately.

I wanted people to know this woman as she was, what she did, and what she left us.

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Q: Are there ways in which you found you personally could relate to Walker, as you’re both Black women from the south who are writers and educators? What other connections did you find?

A: I have been thinking about that so much, and yes, there is a lot — southern, Black, woman, in higher education, struggling with multiple identities, being challenged because you are stepping out of the norm … Motherhood: I have four children, she had four children. You struggle as a mother with a career — everybody struggles having a big career like that. I have that identity as a mother, absolutely, growing up in the church and in a family who was deeply religious. All those things were elements.

I went to one of her conferences before grad school and it was transformative. It was a Black women’s conference in the early ’70s, and she introduced you to all this new knowledge and all these writers that you never knew. I got to meet her, and that impression that I had and the vision that she gave me is like, “You can do this work.” I watched somebody work. I saw a model. I got a chance to work with her early in my career and late in her career. Meeting her and seeing her operate had a huge impact because it said to me that there’s a lot to be done if you are in higher education. It’s not just going up the ladder from a teacher to an administrator to a college president.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at your talk at the Raven this week?

A: This is a conversation, so I don’t know what Randal Jelks is going to ask me. He’s gonna interview me, and I kind of like this model because you don’t know what you’re gonna get, and it keeps the audience on their toes. Usually if you start conversations, people want to know certain kinds of things, and some of those things are between the pages of the book. It’s not in the book.

Author talk at Raven Bookstore

In conversation with Randal Maurice Jelks, professor of African and African American Studies and American Studies, Graham will delve into themes and nuances of her book, “The House Where My Soul Lives.” At the end, audience members will be able to ask Graham questions, followed by a book signing.

The event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4 at Raven Book Store, 809 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence. Admission is free of cost and open to the public.

Visit the Raven’s website to learn more about the event.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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