On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Northwestern English professor Natasha Trethewey, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007, introduced a special collaborative remix of the seminal poem “For My People,” a civil rights anthem written in 1937 by Northwestern alumna Margaret Walker Alexander.
A collaboration between PBS American Portrait and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Arts, of which Trethewey is co-chair, the project invited Americans to submit their own lines inspired by “For My People.” The Academy enlisted members — including John Lithgow, Yo-Yo Ma, Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates — to record parts of the poem.
Walker, who graduated from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in 1935, became the first Black writer to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for the book by the same name six years later.
She wrote: “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.”
Walker is a source of inspiration for Trethewey, whose belief in poetry’s healing power is at the heart of her work.
“Responding to Margaret Walker Alexander’s classic poem, ‘For My People,’ this new poem is a compendium of voices — a collective poem written by Americans all across the country to celebrate and pay homage to our shared and diverse communities — our people,” Trethewey said. “I think that at this moment it can stand as a sober and joyful testament to our tumultuous time — a kind of inaugural poem for this new beginning — written not by a single poet but made up of a representative cross section of American voices highlighting not only the individual or separate challenges in our communities, but also our shared experience as Americans.”
“Remix: For My People,” was written by Americans from across the country and across the country's broad spectrum of diversity. Curated by Trethewey, it celebrates difference as strength in the voices of its many authors.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1915, Walker was the eldest child of Rev. S.C. Walker and Marion Dozier Walker. Her father attended Northwestern, as did her sister, Mercedes Walker. Margaret Walker Alexander also received an honorary degree in 1974, served as a visiting professor in 1969 and was the namesake of a Northwestern professorship.