Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Among the themes that can be traced through Jubilee are the centrality of folklore, myth, and music in the black heritage; the roles of black women as preservers and transmitters of the cultural identity of their people; and the importance of black Christianity in the struggle for freedom. It is also rewarding to look at Jubilee as a book about illusion and reality.

As Walker has pointed out, her perspective on history is not that of whites, either northern or southern, but that of African Americans. In the conversations among slave owners in her novel, and in their speeches to the slaves, it is evident that the white masters have deluded themselves into believing that their motives for keeping slaves are noble, that the slaves are well treated and happy, and that any hopes of freedom they might cherish are simply proof of their childlike ignorance.

Because, as Walker shows, such justifications for the suppression of African Americans did not disappear with the Emancipation Proclamation, the discussions between Innis Brown, Vyry, and Randall Ware at the end of the book are all related to another major theme in the novel, that of the struggle for freedom. Given the blindness of whites, Walker seems to be asking, how can blacks progress beyond nominal freedom to full equality?

Each of the three main characters has a different answer. Innis Brown takes a passive approach. Despite his experiences with oppression, both...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Through her own family history, Margaret Walker seeks in Jubilee to show plantation life and the early days of freedom through the eyes of the blacks. Although she refuses to divide good from evil on the basis of skin color, she does create a dual world, in which slave owners assume that only foolish or insane slaves could be unhappy, while slaves, pretending to be contented, yearn and plot for freedom. When the Yankees, their longed-for redeemers, do come, the former slaves are disillusioned to find that the Northern deliverers are as unconcerned about the future of the blacks as are their desperate former masters. At this point the theme of the first part of the book, the human longing for freedom, is redefined. Having been freed from slavery under the law, blacks are threatened with economic slavery as tenants or as menials: Furthermore, the threat of violence as effectively stifles their freedom of expression as it did in slave days. After emancipation, blacks must fight for education as the only way out of the new slavery. As Vyry insists in the last pages of the book, however, the will to achieve must come not from bitterness but from spiritual strength, based in the same sense of God’s immanence that sustained the slaves in their secret religious meetings in the woods.


Jubilee contains a number of general expressions of hope for deliverance and specific references to the tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and slavery. Many of the songs cited in the novel are spirituals that deal with the freedom found in death, for example, and Brother Ezekiel preaches about Moses in Chapter 3 and talks while on his deathbed about Lincoln as a Moses-figure in Chapter 29. An exploration of this theme can also include the different means by which freedom might be achieved, from the plotting of slave uprisings and the alleged murder of slave owners in the first section of the novel to the debate in Chapter 57 between Innis Brown and Randall Ware about whether hard work or education would be the better means to improve the status of black Americans in the Reconstruction era. This debate between Innis and Randall may be seen as a fictional representation of the differences in the philosophies of two black leaders in the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Whether through allusions to biblical tales or modern black leaders, the novel presents a consistent treatment of the theme of emerging out of bondage and into freedom.

Traditional and Invented Families
Traditional and invented families in Jubilee give structure to the narrative. The dedication at the beginning of the novel emphasizes the author’s sense of family and heritage, particularly through a matrilineal line of descent. Black characters throughout the first section of the novel frequently have names that begin with Sis, Brother, Aunt, Uncle, Mammy, and Grandpa, although only a few of them are literally related to one another. Literal family ties are often not recognized or respected in the novel, particularly when they cross racial lines. Salina Dutton claims that she and her family treat their slaves “just like a part of our family,” but in truth they do not consider the slaves, including Vyry, “their own blood kin.” The one moment in the novel in which Mrs. Dutton becomes an almost sympathetic character is when she grieves over her dying son, Johnny. This theme of family also allows the novel to be compared meaningfully with other texts. For example, Vyry’s deep desire for freedom for her children can be compared to similar desires of slave women in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Jubilee is full of references to food and to the women who prepare it for different occasions. Among other references are Salina Dutton’s full breakfast table and Grimes’ letter itemizing food consumption in Chapter 5, the extensive menus for the formal dinner party and the rumors of slaves poisoning their owners’ food in Chapter 6, the passionate instructions on how to cook possum and raccoon in Chapter 14, the serving of Innis Brown’s...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)