February is Black History Month, a time when we highlight some of the overlooked voices we should be paying more attention to year-round. This month, we at HMH are celebrating Margaret Walker and her great novel, Jubilee, which was first published in 1966. Jubilee is a masterpiece, combining the oral tradition of African American culture with historical research to tell the story of American slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction from the point of view of the enslaved people. It was the first novel to do so, and it was a bestseller at the time, remaining in print to this day.
Who Was Margaret Walker?
Margaret Walker was a poet, novelist, and professor of literature at Jackson State University in Mississippi. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1915 and moved with her family to New Orleans when she was very young. Her parents were both teachers and her maternal grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, lived with the family, helping to raise Margaret and her three sisters.
Elvira would tell the girls stories about her own mother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, who was born on a cotton plantation in Georgia as the daughter of an enslaved woman and the plantation’s owner. Many years later, after Jubilee was published, Walker wrote an essay about how she came to write the novel, describing how her parents would come home from night school and find her still awake listening to her grandmother’s stories. When they asked Elvira why she was telling little Margaret all those tall tales, her grandmother answered, “I’m not telling her tales; I’m telling her the naked truth.” Walker would say she grew to realize the importance of the story she was hearing and began prodding her grandmother with many questions and say she was already conceiving the story she would one day publish.
Margaret Walker's Jubilee
Margaret Walker—who is not related to poet and author Alice Walker—struggled for 30 years to write Jubilee while also raising her four children, caring for her frequently ill husband, and carrying a full teaching load at Jackson State. She traveled throughout the South to libraries and archives to read primary sources from the era—slave narratives, plantation account books, and slave owners’ diaries in a heroic effort to make sure her story was an authentic representation of the life of the enslaved before, during, and immediately after the Civil War. She later wrote about all her research and her determination to substantiate the stories she had heard from her grandmother, saying, “I was using literary documents to undergird the oral tradition.” And she succeeded, turning out a compelling work of fiction that feels real and true, like all great art.
Finally, in 1961, she was able to carve out the space and time to write by returning to the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where she had received a Master of Fine Arts and pursued her doctorate, using the novel as her thesis. Four years later, she had her PhD and the manuscript for her novel had been accepted for publication by Houghton Mifflin. The editor, Dorothy de Santillana, wrote Walker in January 1965, telling her, “It was one of the most striking and moving things I have read in a long time.”
During her many years of research, Walker visited her grandmother’s sister in Greenville, Alabama, and was given the only photograph ever taken of her great-grandmother. It was used on the dust jacket of the book, where she is identified by the name that Walker gave the character based on her: Vyry.
The language we use when we talk about race and slavery has changed and evolved since 1966, but the need to use correct and preferred language has not, nor has the issue of insisting on its use. This telex—a form of fast communication technology that was in use before the fax machine and email were invented—was sent from Dorothy de Santillana, directing the London publisher of Jubilee immediately to stop referring to Margaret Walker as a “negress” and to capitalize the word “Negro,” saying to do otherwise is offensive:
Although it was written more than 50 years ago, Jubilee by Margaret Walker feels modern. It addresses many issues of social justice, race, and sexual politics that we still grapple with today. And it does so while telling an interesting story about a strong and brave heroine who perseveres and endures and also loves and experiences joy. Today, as we strive to understand the impact of the legacy of slavery in the United States, this book is particularly relevant and should be read and discussed by those who love American history. We celebrate Margaret Walker this month—and every month—as a great American writer.
Note to teachers: Most of the white characters refer to the enslaved and free black people using the N-word throughout the novel. If this novel is included in your curriculum, you may wish to remind your students that while this language reflects the historical period of the book, it is inappropriate to use.