If the reader didn’t know that Jubilee was based on the story of
Margaret Walker’s great-grandmother, she might think that the plot was
too calculatedly stereotypical about the African American experience in
the South during slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. But its
basis in fact increases Jubilee’s
potency. Vyry, the central character, is the biracial daughter of
Georgia plantation owner John Dutton, who never acknowledges her, and
an enslaved woman who dies in childbirth after having given birth to 15
children by age 29. Dutton’s cruel wife hates and mistreats Vyry, who
too closely resembles her own daughter. As she grows up on the
plantation, Vyry sees her mother substitute sold; her half-sister
branded after trying to run away; and an elderly slave beaten to death
by the overseer. After Emancipation, the adult Vyry and her husband are
duped into sharecropping and are burned out of their house by the KKK. But Vyry is a resilient person, as well as a kind and
forgiving person, and it is her character that wins hearts and allows
the story to end on a note of reconciliation and hope.
Jubilee took Walker 30 years to write; she researched every aspect of the black experience to undergird her family’s oral tradition. Critics commented that Jubilee was the first truly black American historical novel and a counterpoint to nostalgic white fiction such as Gone with the Wind.
A poet and essayist as well as a novelist, Walker was also well-known for her 1942 poem “For My People.” She taught at Jackson State College and directed its Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black Peoples.
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