Jubilee: A Review

Jubilee

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,

for the year of Jubilee!

– Traditional Negro Spiritual

Thirty years after Margaret Mitchell published her novel of love, loss, and the ruin of the good ol’ south in Gone With The Wind, Margaret Walker published, Jubilee, a story as wide in scope as Mitchell’s, but with a focus primarily on the lives of those whose fate desperately relied on the outcome of the war, the lives of those who Mitchell did not thoroughly include in her epic tale: The lives of black slaves turned free people.

Vyry is a woman whose taste for freedom had been teased so much that when the war breaks out she doesn’t dare allow herself to believe it will result in her liberation. But that is precisely what happens and suddenly the intangible Jubilee appears on the doorstep of her master’s home in the form of Union Soldiers who read aloud her, and the rest of the black slaves on the plantation, declaration of freedom. Though certainly a joyous occasion—while friends of hers are hurriedly leaving the wretched plantation—Vyry is stuck in her familiar state of ambivalence; she is waiting for her free-colored husband to return and reclaim her and their children and she is bound to the habitual duty of caring for her master’s family. Vyry learns that some old dreams cannot be carried into the future and so she gathers her family and leaves the plantation she has called home her entire life.

In the midst of attempting to find that “40 acres and a mule” promised to them by the government—attempts that result in a series of frustrating and frightening setbacks—Vyry finds herself in a love triangle. How Walker is able to weave a love-story inside of a traumatic tale is not only a testament to her writing, but a revelation of black people’s inherent will to assert their humanity. All Vyry and her family want after the war is a place to be free and commune. At every corner this basic desire is viciously threatened. But it is Vyry’s strength of character that allows her family to persevere even when tensions run so high their bond is threatened to snap.

Thirty years of research allows for Margaret Walker to tell the gripping history of black people before, during, and after the war. She keenly illustrates the evolution of white-supremacist violence in relation to black liberation and traces the varied philosophies black individuals believed would lead to their advancement. She thrusts open the window into black humanity and allows us to see the psychological, emotional, and physical affects of liberation—or the false promise of it—has on Vyry and her family. Walker’s language is blunt yet extends into perfect figurative poetry when necessary. Each chapter is accompanied by a short interlude of “negro spirituals” that succinctly tell the depth of the pain, the joy, the creativity, the intelligence of black people. Jubilee is the enriching tale that extends beyond the Big House and unveils the lives and experiences, the hopes and dreams, the humanity and vitality of the individuals who kept it running.

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