Jubilee as a folk novel
The representation of religion, songs, folk beliefs, medicine and food in Margaret Walker’s narrative
Seminar Paper 2007 17 Pages
Table of contents
1.1 About this term paper
1.2 About the novel
2. A working definition of “folklore”
3. Folkloric elements found in Jubilee
3.3 Folk Beliefs and Conjure
3.4 Medicine and Nursing
3.5 Cooking and Food
1.1 About this term paper
On nearly 500 pages Margaret Walker tells the story of her great-grandmother. Jubilee is the story about Vyry, a black female slave who longs for freedom and finally gains it, at least officially, after the Civil War years. Besides this individual destiny, the novel contains historical sections and information about political developments during that time, several complex characters in addition to Vyry and inside views even of white characters, detailed descriptions of the slaves’ everyday life, their family structures, their language and their hierarchies. My term paper will deal with those elements which turn Jubilee into a folk novel, i.e. an account of African American traditions which were passed from generation to generation orally.
It was clear to me that Walker had intended to write a kind of folk novel when I read her dedication: She dedicated her first and only novel to her family, especially to her four children so “that they may know something of their heritage”. Apparently, family boundaries and traditions do not only play a major role in the novel but also did in Walker’s own life. After reading Walker’s essay “How I wrote Jubilee” there was further evidence found for my initial intuition. There she mentions: “I always intended Jubilee to be a folk novel based on folk material: folk sayings, folk belief, folkways.” (Walker 1973: 62). Furthermore, the origin of Jubilee is a piece of oral tradition itself. According to the same essay, her grandmother had told her stories about slave life in Georgia ever since she was a child (Walker 1973: 51). As an adult she carried out a long-lasting research because she was determined “to authenticate the story I had heard from my grandmother’s lips” (Walker 1973: 56).
The task of this term paper will be to find instances where its characteristics as a folk novel become obvious. To fulfil this task I will begin with a summary of the novel and I will provide a working definition of the term “folklore”. Afterwards there will be a closer investigation of some folkloric categories which are represented in Jubilee.
1.2 About the novel
Walker’s novel belongs to the genre of so-called neo-slave narratives. This genre shares features with traditional slave narratives but also modifies customs. For example, Walker retained the chronological tripartite structure of the slave narrative (Bondage, Escape, Freedom); But while most slave narratives have a first person narrator, we find an authorial narrator, explicit and overt, in Jubilee. The main general difference between the two genres is that a neo-slave narrative is told by a contemporary writer, not by a slave directly. With a retrospective look at the time of slavery, especially female African American novelists tried to rewrite partial historiography and created stories about slavery from the perspective of black women.
As mentioned above, the narrative is divided into three sections. Each contains eighteen to twenty-two chapters. The first section deals with a period during the antebellum era (1839-1860). It begins with the death of Vyry’s mother, Sis Hetta, who was “given” to young master John Dutton at an early age. She dies in her twenty- ninth year and gave birth to fifteen children, all of them became his slaves, some of them, like Yyry, were his own offspring. After the death of Hetta, Vyry has to work in the “Big House” of the Dutton plantation as a personal servant of Miss Lillian, the daughter of Master John and his wife Miss Salina, who the slaves also call Big Missy. Vyry has difficulties to adjust to the work and often fails to satisfy her mistress. The results are hard punishments. These punishments also occur because Big Missy cannot cope with the fact that Vyry and Lilian look alike. Vyry has such a light skin that she is often taken for white.
Aunt Sally, the main cook in the Big House, teaches Vyry everything she knows and acts like a mother to her. Later on, Aunt Sally is sold and Vyry takes over the responsibility of cooking at a young age. During the following years she experiences dramatic events: Many slaves close to her die, she is forced to attend a public execution of two female slaves and she sees how her half-sister Lucy is branded because she had tried to escape.
A slight happiness grows as Vyry meets Randall Ware, a free black man who sometimes works for Marster John. He promises to buy her freedom if she marries him. They see each other secretly during the nights; the cry of the whippoorwhill is their sign. Vyry bears three of his children, only two of them alive. Randall tries to free Vyry without success and Master John refuses to let her go. When Vyry attempts an escape together with her children she is caught by overseer Grimes and is severely beaten.
The second section of Jubilee is about the Civil War years (1861-1865). The Dutton Plantation experiences many losses. Marster John breaks his leg in a carriage accident, the leg becomes infected and he dies. Lillian’s husband and brother both die on the battlefield. The turbulences of wartime enable many slaves to run away. However, Vyry and the other house servants remain on the plantation. Towards the end of the war, Big Missy has a stroke and dies, too. Finally, soldiers arrive and announce the Emancipation Proclamation, i.e. they set the slaves free. Most of them depart immediately, leaving Vyry and her children alone with Miss Lillian. That night, Vyry is attacked, but a man named Innis Brown saves her. They find Lillian later on who was attacked, too, and got hit on her head. After that, Lillian seems to have lost her mind and reverts back to her childhood memories. Vyry cares for her and when relatives of Lillian come to take her away she marries Innis Brown.
The third section of the narrative describes events during the time of Reconstruction (1866-1870). Vyry and her new husband move to Alabama, a shared dream of a farm of their own on their minds. The first house they build gets flooded, the second is owned by a landlord who cheats them, the third is burned by the Ku Klux Klan. Vyry is now afraid to build another house. She goes into town everyday to sell food and one day she helps a woman to deliver a child. The white neighbours agree that they need a good granny as a midwife for the women in town. All of them help Vyry’s family to build a house and finally they feel welcome.
Vyry would not have married Innis Brown if she not had thought Randall was dead. To her great surprise, one day he walks up to her house. He fulfils one of Vyry’s greatest wishes and enables their children, Jim and Minna, to go to school. He still would like to keep her as his wife but Vyry decides to stay with Innis. Randall leaves the next day together with Jim - and the reader leaves Vyry’s family shortly after, too.
2. A working definition of “folklore”
The term “folklore” needs some defining in advance because there are several meanings assigned to it. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary interprets it as “the traditional beliefs, customs, songs, tales, etc., preserved in oral tradition among a (group of) people”. This interpretation is a useful one for my term paper but I would like to widen it with H. Nigel Thomas’ definition, which he offers in his study From Folklore to Fiction (1988):
Folklore is the dramatization of the psychic essences that bind a people. It is therefore the sum total of rituals, practices, and behaviours undertaken with community sanction to reinforce the beliefs, the values, and the attitudes of a community. Thus, all culturally recognizable codes constitute a part of that culture’s folklore. (Thomas 1988: 1)
These culturally recognizable codes of black American folklore can be traced back to an African, preindustrial society. Slaves were accompanied by the myths, rituals and attitudes of their ancestors when they were brought to America. As slavemasters often treated them like cattle, “blacks needed to create a folklore in which they could surreptitiously assert their humanity” (Thomas 1988: 11). Additionally, it helped them to cope with the brutality, hopelessness and injustice of slavery which also continued after its end. Hence, to examine black American folklore is basically “a study of the survival of black people in America” (Thomas 1988: 12).
With regard to Jubilee, capturing folklore in this narrative especially means to capture the cultural heritage which especially women have communicated from one generation to the next. Vyry is strongly connected to her own black community and “Jubilee includes numerous signifiers of the black woman’s history and culture, linking Vyry to past and future generations of black women” (Goodman 1990: 331). This heritage includes folk food, folk medicine, folk beliefs, religious concepts, handiwork and an appraisal of motherhood.
3. Folkloric elements found in Jubilee
As it is not possible to cover all folkloric elements within the scope of this paper, I decided to have a closer look at the categories “Religion”, “Songs”, “Folk Beliefs and Conjure”, “Medicine and Nursing” as well as “Cooking and Food”. For each category I will show instances representing it in Jubilee. Moreover, secondary literature will help me to analyze the function and importance of each folkloric element in a broader historical and social context. During such an examination one has to bear in mind that this is a rather unnatural procedure, “for the folklore operates more like […] a huge lake fed by several streams” (Thomas 1988: 12). Thus, the following categories should be taken as parts of a harmonious whole which support, influence and nurture each other.
“No matter how tired Aunt Sally was at night, she never failed on Big Meeting Nights to go to hear Brother Ezekiel preach.” (Jubilee: 44) These meetings in Jubilee, which are secret religious worship with praying and singing, take place somewhere in the swamps and a long way from the Big House. Aunt Sally’s attitude corresponds to Blassingame’s statement that “the slave’s faith in his God was deep and abiding” (Blassingame 1972: 74). She turns to God in times of troubles to regain confidence and prays to Him for sending a Black Moses to free all slaves. When she is sent off to the auction block, it is this belief that gives her enough courage to carry on (Jubilee: 84ff). She pleads, “Oh, Lord, when is you gwine send us that Moses? When you gwine set us people free?” (Jubilee: 85) This Moses figure is still alive in black American consciousness and is represented in spirituals like “Go Down Moses”. Nowadays, the term is often used in non-religious contexts, e.g. for political leadership.
As in many areas of life, Vyry models herself on Aunt Sally who is her “link to the past and to her own identity” (Klotman 1977: 142). As a young girl she is looking forward to get baptized. Later on, she develops a deep faith in God, attends religious services with her own family and also addresses Him in times of sorrow. This liberating force which religion offered is presented, for example, after Vyry got involved into trouble between Innis Brown and her son Jim. She walks into the woods and after praying there she says, “And Lord, I wants to thank you, Jesus, for moving the stone!”1 (Jubilee: 455)
In general, religion in Jubilee is closely linked to Brother Zeke, the secretly literate preacher and “the only slave with extraordinary mobility” (Klotman 1977: 144). Brother Zeke as the centre of religious activities suits John David Smith’s argument that “the preacher was the central figure in the slave’s religion” (Smith 1984: 53). The black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois (1924) confirms this notion by writing that the black preacher played a central role in the slave community. He functioned “as the interpreter of the supernatural, the comforter of the sorrowing, and as the one who expressed, rudely, but picturesquely, the longing and disappointment and resentment of a stolen people” (DuBois 1924: 327). This importance can be explained by the illiteracy of most slaves who consequently depended on a person who transmitted biblical stories and spiritual songs orally. It is even worth considering, as H.Nigel Thomas does, that “[…] perhaps we ought to see the church as the mother of the oral arts” (Thomas 1988: 20).
Brother Zeke uses his literacy and mobility to support his congregation in several ways. Apart from leading the Big Meeting Nights of the Rising Glory Baptist Church, he is an important link in the so-called Underground Railroad which helped slaves to escape up North. He provides his community with important political news and informs slaves on various plantations about the progress of the abolition battle, he arranges meetings among white abolitionists, free blacks and slaves, and during the Civil War he is a spy for the Union Army. For this political dimension of worships being common I could not find evidence in secondary literature but Smith Foster claims that “religious conversion becomes a catalyst for rebellion against slavery” (Smith Foster 1979: 119). According to him, this is due to the following reasons: Firstly, perceiving man as subject to God’s will increased the slaves’ self-esteem. The faith that God was far more powerful than an earthly master reduced the slaves’ fear
1 At this point I would like to mention that, according to Carmichael (1998: 80), all folk-inspired prayers and sermons are made up by Walker and therefore reflect her knowledge of the folk and folklife.