Jubilee by Margaret Walker is a work of historical fiction that primarily tells the life of a biracial enslaved woman. To a degree, this is a generational story as we learn about the life of Vyry, her mother Hetta, and Vyry’s children. But Vyry binds the whole story together and her life spans the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction giving some insight into all three of those periods.
Through the story of one character, we get a humanized telling of this period in American history through the eyes of an enslaved and then formerly enslaved woman. Jubilee is a work of fiction. But Walker combined research with the story of her great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown to create the book. Because Jubilee covers several periods in detail, it is quite long but balances a sense of realism that makes the story incredibly engrossing.
Excluding a few genres, I’m open to reading a wide variety of books but one of my favorite types of books to read are long multigenerational sagas. I used to skip over introductions and prologues but since I began regularly listening to audiobooks I take the few extra minutes to give them a listen. As someone with a deep respect for writers and an interest in writing, it’s been a game-changer. These precursors not only give some insight into what to expect from the book but they often offer some info about how the book came together and/or explain the book’s broader implications.
The edition of Jubilee that I listened to featured an introduction by Nikki Giovanni. This introduction by Giovanni put me on notice about her way with words. It helped if not set the course for the book, then to get me excited about reading Jubilee. The introduction set high expectations because it was amazing as Nikki Giovanni is amazing so that wasn’t surprising. Her poetry is cool, but outside of that, I’ve enjoyed hearing her speak and offer commentary in general. I like her unapologetic attitude and commitment to speaking her mind. She has a talent, artistry really, for throwing shade.
Giovanni reaches back to Africa and speaks about the slave voyage, the first days out at sea, the loss of hope, and the rediscovery of hope. She then goes down the line as to how Negro spirituals gave way to jazz which gave way to the blues which gave way to soul and r&b which gave way to rap. Black athletes presenting themselves for review in sports combines harkens back to Black people being put on auction blocks. And Black people being taught a form of Christianity since slavery of forgiving wrongs before the situation has been figured out or resolved. All of these things are not new subjects but the way that she expressed it was. And so before even getting into the book itself, I was fired up by the introduction.
Jubilee begins on a slave plantation owned by John Morris Dutton with the story of Hetta, who at the time the Jubilee opens is 29 years old and has given birth to 15 children. No twins. All single births. Giving birth to 15 children is a lot of stress on the body. But to be only 29-years-old and to have given birth to that many children is unbelievable. At that age, even giving birth to one child per year would mean she had her first child around the age of 14.
It’s not like the present where you would be giving birth with prenatal care and medical staff at the ready. Back then and even now, giving birth potentially puts a woman’s life at risk. Just imagine giving birth that many times during slavery where medical care was only provided in very select circumstances, if at all. And thus we find Hetta on her deathbed following complications from her most recent pregnancy and delivery.
The other slaves gather around and are compassionate towards Hetta because of their shared experiences. I’m sure not everyone got along and there were disagreements but they’re all in a similar situation of being enslaved. As a last act of kindness, if you want to call it that, the man who owns Hetta has granted her wish to see her youngest surviving child, Elvira (Vyry), for what’s likely going to be the last time. Note that this man is also the father of at least some if not all of Hetta’s children.
Beyond being enslaved, there are multiple problems with this situation. Number one, this woman is still young and has given birth to many children who were conceived with this man and not by her choice. Secondly, Vyry is just a toddler but is growing up over a mile away from her mother. So this woman is enslaved, suffers repeated rapes by the man who holds her in bondage, gives birth to 15 children, and then doesn’t have the opportunity to be a mother to them.
Excluding surrogates, I think most women put up with pregnancy and labor because they want to raise the child and be a mother. But here you’ve given birth to this kid, that someone else has full control over and you don’t get to have a normal mother and child relationship. Your children can be taken and sent miles away resulting in you rarely if ever seeing them again.
There’s quite a bit of commentary about what it was like to be an enslaved woman during these times. The multiple ways in which your body, womanhood, and motherhood weren’t yours. Your ability to give birth could be taken advantage of and used to create profit for someone else. But not at all under your control.
There were complications during Hetta’s pregnancy but things were made worse because the slave master delayed sending for a doctor. It could be argued that what happened was unfortunate and she might have died either way. But without earlier intervention, you can’t say for certain. We’re now living maybe 180 or so years after this time but it reminded me of medical issues in the present. Things have certainly improved but there’s still a problematic mortality rate with regards to Black women across socioeconomic groups when compared to other racial groups.
At this point, I’ve read a lot of books and material about slavery, Jim Crow, and the various horrendous parts of Black history, as well as the positive points. But I’m still shocked, though not necessarily surprised, by the inhumanity that a person could be given to another person. In this case, Hetta was given to Marster John when he was a teenager and she was a preteen, around 11 or 12 years old. Never mind teenagers, think about adults, as a whole. What human being stands in such perfection that they could be deemed worthy or capable enough to own another person and have full control over their life? I can’t think of any and I don’t think any such person has ever existed.
In this instance, a teenage male is given ownership over an adolescent girl. Watching this young girl and him coming of age in his own right, he becomes sexually attracted to her. Because of the times, he is free to do as he pleases with her. He is encouraged to experiment and live out his lustful fantasies with her, rather than spoiling a virginal White girl. As this young Black girl, her life, and her body aren’t deemed worthy of equal respect or protection.
The reality is that these White males were using their privilege to force themselves on Black women and children. They were not consensual interracial relationships but rather coerced sexual intercourse at best and more accurately rape because an enslaved person usually wasn’t in any position to consent or decline. It’s not surprising that some individuals who deem themselves as having ownership over another person’s body with regards to work might also believe they have the right to take other physical liberties.
When the female becomes pregnant, the paternity of the child is an open secret. But sometimes to hide this fact or even if the master wasn’t forcing himself on the enslaved females, there would still be the expectation that they would “breed”. (This term when used for human females is quite dehumanizing and disgusting.) The solution might be that if the woman didn’t pick someone for herself, then the master might pick someone. A woman could then be in the position of being forced to fulfill the sexual needs of the master as well as an enslaved man. In Hetta’s case, an enslaved man, Jake, is selected to be her husband but she’s still expected to be available to Marster John.
It shows that the conversation around intersectional racism and patriarchy was an issue going way back. Hetta was catching hell not just due to her race but also in specific ways due to and tailored to her gender. But we also see some of this in the discussion of Marster John’s wife, Miss Salina (aka Big Missy).
White females are expected to be demure and virginal and thus Big Missy is shielded from having real knowledge of sex and sexuality before marriage. Not just in the physical sense but even in terms of a basic understanding of how children are created. Meanwhile, White men were raised to be knowledgeable and experienced. To a degree, in keeping with patriarchy, this attitude still exists today. (It begs the question that if women aren’t supposed to be experienced but men are, who exactly are men supposed to have sex with to get experience?) Marster John’s father likely explained the mechanics of sex to him and then gave him Hetta to experiment. So by the time he meets and begins courting Big Missy, he’s had physical contact with a female but his views would be warped by the circumstances of owning and raping an adolescent.
Thus there’s a clash of views and expectations when the two marry as they are both expecting vastly different things in their marriage. Big Missy like many women of the time regarded the sexual part of her relationship as being for the sole purpose of procreation. While Marster John expects to have a fully intimate and passionate relationship with his wife that includes sex. She’s completely caught off guard when they have sexual intercourse for the first time. Like many other women of the time, once she had a sufficient number of children, it was hop’s closed.
Sex is a private thing between the adults involved. The act itself is natural but the behaviors, beliefs, etc. are learned. Thus the urge is there for most people but how it’s expressed or satisfied, is influenced by what we learn along the way. Big Missy was raised in a manner where she is unaware and out of touch with these desires. Marster John is raised in a way where he’s in touch with those desires but compartmentalizes them in keeping with what’s socially acceptable in his time. Supposedly, he was expecting to transfer his sexual needs from Hetta to his wife but she was unaware that he’d have any expectations for her to participate in sex outside of trying to conceive children.
He most certainly wasn’t making passionate love to Hetta and I doubt he had any such plans for his wife. Marster John was most likely intending to use his wife just like he’d been doing with Hetta for years. But unlike Hetta, his wife was from a financially comfortable and well-respected family so she was in the position to decline and could return home if she chose. Not all White women of the time would have been able to but being from a privileged position she was able to have a say in the terms of their marriage. And so after taking a break for a while, Marster John returned to sexually assaulting Hetta.
Dating back to slavery, White men had been sexually assaulting Black women. But you need some kind of explanation if in one breath you’re referring to Black people as being inferior and on par with livestock but have biracial children running about your plantation. This is part of where the nonsense about Black women being naturally promiscuous and thus unrapeable came about. The excuse developed that Black women, like Black people in general, are naturally sexually promiscuous and they were seducing White men. It allowed White men to continue this racist power structure while absolving themselves from responsibility. Despite being the aggressor and in control of the situation, they transferred responsibility for these assaults to the victim.
If you don’t have control over yourself as a human being, your body, your sexuality, etc are a part of that. Until as recently as the 1970s, White men weren’t being prosecuted for sexually assaulting or raping Black women. The majority of Black women, especially those in the South, had no real legal recourse if they were attacked by a White man.
This shows the importance of a story being told from different perspectives, especially with regards to Black history. And in particular Black people having a voice in telling their experience and thus their part in history. Because if we left the history of slavery, the situations and events leading up to it, and its aftermath for the slave masters to tell we’d get a completely different story. And there’s a good chance that it wouldn’t be accurate.
Hetta’s husband, Jake, was under the impression that their marriage was real. This type of arrangement was probably not that far-fetched as I’ve read similar accounts elsewhere. The character Jake isn’t put off by them not choosing each other or courting. It’s a bit unclear but it sounds like Hetta and Jake were married around the time Marster John began raping her or possibly around the time of her first pregnancy. He regards the children born during their marriage as his because they’re married and have a sexual relationship. It seems that he assumed she was a virgin, but then later realized that the slave master had prior sexual contact with Hetta.
Yet, it doesn’t sound like he blames her (as he shouldn’t) because of their situation. Jake got wise to the situation as the slave master would come to see Hetta while he was out in the field and he would return to find her crying and upset. He ends up being a father to all of the children, some of whom were likely not his. Meanwhile, the man who was father to at least some of the kids would sell them off, send them away to work, or put them out in the fields to do backbreaking labor. Jake would mourn the loss of the kids with Hetta when they were sold off while their father never acknowledged them or gave a second thought to them being in bondage.
Vyry was two years old at the time of Hetta’s death and had been sent off as a baby to a nurse where she remained until the age of five. At that point, she was brought back to the plantation as had been done with some of the other kids to begin working simple jobs. In this case, Vyry was brought to the big house to serve as a maid to Miss Lillian (aka Little Missy). Miss Lillian is the daughter of Marster John and Miss Salina, she and Vyry are about the same age and share a close resemblance. The couple also has a son, John Jr.
By this point, Miss Salina is aware that Marster John had been engaging in sexual contact with Hetta. She’s not interested in having the type of sexual relationships he wants but is disgusted by him having such contact with an enslaved woman. This results in her developing jealousy and hatred towards Vyry as Hetta has died so Big Missy’s anger can’t be directed towards her.
For her selfish reasons, Big Missy brings Vyry to work in the big house to serve as a maid to her daughter. At first glance, you get the impression that house slaves lived better lives than field slaves. Sure, they may have gotten better clothes or hand-me-downs as the plantation owner wouldn’t want them looking raggedy in the house while serving their guests. But it also meant being more closely watched and in constant contact with the slave master and his family. There was less freedom and a far greater chance of saying, doing or just existing and somehow upsetting someone in the house and being punished.
Vyry is seven years old, a child, and new to the environment. The other enslaved men and women try to prepare her but know that Big Missy will find faults and make things difficult. As expected she ends up being abused and tortured by this woman, through no fault of her own, but simply because of how she came into the world. She didn’t ask to be born and her mother didn’t ask to be raped by Marster John. Yet, here Vyry is suffering for the sins of her father.
Because family structures could be broken up, enslaved people would often bond over these losses. They’d look out for each other because they were in similar if not shared circumstances. Vyry loses her mother at a very young age and the older men and women on the plantation look out for her and become her family. It’s mentioned that at one point when Vyry was a baby, Jake had pinched her so there was some fear about leaving her in his care. They don’t just keep an eye on her, which is what’s expected from the slave master. But they love her and are affectionate towards her. They treat her like they would their own family. And they share their knowledge with her along the way.
Jubilee offers a bit of insight into what day-to-day life might have been like growing up as an enslaved child on a plantation. To see how plantations worked and people tried to survive within the system was quite interesting. But then there are also the things that an individual would have to endure. The regular moments in life such as loved ones passing away but also the added pressure and difficulties of not owning yourself. Having someone else dictate how you should mourn or whether or not you should be able to mourn. Seeing Vyry come of age and endure all of these hardships from childhood to young adulthood makes it feel like this is someone you know. It helps to bring the impact of the institution of slavery down to a human scale.
I felt joy in Vyry’s little moments of happiness and was initially glad when she met someone. A free man and blacksmith, Randall Ware, sees and is instantly attracted to Vyry. I was a little put off at that point by his offer to buy her freedom. It might have been a sign of the times but his plans for their future together seemed like she’d be giving up one master for another. That’s not to say that he was going to put her to work in the fields but rather that he would purchase her freedom in exchange for her marrying him. It just seemed very transactional.
As an enslaved woman, Vyry was put in the position of being owned by her father/slave master, and then depending on who she married, she’d still be under the ownership of another person, her husband. Initially, I thought Randall was just blowing smoke but he showed himself to be sincere and made multiple honest attempts to purchase Vyry’s freedom. At first, she wasn’t interested in him, I think in part because he comes across as a bit aggressive. But he’s more tolerable and her feelings change when they have an opportunity to talk and get to know each other.
Being a free black man and her having grown up surrounded by enslaved people, he’s different and offers some intrigue. He has the ability within reason to go and come as he pleases. But there’s a looming threat of him also being forced into slavery despite being free. Caught in a sort of limbo, they make the best of the situation and try to live a life together. When Vyry becomes pregnant with their first child, she feels uneasy because she is bringing a child into the world that’s going to be born into bondage and that she can’t offer freedom. Within a few years, their relationship had produced multiple children. They would like to get married and have an official family but Marster John stands in the way of that by refusing to allow Randall to buy Vyry’s freedom. He’s never acknowledged Vyry as his child or done anything for her that a father might do for their child but is determined to hold on to her.
Though treated to the contrary, enslaved men and women were people and as humans, they would love and want to be loved. There’s this catch-22 of as an enslaved person do you try to spare yourself the heartache of potentially losing your partner and children to the whims and circumstances of the person who owns you by never forming these relationships. Or do you try to carve out some bit of a life and family for yourself from within the institution knowing that you can lose it all?
Marster John, while holding Vyry back in life, is trying to move forward in his life while encouraging his wife’s children in theirs. He enters politics and with the help of Big Missy, they begin entertaining and fill their social calendar with the various gatherings that are a huge part of antebellum life for the slaveholding class. Miss Lillian is free to spend time with her social group, courting, and working on getting married. John Jr. is kind of just there and is a typical young man of his time though he doesn’t seem to take advantage of any of the females on his father’s plantation. He doesn’t have much interest in the plantation and instead goes off to West Point to pursue a career in the military.
There’s some juxtaposition between the enslaved and the enslavers concerning their day-to-day lives. The Duttons lead lives of leisure where neither does any real work. Big Missy does nothing in the house aside from passing orders and Marster John doesn’t do physical labor in the house or the fields. He also doesn’t directly manage anything as there is an overseer for the fields and his wife runs the household. Yet, they’re constantly on the slaves about them not working hard enough.
Vyry and Miss Lillian are playmates as young children because the Dutton plantation is rather remote and there aren’t any other White girls Lillian’s age who live close enough for day-to-day play. They grow up alongside each other until Miss Lillian is deemed a young lady and now too old to play with the enslaved. Lillian isn’t vile and nasty like her mother (neither is John, Jr.) but as she gets older, her mother begins to train her in the ways of functioning in their society. She teaches Lillian to look down on Vyry and so in time she comes to regard it as her natural place to have Vyry be her servant. And with that, despite them having been friends in childhood, they come to occupy the places that are prescribed for them in society.
The second part of Jubilee is about the Civil War. To a degree, Walker steps out of the story to offer some context about the period leading up to the war with regards to the various laws that were enacted. During that section of the book, you get a lot of insight into various battles. While Jubilee is primarily about Vyry, it also follows some of the other characters and their experiences during the war. Because Vyry is still on the plantation at this point, if the story was just told through her eyes there would be a limited view of what was going on at the time. Through the perspectives of various characters, you end up with a well-rounded view of what the times were like.
Walker does an incredible job of giving you a short history of the Civil War but it’s made digestible by being broken up into little bits and pieces. One of the ways she does this is by not focusing on America as a whole. Instead, she mostly zooms in on this one plantation in the backwoods of Georgia. At times it expands beyond the plantation to what’s going on around the country but always comes back there. Her descriptions are so detailed that it allows you to envision these moments in your mind.
I think part of why I developed a love of history as a kid is that several of my history teachers didn’t focus on the dates and numbers but instead told history through stories. To be clear, this is a work of historical fiction in the sense that it’s based on history and real events but is also fictionalized. Yet, if history was taught like this in school, a lot more kids would be passionate about history.
Excluding those who ran away, life continued as usual for many who continued toiling away until the end of the war. But things changed dramatically for the slaveholding class when the tide shifted during the war. In the beginning, the Southerners have a foolhardy and arrogant view of the war where they feel it will be over quickly and they’ll undoubtedly be the victors.
Some excitedly march off into battle but then over the years, they struggle to cope with the reality that war is devastating. To be clear I don’t feel sorry for any of the Duttons but it’s still interesting to read. I don’t want to give away the details of what happens to specific characters during the Civil War. But don’t be put off from reading Jubilee out of concern that the portion about the Civil War is boring. It’s most certainly not as there is a lot of action and a lot of changes take place with the characters.
At the end of the Civil War, Vyry has two children and there’s now this question of what are you going to do? Where are you going to go now that you have freedom? There’s joy at that moment but also uncertainty. You might have longed to see family members and friends that were snatched away or had to leave. But how would you even begin to look for them? Having been born into slavery and with few resources at your disposal, how are you now going to support yourself? In Vryr’s case, her father had a good deal of property and assets, why not give her something with which to start a life on her own?
As Jubilee moved into its third phase which covered the period of Reconstruction, its path in some ways reminded me of Gone With the Wind. There you follow the life of a spoiled girl from an upper-class slaveholding family through the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Because the story is told from the perspective of a Southern White woman whose family benefits from slavery the way that the slaves are portrayed and events of the Civil War are told from a warped perspective where the Southern slaveholders were the wronged parties.
Here you have a similar timeline but told from the perspective of an enslaved Black woman. The enslaved are not one-dimensional forever smiling caricatures nor are the slaveholding class honorable saints, though they aren’t simple stereotypes either. Walker portrays all of the characters as neither all good nor bad but rather makes them realistically human.
Meeting a man along the way, Innis Brown, Vyry has a desire to truly experience freedom and leaves the plantation with her children. The goal is in part to find help for Lillian who isn’t coping very well but also to make a life for herself. Having worked for and been owned by others, Vyry wants to work for herself and the benefit of her family. But things happen along the way and achieving financial success and stability is easier said than done.
When dealing with some White people there’s still a holdover in attitudes that were formed during slavery. They take issue and get angry with Black people for refusing to work for them. Not to say that they don’t want to work but wanting to focus on their plan or business or to not work for a particular employer is a problem. There’s still this expectation and sense of entitlement to being able to tell Black people what to do.
There’s also some discussion about the tension between the newly freed and poor White people of the South. They feel as though something is being taken from them as a result of Black people now being free and trying to own property, start businesses, and get paying jobs. There’s an expectation that socially and economically, things will remain as they were before the war. Some rebel against the changes that are taking place because it means increased competition for resources.
While trying to establish a life for yourself things don’t always go according to plan. Fighting against setbacks they have to also contend with living in this situation where you’re surrounded by people who blame you for everything that they’ve lost in the war. Not just with regards to family members and loved ones but their changes in fortune. Many are faced with the reality of having to rebuild but not necessarily having the cash or resources to do so.
Wealthier families certainly experienced their fair share of hard times but were generally in a better position than the White poor. Before the war, the White poor were poor but there was an idea that at least they weren’t slaves. Realistically, the Black poor and White poor were now on equal footing in the sense that neither had much of anything. Thus the only advantage the White poor had was their race and it wasn’t benefiting them financially.
They chafed at any attempts Black people made to elevate themselves or progress in any way. Instead of viewing the success of Black people as them working hard and getting ahead, they viewed the success of Black people as taking something away from the poor White masses. Ignoring the reality that both groups had been taken advantage of by the richer slave-owning class they saw themselves as victims but failed to recognize the victimization of other groups.
Vyry and her family deal with acts of natural destruction that set them back as they pursue their goals. But they also have to contend with people being greedy and trying to swindle them. And when they sacrifice, scrimp, and save to establish something of their own, it’s threatened by jealousy. Each time they take a step forward, something happens that pulls them two steps back.
There are also complaints because White landowners and business people need help on their farms and in their factories. But the newly freed have what’s believed to be a ridiculous notion of wanting to send their children to school instead of sending them to work. It’s like how dare you want your children to have a trade or other occupation instead of working hard in someone else’s fields.
It starts with stories of individual attacks but in reality, this is the period during which the Ku Klux Klan was formed. In addition to terrorism intended to destroy and/or gain ownership of Black people’s property, there was also a movement to suppress Black political activity. We see the early efforts to force Black people back into a new form of social and economic slavery.
There’s a push to have Black children remain uneducated to maintain a source of unskilled low-cost labor. Wanting to re-establish the hierarchy of slavery, Black children are pushed towards remaining on a path to being farm hands and domestic workers. Pretty much the jobs that their parents and other ancestors had during slavery. Confined to the bottom rung of the employment and economic ladders, they would continue to power the Southern economy without receiving much of the profits.
But then even within families, there’s tension and disagreements over whether children should work the family farm or be allowed to attend school. Some of the newly freed felt that whatever the sacrifices, the goal was for children to go to school. They saw this as the best tool to set a child on the path to having a better life. It was something that had been kept away from the enslaved and they recognized its importance and thus placed great value on being educated.
In some ways, it’s a debate that continues to this day. People who are struggling to survive at this moment, might not see the value in children getting an education that might provide them with a job in 10+ years. At the time, becoming a teacher or having some other professional job or trade was a great accomplishment. But when food and resources are needed in the here and now, higher dreams for the future might be sacrificed.
After years of struggling, they’ve all been through so much as a family. They have their inner anxieties, issues, and problems to deal with which they keep to themselves. With everything that’s going on, Vyry’s eldest son, Jim, is growing up and becoming withdrawn. I felt for Jim because in the aftermath of leaving the old plantation behind Vyry is constantly fussing at him because she sees him as being shiftless and not wanting to work. Jim would rather play and have a good time but there’s work to be done to help move the family forward.
On the one hand, I understood wanting to instill a good work ethic in your children but Jim is still a fairly young child. In the present, most people get their first part-time job as a teenager. But Jim had most likely been doing little jobs and tasks around the plantation from the time he was five. Regardless of the task’s simplicity, imagine doing a full day’s work from the age of five or six years old. And now just a few years later he’s expected to help perform a job fit for a grown man from sunup to sundown. That doesn’t sound like freedom.
There’s a generational divide between Vyry and the people of her age who had been enslaved versus Jim’s and the younger generations who spent none or just a short period of their lives in bondage. The adults recognize the difference between their current and previous situations. Yes, they’re still working very hard and struggling but it’s for their benefit and they get to make decisions. Meanwhile, Jim is still following orders. Jim didn’t sound lazy to me. He sounded like a kid.
It speaks to the concept of childhood for the poor versus wealthy. Poor children are compelled to work from a certain age to help support the family. Wealthy children spend their youth mostly socializing and having a good time as well as learning how to rule over others in preparation for their future lives of leisure.
These attitudes about work versus study speak to the times. Earlier in Jubilee, Kevin McDougall, Lillian’s husband is regarded as being effeminate by the Dutton men and their friends as he likes to read and doesn’t have any interest in outdoor activities like hunting or fishing. Sure, the slave-owning class educated their children to a degree. Their daughters get a very basic education while their sons learn a bit more as well as maybe military stuff. They’re being prepared to own slaves and manage the overseers who manage their plantations. John, Jr. gets a pass because he goes off to military school which is regarded as manly. Meanwhile, Kevin becomes a teacher which leads to him being regarded as a weirdo.
As the newly freed begin striving to get educated and schools are established for them, there’s now also a conversation about educating poor White children. Walker takes the time to break down why so many of the teachers needed to educate the newly freed came from New England. I just assumed that they came from New England because the local teachers in the South didn’t want to teach Black children. She presents the idea that so many of the teachers had to come from outside of the region because only a small percentage of the Southern population was literate and thus capable of teaching.
The literate people were mostly members of the planter class, primarily middle- to upper-class people. They were the only ones at the time that could afford private education or could send their kids away to school as they didn’t need to have their children working in fields.
With the end of slavery and schools being opened for Black students, poor White people also clamored for an opportunity to go to school because it hadn’t been possible for them before. From a financial standpoint, most couldn’t afford to send their children to school. There were private schools but most couldn’t afford them and there wasn’t an established and consistent public school system.
Jubilee is an incredible book that drew me in from the very first chapter. I enjoyed the book because Margaret Walker’s writing style is incredible, the story is magnificent, and the way that history is woven through is awe-inspiring.
I went into Jubilee not knowing what to expect beyond it being a generational story. To a degree, it is as we learn about Hetta, Vyry, and Vyry’s children. But Vyry is the glue that binds the whole story together. Her life spans the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction so we get some insight into all three of those periods. Through the story of one person, we get a humanized telling of this period in American history.
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