Fearless foremothers: matrilineal genealogies, (inter)subjectivity and survival in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee
Southern Cross University
This article examines Margaret Walker’s neo-slave narrative Jubilee (1966), identifying it as an important prerequisite for subsequent neo-slave narratives. The article aims to offer a new reading of the novel by situating it within a black feminist ideological framework and drawing on critical race and whiteness studies, postcolonial and trauma theory. Taking into account the novel’s social and political context, the article suggests that the ancestral figures or elderly women in the slave community function as means of resistance, access to personal and collective history, and contribute to the construction of the protagonist’s subjectivity against slavery’s dehumanisation. Challenging reductive and ahistorical critical readings, the article concludes by suggesting that Walker’s novel fulfils a politically engaged function of inscribing the black female subject into discussions on the legacy of slavery and drawing attention to the particularity of black women’s experiences.
My grandmothers are full of memories Smelling of soap and onions and wet clay With veins rolling roughly over quick hands They have many clean words to say.
My grandmothers were strong.
Why am I not they?
(Margaret Walker, ‘Lineage’)1
Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966)2 is one of the first neo-slave narratives, and one of the first narratives to focus exclusively on enslaved black women’s experiences. In his study of African American literature, Bernard W. Bell hails Jubilee as ‘our first neoslave narrative; a residually oral, modern narrative of escape from bondage to freedom’. 3 Subsequent critics of the novel affirm its status as ‘a transitional novel which anticipates the novels of many late-twentieth-century black women writers concerned with imagining their enslaved maternal ancestors’.4 In
M. Walker, ‘Lineage’ in M. Walker, For My People, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1942.
M. Walker, Jubilee, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
B.W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987,
E.A. Beaulieu, Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1991, p. 4.
terms of its structure, the novel places significant emphasis on slave women’s experiences of slavery and relates history through a black woman’s perspective as she moves from slavery to post-Civil War freedom and Reconstruction. Basing her story on thirty years of extensive research, Walker writes Jubilee using the conventions of the historical novel. She develops a realistic plot derived from factual research and evidence, and adheres to a predominantly linear narrative structure.5 The novel focuses on Vyry, a mixed-race protagonist, and her life before, during and after the Civil War. She is the ‘illegitimate’ child of Hetta, a slave, and her slave- master, John Dutton. After losing her mother as a child, Vyry is nurtured by the slave women from the plantation and eventually becomes a cook at the Big House. There, she meets a free black man, Randall Ware, and marries him without the slaveholder’s consent. The couple has two children, Minna and Jim, who are born enslaved. At one point, Vyry tries to escape the plantation with her children but is caught and punished. After her failed escape, she loses contact with Ware who leaves to build a better life and earn money to buy his family’s freedom. Walker’s subsequent descriptions of the Civil War years are marked by the death of the Duttons and increasing racial violence. Believing Ware is dead after the Civil War ends, Vyry marries another man, former field slave Innis Brown, and the family leaves the Dutton plantation in search of a better life. What follows is a series of tragedies and troubles that they ultimately survive, remaining, however, deeply affected by the horrors they have experienced.
Combining elements of oral storytelling and historical fact, Jubilee privileges the experiences of black women over traditional and hegemonic, white male-centred versions of history. To do this, Walker uses the ‘matrilineage model’, which places the black woman and her connections to other women at the centre of analysis. This particular model is aptly summarised by Madhu Dubey as ‘presenting the mother as the medium of the daughter’s access to history’.6 Reflecting on the model’s role in constructing a particular black women’s tradition, Dubey contends that:
The matrilineage model overtly and covertly identifies a cluster of values as essential, defining features of black women’s fictional tradition. The figure of the mother or the maternal ancestor is insistently aligned with the black oral and folk tradition (usually situated in the rural South), which is celebrated as a cultural origin, a medium of temporal synthesis and continuity, and the basis of an alternative construction of black feminine history and tradition.7
It is precisely this model that Walker uses in Jubilee to celebrate black womanhood in the novel, and to show it as a distinct and separate tradition. Affirming the importance of women’s tradition and orality, Walker reveals that the story of Vyry was passed on to her by her own grandmother, who offered, in the writer’s own
For more on Walker’s research and writing process, see: M. Walker, ‘How I Wrote Jubilee’ in M. Graham (ed), How I Wrote ‘Jubilee’ and Other Essays on Life and Literature, New York, The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1990, pp. 50-69.
M. Dubey, ‘Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor of Tradition’, Signs, vol. 20, no. 2, 1995, p. 252.
Dubey, ‘Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor ’, p. 248.
words, ‘the most valuable slave narrative of all… the naked truth’.8 The novel reflects this privileging of the black female voice, along with a sense of female community and interconnectedness, as it traces the life of an African American woman from antebellum slavery to freedom and economic self-sufficiency in the Reconstruction period. In her compelling discussion of black matrilineage, Diane Sadoff suggests that ‘the literal and figurative genealogy of artists and storytellers enables and empowers the art of the contemporary black woman’.9 Turning her grandmother’s narrative into fiction, Walker participates in the creation of alternative histories and reinvests the black female slave with the power to author her own story.
A number of critics have reflected on the reasons for the critically marginalised status of Jubilee. Charlotte Goodman hypothesises that it may be because of a perceived lack of innovation, given Walker’s imitation of the conventional linear structure of the traditional slave narrative.10 Elsewhere, it has been criticised for an apparent failure to ‘delve into the inner world and self of the main character’.11 In countering these views, other critics emphasise that reductive readings of the novel leave numerous issues it tackles unaddressed, dismissed or potentially misread. For instance, Maryemma Graham concludes that Jubilee, although widely anthologised, is ‘far more often read than it or its author are discussed’,12 while Jacqueline Carmichael points out that ‘the layered reconstruction of African American women’s lives remains largely unmapped’. 13 Moreover, Carmichael finds it remarkable that Jubilee did not ‘receive more credit as a feminist and African Americanist reconstruction of both a type of the American novel and the history on which such novels have been previously based’.14
Taking these arguments into account, this essay engages with Walker’s
innovative and layered portrayals of matrilineal genealogies and the role of female ancestors in the self-constitution of the novel’s protagonist Vyry. Challenging claims that Jubilee fails to engage with the inner self and gender issues, this essay draws from black feminist, postcolonial and trauma theory to bring attention to Walker’s subtle and nuanced engagement with Vyry, and the prominent ancestral figures in the novel who function as her ‘surrogate’ mothers. Analysing the novel in terms of the Civil Rights discourses of the 1960s when Jubilee was written, Walker’s protagonist and her struggle for survival can be interpreted as performing a socially engaged function with the purpose of inscribing the black female subject into discourses on African American rights and the legacy of slavery. Within this context, I identify Walker’s use of essentialism to describe Vyry as the courageous
Walker, ‘How I Wrote Jubilee’, pp. 56, 51.
D. Sadoff, ‘Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston’, Signs, vol. 11, no. 1, 1985, p. 8.
C. Goodman, ‘From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Vyry’s Kitchen: The Black Female Folk Tradition in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee’, in F. Howe (ed), Tradition and Talents of Women, Chicago, University of
Illinois Press, 1991, p. 336.
A. Mitchell, The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery and Gender in Contemporary Black Women’s Fiction, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 10.
M. Graham, ‘Preface’, in M. Graham (ed), Fields Watered with Blood: Critical Essays on Margaret Walker, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2011, p. xi.
J.M. Carmichael, Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker’s ‘Jubilee’, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1998, p. 6.
Carmichael, Trumpeting a Fiery Sound, p. 43.
representative of all African Americans. I draw on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of strategic essentialism to argue that Walker responds to a particular set of social and political circumstances necessitating such a portrayal.
In analysing Vyry’s complexity and her ability to inhabit multiple identities, I aim to challenge reductive critical readings and offer new ways of engaging with this work and its influence on subsequent neo-slave narratives. I read Vyry in relation to her foremothers and surrogate mothers, and identify the ways in which these relationships (and individual and collective histories) function in the construction of her subjectivity. In particular, I reflect on Walker’s postbellum portrayal of Vyry and the effects of internalised violence, drawing from trauma theory, to identify how Walker engages with the inner life of former slaves and the reproductions of violence after abolition.
Drawing on anthropological and folkloristic studies in her discussion of women’s communities, Jean M. Humez suggests that
Women’s observed capacity to adapt to difficult new circumstances, such as cultural uprooting and ageing, is greatly enhanced by their eclectic repertoire of spoken arts evolved in the context of domestic and neighbourhood life.15
This ‘eclectic repertoire’ is particularly applicable to intergenerational storytelling, where the foremother serves, to echo Dubey’s definition of matrilineage, as the daughter’s ‘access to history’, as well as skills and experiences needed for survival.16 Jubilee’s focus on the domestic life reveals Walker’s preoccupation with portraying the lived realities of black female slaves, their epistemologies, folklore and heritage. My understanding of the term ‘community’ is historically-specific and takes into account the conditions of slavery and the challenges posed when forming kinship bonds. Although slavery relies on the dehumanising premise of owning human beings as chattel, slaves do create their own culture within and against such oppression. Thus, the slave community is, by its very existence, a counter-narrative, and its discussion in this essay presupposes both the conditions of oppression working to negate it and their radical repudiation. As depicted in the fictional world of Jubilee, the slaves nurture relationships, form ties and develop cultural codes imbued with both subtle and direct acts of insubordination to the slaveholders. Timothy Mark Robinson observes that ‘elders in many slave communities passed on their wisdom and experience to the next generation, managed to care for the young children, and healed the sick in their communities by way of folk medicine’. 17 Extending this emphasis in her innovative discussion of ancestors in black women’s literature, Venetria K. Patton defines community elders as ‘conduits of ancestral wisdom’.18 Indeed, the elderly slave women of the Dutton plantation offer support to
J.M. Humez, ‘We Got Our History Lesson’: Oral Historical Autobiography and Women’s Narrative Arts Traditions’, in F. Howe (ed), Tradition and the Talents of Women, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1991, p. 128.
Dubey, ‘Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor’, p. 252.
T.M. Robinson, ‘Teaching the Ancestor Figure in African American Literature’, Teaching American
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