Jubilee (1966)

by Margaret  Walker

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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