Black History Month: Jubilee by Margaret Walker

by Margaret Walker
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1966
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 497
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.

I stumbled on Jubilee when I was looking for a book for my birthday year of 1966 to finish up that decade for my Century of Women project. It fit well with my reading for Black History Month as well, and my public library had a copy available, so I grabbed it.

I’m really surprised that this book isn’t better known because it was an amazing read. Margaret Walker, the author, was a black woman born in Alabama in 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Jubilee draws heavily on the oral history of Walker’s family, and is basically an unromanticized, unsanitized (and frankly much better) answer to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The character at the center of the book is Elvira, or Vyra. The reader meets Vyry at the very beginning, as a small child who is brought to see her mother, a slave, one last time before she dies, worn out from child bearing and physical labor. Vyry is the daughter of a slave and her white master, who rapes her on the regular (the book doesn’t frame the relationship as “rape” and the master would surely not have imagined himself a rapist. But a person who is property has no ability to decline consent, and therefore the entire concept of consent is meaningless when it comes to sexual contact between the man who owns the woman and the woman. All sexual contact is coercive and is also, therefore, abusive and assaultive). She is the despised half-sister of the legitimate daughter of house, who looks enough like her to pass as white and to constantly remind the mistress that her husband was forcing himself on a slave during their marriage.

The book begins in around 1850, fifteen years before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. Vyry is a fantastic character – fully realized and complex. She rebuts many of the myths about slaves – that they were happy, that they weren’t mistreated, that they didn’t yearn for freedom, that they neither saw nor internalized the unjustness of their circumstances. She is absolutely indomitable, as are many of the black characters in this book.

Before the Civil War, she falls in love with a wealthy, well-educated and free Black man. They want to marry, but are denied the opportunity because the plantation owners recognize that the very existence of free Blacks will create unrest among their slaves. When she approaches her master – who is also her father – about her wish to marry, he is indulgent until he finds out that she has been keeping company with a free man, at which point he becomes abusive. The man she loves wants to purchase her freedom, and this request is denied. It is cruel.

I suppose that this is one of those books that the new breed of book banners would likely seek to ban. It shows the south for what it was – a brutal, white supremacists regime under which a good chunk of humanity lived in terror (and was denied their humanity). The Civil War destroys the south, leaving the plantations in ruin and economically broken. The North abandons the emancipated slaves, leaving them to fend for themselves in circumstances that are impossible and horrific.

No, they have begun a reign of terror to put the Negro back in slavery. They will never accept the fact that the South rose up in rebellion against the Union North and the North won the war. They mean to take out all their grudges on us.”

Vyry and her children struggle on, scraping by in poverty, fleeing from one racist town to the next, supported by a good and decent man that Vyry marries when she believes her first love has died in the Civil War. Vyry dies free, but there is no real happy ending for her, unless you consider the life of Margaret Walker to be her happy ending – a brilliant, successful young granddaughter who stood on the weary shoulders of a great-grandmother who never really had a moment’s rest.

Walker, born in 1915, was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She was a poet and a novelist, and her poem, For My People, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. It reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hills We Climb. It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
1942 was 12 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read the whole poem here.

This book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It can be difficult to be reminded how brutally the United States treated some of its citizens, but it is better to remember than to pretend. Our shared humanity demands that we be strong enough to face the truth about our history and ourselves.


    1. It was amazing, and I would love to see a modern television adaptation.

      I have never read Roots, although it has been on my radar for a long time.

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