This month there are several chances to see Soul of a People: Writing America's Story on the Smithsonian Channel. (Check here for times.)
Today would be the 96th birthday of Margaret Walker, who was just out of college when she applied for a spot on the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago. She had grown up in the oppressive segregation of Alabama, and turned to the books of her father, a minister, to escape. After college she almost married a young minister herself, but her mother urged her to make another path for her life. With few options for jobs in depressed Chicago, she lied about her age and got work as a WPA writer, meeting up very soon with other writers like Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. It was there, she later said, that she found her voice as a poet.
"I changed from the very romantic and sentimental type of poetry to a very realistic and factual type of poetry," she said. "I was very conscious of making that change."
She became willing to explore characters hit hard by their circumstances. She submitted her collection For My People to the Yale Younger Poets competition three years in a row. In 1942 it won. She went on to publish many more collections as well as a bestselling novel, Jubilee.