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Walker’s “Jubilee”: Oral History in Lyrical Melodies Research Paper

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Introduction

Jubilee is a folk novel embedded in folk beliefs and folk lyrics. Perhaps no other novel depicting the plight of southern blacks has made a greater impact on the reading populace than Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. In essence, Jubilee has been proclaimed as a civil war novel in the reverse tradition of Gone with the Wind. It is primarily the search for freedom of the protagonist, but symbolically of the black community as a whole.

This paper tries to unveil the elements of folklore and song of the Afro-Americans in an era of subjugation, which has been skilfully penned down by Walker in this novel. Hence we can proclaim Margaret Walker’s Jubilee as a lyrical novel that captures the heart of the African American society in the nineteenth century America and relates the tale of the dark ages of slavery through the voice of a slave woman. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee is a lyrical novel that captures and shapes the saga of the African American experience by using the lyrics of slave songs and spirituals that give testimony to the legacy of her people.

Synopsis

Jubilee is the story of Vyry, the protagonist of the novel, which begins with the imminent death of her mother, Sis Hetta in 1839. it ends with the news of an impending birth – Vyry’s fourth child – some thirty years later. Vyry was born into slavery, the child of a slave woman and her master; this child Margaret Walker’s grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, will be born free.

Until Jubilee, the story of black women in the Civil War and in slavery had been told by others, except for the slave narrators who recorded their experience after manumission or after the escape from the “peculiar institution”, the perspective, whether of history or of fiction, was almost inevitably white, usually male, and regionally identifiable. In Margaret Walker’s interview with Nikki Giovanni, recorded in A Poetic Equation, Walker stresses the importance of black woman’s perspective: “I’m interested in the black woman in fiction perhaps because I am a black woman, and feel that the black woman’s history has not been told, has not been dealt with adequately.”

Women were less mobile. They not only had to do the daily chores at daytime, but also at night, at times, give in to the master’s nocturnal needs. Vyry’s mother was given to young master John Dutton when she was “barely more than pickaninny.” She died in her twenty-ninth year, after having given birth to fifteen slave children.

Vyry meets a free black man named Randall Ware who promises to buy her freedom if she marries him. She sees him secretly and bears three of his children, only two of whom live. She asks Marster John for permission to marry Randall, but he refuses. Vyry, the mother of two children before Randall Ware, their father, finally convinces her to break free the shackles of slavery and head towards freedom. She meets Randall when she is fifteen before which she perceived freedom to be a miracle of God. She is, however, drawn to Randall because he is a free man and he promises her freedom: “ If you marriage with me, I’d buy your freedom!” (88)

Walker also accounts that some slave women did make successful bids for freedom.

Jubilee emerges from the tradition of slave narrative, and Walker uses her research into this unique African-American literary genre to support the oral tradition of the black family out of which the characters of her novel comes: the life of Vyry and her husbands – Randall Ware and Inis Brown – and her children handed down by one of those children to the artist who would finally make Jubilee, a celebration of freedom and restoration.

The influence of slave narrative is obvious in Jubilee, not only from the title and Margaret Walker’s own testimony, but also from the thematic material and structure of the novel. “The most obvious themes to be culled from slave narratives,” Darwin Turner suggests, are, are “courage, love of freedom, and perseverance.” Walker’s Jubilee emphasizes all those as does the writer’s own narrative, “How I Wrote Jubilee.

Jubilee draws on both history and folk traditions. The treatment of the slaves is based on numerous slave narratives Walker researched in archives and libraries in Georgia, North Carolina, and the National Archives. The Civil War section of Jubilee traces the battles, historically, from Tennessee to Sherman’s march through Georgia.

Jubilee resonates of slave history and lore. This is accentuated even through the structure of the novel. The tripartite structure of slave narrative (Bondage, Escape, and Freedom – in chronological order) is reflected in the three-part chronological framework o Jubilee:

  1. Sis Hetta’s Child: The Ante Bellum years (3 – 174), ca. 1839-1860.
  2. “Mine eyes have seen the Glory”: The Civil War Years (177-312) 1861-1865.
  3. “Forty years in the Wilderness”: Reconstruction and Reaction (315-497) 1866-1870.

What is interesting of the structure of Jubilee is how closely it parallels the experiences of so many slaves in bondage; at the same time it demonstrates how the condition of being female effectively limited the opportunity of many black women to escape to freedom.

In Part 1, Walker describes the plantation setting and the slave experience, both physical and emotional, in detail. She also addresses many of the same issues she also addresses many issues included in the Bondage section of the narratives: the question of self-identity, lack of complete family, confused birthdates, and problem of being mulatto, brutal separation from the mother, little memories of or “lamentation” for the father – the daily struggle against which J. Noel Heevmance describes as a calculated dehumanization process. Vyry is two years old when the novel opens, she knows nothing of her mother, and at the time is too young to grief.

Vyry’s father is unknown to her; therefore, she is completely unprepared for the brutal treatment she receives at the hands of Mistress Sullins, the wife of Master John, who has fathered other mulatto children. She learns quickly to obey and learns skills from Aunt Sally, another slave, who acts as Vyry’s mother. Vyry has a very difficult and traumatizing childhood. As a young girl, she experiences the deaths of many slaves close to her, attends a public execution, and sees another slave branded. Aunt Sally is sold and Vyry becomes the cook of the household at a young age.

Part1 ends with Vyry’s attempted escape and recapture and Randall’s presumed escape. But the slave condition continues for Vyry through the Civil War (part 2). It was not before 1865, when Vyry was twenty-eight years old that “freedom [would] come to her” (226). The news of Unions having won the war comes slowly to the rural southern Georgia. But Vyry seems in no hurry to leave Dawson, for she was waiting for Randall and was convinced that he would return for her.

She waits for him until she has no alternative but to leave with Innis Brown and her children. Vyry marries Innis Brown and they move to Alabama to start their own farm. They build a house in the woods in the river bottom. They soon find that when the water rises, their house and farm flood. They then move to Bullock County to a sharecropping plantation where the landlord cheated them into a year of sharecropping. They then move again to Pike County where they find a family to work for, the Jacobsons. While Vyry and Innis worked for the Jacobson family, they lived in a settlement near the railroad tracks.

They did not feel safe from the start living there, but when the Ku Klux Klan attacks a neighbor, they decided to move. They build a house on a hill in Troy where there was plenty of land to be cultivated. The Ku Klux Klan burns that house to the ground and it was time again to move. Vyry is afraid to build another home in fear of another attack by the Ku Klux Klan. Vyry goes into town every day to sell fresh eggs, butter, and buttermilk. While in town, she is often mistaken for a white woman and hears people say very hurtful things about blacks that make her want to move again. One day on her way into town she helps a woman deliver a child. All the white neighbors of the town decide they need a “colored granny” to be a midwife to the women in town. All the neighbors pitch in to help Vyry’s family build a house and feel welcome.

Part 3 although unlike the narratives in locale, has something common with the genre. Freedom is an unfulfilled promise, whether in the North or in the South. Vyry thought that Randall Ware had died, but one day he visits her. Both Vyry and innis had nop interest in politics but Randall was intrigued by it. He had befriended Henry McNeil Turner, who was elected to the first Reconstructio Legislature. Ware bought a piece of land of his opwn.

But he was beaten, his helper murdered, and he wsa forced to sell his prime land to Ed Grimes, th former overseer of the Dutton plantation. Walker relates the economic harassment of of Ware to the political harassment of the newly elected black legislature in September 1886, all Negro legislators were declared ineligible and unceremoniously unseated (John Hope, 1969) He wants to take their children, Jim and Minna, to school.

He also asks her to choose between himself and Innis Brown as a husband, because she is married to both of them. She chooses Innis Brown, but insists Randall Ware stays and visits. He takes Jim to send to school and leaves Vyry with money to care for her family. The ending of Jubilee suggests a connection between the events the novel has described during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The narrative ends on a train bound for Selma. As Jim and his father board the train, the conductor announces the seating order—colored upfront and whites in the rear.

Black Folk Elements in Jubilee

Landell Payne, in his Black Novelists and the southern literary Tradition (1981), writes that “both kinds of literature of the black and white writers who grew up in the south clearly draw upon a folk culture, grow out of the evangelical Protestantism, and rely on oral narrative.” Jubilee is a folk novel from beginning to finish. In How I Wrote Jubilee (1972) Margaret Walker says that she always intended Jubilee to be a “folk novel” embedded in folk elements: folk sayings, folk beliefs, folkways. As Wright said, “Blues, spirituals and folk tales recounted from mouth to mouth …all these formed the channels through which racial wisdom flowed.”

Religion: No depiction of black folk would be complete to religion. Such references in Jubilee are the folk sermon by Brother Ezekiel of the Rising Glory Church (38-39). Although it is brief, it is masterfully done in the vein of black folk sermon worship.

Superstitions are copious in Jubilee; however, they appear primarily at the beginning of the novel – and a few at the end. It is predominant in the first part when slavery system is intact and gloom, fear and death prevails. It comes back in the end when Vyry, with her family, returns to her soil. A few of the superstitions used in the novel are:

  1. Screech owl calls signal an approaching death (of a man). (3)
  2. Laudanum is used to ease pain. (6)
  3. A quarter moon that drips blood is an evil omen. (5)
  4. Young girls should not let their feet straddle rows in field crops lest the crops shrivel up and die. (45)
  5. Apple root is as good as purgative. (84)

Language: The novel is impregnated with the black folk dialect. The way the characters speak has a clear influence of the way blacks down south spoke. Subject-verb agreement violations are seen in “Yassah, I have a pass,” “Is you crazy?” and “You liable to cry,” all of which typically show auxiliary verb omitted in black dialect. “ I feel the same way bout vittles (victuals)” indicated an error in subject-verb agreement, and the bout has undergone prefix dropping.

“You bought it” and “a big brown bird brought him down the chimney” are examples of analogical verb tense formation. “ I ain’t nothing but a ignorant field hand what you despise” illustrates relative pronoun usage confusion as well as folk article usage.

“Slip of a lad” is an epithet still in general use among older folk speakers. “You must be restless in your mind” is an expression belonging to particularly black folk speakers. The pronunciation of Georgy (Georgia), Aificky (Africa), Florida(Florida), and yesterday(yesterday) are in the folk vein.

The sentence “colored folks won’t stand for that” carried a well know euphemism. “Jump the Broom” indicates an early Afro-American culture more in lieu of the traditional Western marriage ceremony.

Customs: Included are folk customs such as hog killings. Folk food and their cooking are mentioned in an appetizing and encyclopedic manner. The novel mentions Vyry’s lessons from the midwife the uses of herbs: poke sallet, barefoot root, cherry root, Jerusalem oat, et. al. (83-94). The novel incorporates explicit descriptions of medicines, cooking, and needlework and of all folk traditions that slave women passed on.

Songs: Music is the lint off of Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee. The celebration of the novel is a singer. Vyry’s songs articulate stages in her life; they amplify its meaning. Through her songs, her personal history merges with the history of a community, a time, a palace, a space – a mythical zone –within the history of a world.

As we enter the world of Jubilee at midnight, we encounter a mourning ceremony suffused in music. It is the music of transition in tempo large: “Swing low sweet chariot/ Coming to carry me home” (1). With these lines the reader enters the world of slave quarter twenty years before the Civil War. That world is just another page in historical memory, yet its meaning is a matter of the song, lore legend, myth, and a great story. It is the story of Vyry’s journey towards growth. It is a swinging tale moving in rhythm of blues rather than a fall from an assumed height of a hero. Vyry’s life is chartered in the blueman’s song, is a paradigm of life “Here in the stillness of the forest…cut off from reality and lost in a fantastic world of jungle.” (29)

Vyry learnt from brother Ezekiel, “the funny stories about the spider and the cat, the wise donkey and the silly man” (48); she learned the singing from her surrogate mother and dreamt to have a voice as dark as Aunt Sally’s.

Vyry is the heir of the sacred Afro-American blues modality. The heroic tradition of Afro-American tradition incorporated in the mode we call the blues is the persona who chooses the sensibility announced in the traditional songs, “This lil’ light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine.” Or in Vyry; swords to her son: “love stretches your heart and makes you big inside.”

Conclusion

Margaret Walker has tapped rich black experience and fashioned that material into art. Jubilee speaks to the reader in words and rhythms of black history, and radiates the promise of their future. According to Charlotte Goodman, beyond the ordinary material of folklife, Jubilee includes numerous signifiers of the black woman’s history and culture, linking Vyry to the past and future generations of black women. Walker, being the black daughter of south hailed the folk tradition of Afro-Americans to literary prominence through Jubilee. Surely Margaret Walker’ Jubilee is a tale of a slave, black woman whose journey has been through the rhythmic history of her life and that of the Afro-American slaves before Civil War. Thus more than a novel, it is a grandma’s tale that lulls one to a mystic land of unknown.

Reference

Uses of Antebellum Slave narrators in Collegiate Courses in Literature” paper presented at MMLA. 1974.

Margaret Walker, Jubilee, Toronto / New York, Bantam, 1967.

Kay Bonetti, An Interview with Margaret Walker (Columbia, Mo.: American Audio Prose Library, 1991).

Jacqueline Miller Carmichael, Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee” (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

Margaret Walker, How I Wrote “Jubilee” (Chicago: Third World, 1972).

John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro America, 3rd ed. (New York, Vintage, 1969).

Carmichael, Jacqueline Miller. Trumpeting a fiery sound history and folklore in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998.

Collier, Eugenia. “Fields Watered with Blood: Myth and Ritual in the Poetry of Margaret.

Walker.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.

Klotman, Phyllis Rauch. “Oh Freedom” — Women and History in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee.” Black American Literature Forum, (1977).

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