There is another writer who, along with Zora Neale Hurston, should have had a meteoric career. For those who may not know Hurston’s fate and later renaissance, the facts go like this: she attended Howard University from 1919 to 1925; studied anthropology with Franz Boas and collected Southern black folklore as her academic specialty; earned a Guggenheim and its renewal, an honorary doctorate from Howard University in 1939, writing Their Eyes Were Watching God while doing research in Haiti, and then, when the career should go have gone up, it went down, with a false accusation of sexual molestation in 1948. She worked as maid, while still publishing, and became a substitute teacher in 1958, survived a stroke in 1959, but succumbed to its effects in 1960 in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave, paid for it through donations from church members and change that children had gathered for her.
The other writer I allude to had a somewhat better fate. She was born in 1915, received a BA from Northwestern University, worked for the Federal Writers’ Project as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), meeting numerous writers, both black and white, among them Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. She helped Wright with drafts for Native Son and supplied him with invaluable legal research for the novel. She would receive her master’s degree in 1942, earning a fellowship after she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. She earned her Ph.D from the University of Iowa in 1965, her dissertation a novel, the only one she ever wrote. She continued writing poetry, publishing it, while teaching at Jackson State University. She would die in 1998. Her name was Margaret Walker; the novel she wrote in 1966 was Jubilee.
Image from Ardent Writer Press.
In the mid 1970s the nation was riveted to the television series Roots. Walker, in fact, would sue Alex Haley and lose, her contention that his family saga had violated her novel’s copyright not holding up in court. As a child, I was already aware that Haley’s authorship of Roots and Autobiography of Malcolm X had been called into question. I had a hard time then with the idea of copyrighting an idea when fiction is human imagination retelling every story told but through different lenses. I had attempted to read Roots, read Styron’s controversial Nat Turner, and numerous other novels related to our nation’s slave past, but Jubilee is, and remains, very different.
Without detailing specifics, I will say this: the novel is drawn from Walker’s family history, as told to her at bedtime by her grandmother, an emancipated slave. Combining her scholarly training, a knack for research, and a gift with a turn of phrase, Walker created a tripartite novel of the slave experience: Antebellum South, of life on Marse Dutton’s plantation; the Civil War, and then, the dismal failure that was Reconstruction. The protagonist throughout the three parts is a mulatto slave woman named Vyry, a shortened name for her proper name, Elvira. She is the illegitimate daughter of the slave master and another slave. Vyry will come to experience the hatred of the Master’s wife, the mixed support and derision of the other slaves since she can pass for white and as a mulatto can work indoors instead of out in the field. She will love and lose, having to choose between two good men, see dreams frustrated and fulfilled, and face life’s challenges with dignity. In Jubilee, readers may see Vyry as a feminine equivalent of Jean Valjean’s forgiveness, a character so transfigured through the power of forgiveness that she is truly exalted.
What makes Jubilee so powerful a novel, aside from its cast of characters, is that Walker weaves in the historical record of the American South. She demonstrated that the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed both free and slave, the Union North and Confederate South. While she portrays privation and the unbelievable depths of cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting on each other, she gives the reader a panorama and analysis of the collective, national pain.
The story is transcendent in ways I feel that Roots is not. This is not meant as an insensitive statement. Walker does not depict all her characters in purely racial terms. Not all white people are racist and evil, not all black people are Uncle Toms or conniving and scheming. Her characters are human beings caught up in the fabric of time, not consciously aware that they are this or that. They live their lives, demonstrating the beliefs and values of their day. As a stark example, the young Zora Neale Hurston character Janie Crawford did not know that she was black until someone showed her a photograph of herself and she saw the difference. For another mundane example, I once worked with a Navy veteran not much older than I who had grown up in the backwaters of rural Oregon, never seeing a black person until he showed up for Basic Training.
Jubilee is a novel that will make you cry, feel outrage, and stunned, not because it is good writing (it is), but rather that you know this is history, someone’s personal history, put together by fallible means and human imagination, but done so for posterity. The strength of Jubilee is that it is a book that women can read, whether they wish to call themselves feminist or not, a book that students of American history can read, whether they are black or white, because it is that encompassing of the ‘American experience.’ Jubilee belongs in history and literature classes.
In no small irony of history, Zora Neale Hurston owes her rediscovery to Margaret Walker. While auditing her literature class, hearing Walker’s praise for Zora Neale Hurston, but seeing that Hurston had been relegated to a footnote in a Xerox handout, another writer, Alice Walker, would begin a journey to find Hurston’s unmarked grave in Florida. “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” appeared in Ms magazine in 1975.