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.
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