By Jim Beaugez | Porch fodder
Literary and civil rights luminary Margaret Walker kept a diary for much of her 83 years.
In the 13,000 handwritten pages of his personal papers archived at Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center, Walker wrote prodigiously about his days, recounting events both memorable and mundane.
Walker wrote about his feelings the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. She wrote down shopping lists and what she planned to serve to guests at Thanksgiving. She has written about cooking and food so often that the exclusion of a recipe is curious. Untraceable, says Dr. Robert Luckett, who has been the center’s director since 2009, is the New Orleans native’s signature dish.
“I spent a lot of time in these newspapers, [and] the only thing we can’t find at all is a recipe for what was his very famous okra,” Luckett said. “She would have these remarkable dinners [for] world famous people, authors, writers. Many of them I was lucky enough to know all talked about his okra. She would very famously have that pot of okra ready on the stove for people who came and went to her house, writers like Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni.
On February 26, Luckett will present a talk titled “Margaret Walker: Food, Fellowship, and Forms of Activism” at the Catfish Row Museum in Vicksburg. The event is the first of seven programs in the museum’s Food For Thought series, which will include hands-on workshops, curatorial events and panel discussions focusing on local food habits, telling stories that cross barriers and borders and show how food, class and ethnicity intersect. in the south.
Much of Walker’s legacy rests on his two best-known works – “For my people” in 1942, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, and of the novel “Jubilee” in 1966, which created literary space for future works like Toni Morrison”Beloved.” Walker may not have been as prolific in publishing as some of his contemporaries, as two decades elapsed between the publication of the major bookends of his life as a writer, but in the years that followed, she flourished in the roles of provider, instructor, and activist spanning the years before, during, and after the civil rights movement.
Moving from Chicago to Jackson in 1949, Walker took an instructorship at Jackson State University, where she would teach and mentor students for 30 years and establish one of the first black studies programs. In 1968, she established the center that now bears her name as the Institute for the Study of Black History, Life and Culture, an archive and museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of African-American history and culture.
“During this time, she has turned her attention to mentoring and uplifting new generations of writers and artists, intellectuals and activists, and dedicates this time to being here in Jackson, Miss.”, Luckett said. “Some of those most famous people we know today saw her as someone who connects a younger generation of writers like the Toni Morrisons of the world to the older generation of Langston Hughes.”
Walker’s home became a welcome landing spot for black intellectuals and activists, and the food was always there. Among these frequent guests were Medgar and Myrlie Evers, who were neighbors of his family on Guynes Street in Jackson, now known as Margaret W. Alexander Drive in his honor.
“While Margaret would have been hesitant to even describe herself as a civil rights activist, there’s no question what she was doing was activism,” Luckett said. “You founded an institute for black studies in Jackson, Mississippi in 1968, the same year Dr. King was assassinated three hours away in Memphis; it is an activist statement.
Her journals from this time show how she used food to foster conversation and mentorship around her dinner table. Scribbled in cursive script, she detailed recipes for her cheese straws, Boston brown bread, maple walnut cake and a salad made with dates, cabbage and pineapple. She talked about the pig slaughters and how every part of the animal would be used for the meal.
“She was very intentional about it; she knew what it meant,” Luckett said. “She recognized that what she was doing, what she was serving, the people she was bringing to the table, that it had a bigger context, even though she might not call it activism. “
In his program, Luckett will discuss the role food has played in Walker’s personal and public life, his relationships with civil rights leaders and how even during times of upheaval – such as the Covid pandemic of both recent years – food is necessary not only for sustenance but also for conviviality.
“She was extremely busy, but no matter what, in the middle of your day, you make time to eat,” he said. “It might not always be the same kind of community mode, but I like to think of something like Margaret’s okra like her cooking pot in the kitchen, on the stove with the roux, the kind of thing you cook and leave on the spot. over the days, to get the best possible okra and something you use all the time.