Margaret Walker is the most famous person nobody knows.
–- Nikki Giovanni
I see a woman with wings
trying to escape from a cage
and the cage door
has fallen on her wings.
They are long wings
which drag on the ground
when she stands up,
but she hasn’t enough strength
to pull them away
from the weight of the cage door,
she is caught and held by her wings.
–- Langston Hughes
Jubilee, her epic 1966 novel of African American freedom struggle, was a truly groundbreaking work, for she treated its subject matter – the ordeal of racial slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction – as an expression of U.S. society’s political unconscious. Already earlier, this ordeal had generated a level of enduring interest unmatched for any other period, giving rise to a whole cultural industry while serving all the time as a carefully maintained object of aesthetic sublimation, an ideological specter and collective nightmare all at once, as hardly anybody seemed to recognize the great fault line – between the building of an original American socialist nationalism and continuation of business as usual – on which it rests. Dr. Du Bois was right: Reconstruction was the best chance for real democracy the U.S. would ever see, and the overthrow of Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan not only unleashed the blackest political reaction the world had yet known, but also created a new America, a white fascist America, which future reactionary regimes across the globe would closely emulate.
Walker’s book was the product of two decades of arduous historical research and theoretical study. She gave voice to a profound political insight: that America’s first laboring class was African American, folk shackled under plantation slavery for more than two hundred years, first under British rule in the continental colonies and then under the national U.S. system of lifetime hereditary bond-servitude. Walker’s approach was a breakthrough, as white American historiography had hitherto portrayed black slavery as anomalous – as a “peculiar” exception to the strong tradition of American democracy. She animates U.S. history in the light of this insight, which is also Du Bois’s whole thesis in Black Reconstruction: that in response to the post-bellum crisis, the U.S. plantocracy, through their political representatives in Washington and in combination with northern banking cartels and wealthy industrialists, enlisted the masses of poor whites to their side, to fight against Reconstruction and thus to participate directly in the exploitation and social degradation of the newly freed African American laboring class. This they did to avoid a class struggle between workers and themselves. A restoration of white supremacy, it was also a rapid restoration to power of the completely defeated southern bourgeoisie. Du Bois termed it “a counter-revolution of property.” He wrote:
The Negro’s access to the land was hindered and limited; his right to work was curtailed; his right of self-defense was taken away, when his right to bear arms was stopped; and his employment was virtually reduced to contract labor with penal servitude as a punishment for leaving his job. And in all cases, the judges of the Negro’s guilt or innocence, rights and obligations were men who believed firmly, for the most part, that he had “no rights which a white man was bound to respect” (167).
By objectifying the internal struggles felt by African American laborers during the late 19th-century rise of white fascism, Walker in Jubilee rendered historically and symbolically, rather than “naturally” or psychologically, the systemic effects on working people of the Anglo-American capitalist system as a whole. The thesis that U.S. society was built by African American workers made Walker’s novel vitally important coming as it did at the height of the Civil Rights movement, but it also presented a clear understanding of a complex double problem: how African American bond laborers got through the ordeal of racial slavery and white oppression while their laboring-class counterparts, the poor whites, were all the time embracing and enforcing it – at their own social and economic peril.
The idea behind my essay is to look through the lens of Jubilee at the situation of American workers, in particular African American female laborers, and to consider what their struggles during the gruesome beginnings of white fascism tell us today. To support my argument, I will consult Georg Lukács’s classic Theory of the Novel, the main concepts of which Walker had frequent recourse to in the making of her masterpiece. Lukács’s theory of the novel form provides the terminology with which to analyze Walker’s construction of her epic novel, that is, how she structures the emotional and psychological matrix in which her main character, Vyry, makes crucial life decisions. It also enables us to examine how an individual’s thoughts and actions can be seen to embody a whole historical moment. In addition, I will call on Theodore W. Allen’s two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race, to substantiate how the Anglo-American ruling class’s system of racial slavery and white male supremacy created the dominant racialized and gendered – instead of class-conscious – American national identity.
The first American working class
Jubilee begins in Georgia during the 1840s and ends in Alabama during the 1870s. The novel is divided into three parts, and this structure accords on the surface with the way historians have always partitioned 19th-century U.S. history – i.e. into the periods of racial slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Walker, as we shall see, did not subscribe to this prevailing linear view of American history, under which racial slavery is treated as a necessary stage in the development of U.S. democracy, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and then Reconstruction bringing the horrors of that whole period to a close. While the structure, as well as the title, of her epic novel corresponds to the dominant paradigm of U.S. historiography, the narrative itself is deeply ironic about this “progressive” version of American historical development and change. Likewise, the novel’s central character, Vyry, through whose eyes we see much of the action, is positioned in such a way that the three periods are always felt to overlap – a direct consequence of Reconstruction’s violent overthrow.
The narrative follows Vyry’s journey through historical time, yet the novel is less about Vyry’s particular path and more about the complex relationships between Walker’s characters and time itself, in which thirty years is actually three hundred, and three hundred is expressed in thirty. Vyry is the daughter of an African American slave woman named Hetta and the plantation owner’s son, John Dutton. When only a young girl Hetta was given as a “gift” to John by his father, who encouraged his son to use her in whatever way he pleases. So young John makes Hetta into his concubine, but this form of sexual exploitation is then transformed into something even worse, as Hetta’s role soon changes from concubine to baby-making machine. She dies at the age of twenty-nine while giving birth to her fifteenth child.
Vyry is her thirteenth child, and she has blue eyes and blonde hair. In fact, she is often confused with her white sister Miss Lillian whom Vyry is forced to serve until she is old enough to work full-time in the enormous Dutton kitchen. As we first meet the novel’s main characters, we see that such complex relationships on the slave plantation were very typical. Most obvious and consequential is the startling fact of Vyry’s physical appearance and how she came into the world looking the way she does. She looks “white,” yet is deprived of all civil rights and social privileges conferred by the slaveholding class on every white American, including her sister Lillian. It is a historical, and also symbolic, reality that every character in Walker’s novel, including Lillian, is compelled to confront, and in precisely this way it is the only essential thing one needs to know about the direction of her fast-moving plot. For just as this reality determines Vyry’s complex multiple identity and shapes her life-course, so too does it determine the basic contours of Walker’s story of American history and society.
In The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen proved that the political economy of the continental colonies began in the early 1600s not with racial oppression but with class oppression. This is the same thesis advanced by Lerone Bennett, Jr. in Before the Mayflower and, prior to him, by Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, duly acknowledged by Allen in his compelling introduction. Allen substantiates the thesis by archival research into documents to which Du Bois had been denied access during the writing of Black Reconstruction and that Bennett had been able to only partially explore. The centerpiece of Allen’s research is Bacon’s Rebellion, where in 1676 Virginian bond laborers as a whole class – ethnically English, West African (via Barbados), Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Dutch – organized themselves into an antislavery rebel force. Under General Nathaniel Bacon, they led a massive uprising against the slave-owning planter class, and when the rebellion finally came to a head, the fight had nothing to do with complexion (nor Indians) but rather class oppression and the capitalistically corrupt conditions which each bond laborer had to endure. It is a vital and often overlooked point in U.S. labor history that in Bacon’s Rebellion all laborers united to fight for freedom and their skin color did not matter in that fight, not to each other. Only after Bacon’s Rebellion was crushed did the Anglo-American bourgeoisie of Virginia come to realize – through not only this revolt but also other bond-labor revolts across the hemisphere, i.e. in Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil – that they needed a “final solution” to ensure that their class project, the rapid accumulation of capital through chattel slavery, was not preemptively terminated.
Thus in the immediate aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion was the “white race” invented and legally imposed, through the enslavement of African Americans exclusively, a political trick of great consequence, in which poor and propertyless European Americans (ex-slaves, as it were) had conferred on them certain “white-skin privileges.” This political trick or “bamboozlement,” as Allen terms it, was carried out in new colonial laws in the early 1700s, exempting “whites” from bond labor on condition they keep African Americans enslaved. In the main, for there were certain local exceptions, African Americans could not by law bear arms, bring charges in court, join in marriage contracts, become Christians, own land, become educated, move laterally or “class-wise,” and – most important to my thesis on Jubilee – the children of African American female slaves were to assume the status of the mother and not the father.
Acceptance of white racial privileges (that is, to have rights that no black person could hope to have), which the new social order came quickly to depend upon, would pull European Americans up from poverty. This was “the baited hook,” according to Allen. Out of the intense ruling-class repression of Bacon’s Rebellion, conducted by the British royal navy, came the formation of the poor white social class, whose members were taught to believe that they were better socially than African American bond laborers. Yet poor whites were in actuality, at least to the Anglo-American bourgeois planter class, no different than chattel slaves in their usefulness for instant profit-making. Crucially, the bourgeoisie’s deliberate implantation of white supremacist ideology in the heads of the poor whites was not because the rich whites despised the skin color of African Americans; rather it was to create a “white” social class that would constitute a “buffer social control stratum,” in Allen’s terminology, between African American bond laborers and the planter elite, resulting in constant racial conflict but never any class struggle.
By strategically substituting race for class, the plantation owners were safeguarding themselves from future laboring-class revolts that could overthrow the plantation bourgeoisie as a whole. The English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and Dutch looked like the planters who were, of course, European themselves (English), which helped them to lure these various ethnic Americans into the new “white” America. But, as Allen has proved, this could not have happened without the Anglo-American ruling class’s invention of the “white race” – without the establishment of new racial laws and social privileges.
Since the poor Euro-Americans were or, after a term of servitude, would be free, and since they were promoted to the “white race” and endowed with unprecedented civil and social privileges vis-à-vis the African-American, privileges that, furthermore, were made to appear conditional on keeping “not-whites” down and out. This entailed the exclusion of “free Negroes” from participation in the buffer role in the continental colonies, because their inclusion would have undermined the racial privileges upon which the loyalty of the laboring-class “whites” to the plantation bourgeoisie. Whatever might have been the case with the literate members of the ruling class, the record indicates that laboring-class European-Americans in the continental colonies showed little interest in “white identity” before the institution of the system of “race” privileges at the end of the seventeenth century (Vol. 1, 14).
How, then, were African Americans the first working class? And if poor whites were not laboring under the plantation system, having been freed from it in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, what were they doing? African American bond laborers were the first working class because they produced all of the South’s capital and the raw materials necessary for the mass production of commodities in the North as well as in England. The poor whites, meanwhile, were socio-economically marginalized. Whereas everything African American bond laborers were forced to do was geared towards making their masters richer and helping to grow American capitalist society, the poor whites were made superfluous to capital accumulation precisely because they did not produce any capital. Rather they were left to produce for their own meager consumption. This was made extremely difficult due to the lack of any arable land, which was controlled exclusively by the oligarchic tobacco, sugar, and cotton bourgeoisies. Poor whites became social control tools used by the rich planters to ensure their enormous profits, which came entirely from the super-exploitation of African American bond labor. “Instead of social mobility,” Allen writes, “European-Americans who did not own bond-laborers were to be asked to be satisfied simply with the presumption of liberty, the birthright of the poorest person in England; and with the right of adult males who owned sufficient property to vote for candidates for office who were almost invariably owners of bond-laborers.” And so
The prospects for stability of a system of capitalist agriculture based on lifetime hereditary bond-servitude depended on the ability of the ruling elite to induce the non-“yeoman” European-Americans to settle for this counterfeit of social mobility. The solution was to establish a new birthright not only for Anglos but for every Euro-American, the “white” identity that “set them at a distance,” to use Sir Francis [Bacon]’s phrase, from laboring-class African Americans, and enlist as active, or at least passive, supporters of lifetime bondage of African-Americans (Vol. 2, 248).
Although poor whites were given a new social status, their plight was devastating psychologically and emotionally, which Walker illuminates again and again, as it was completely conditional on keeping African American bond laborers under racial slavery. She dramatizes the poor white “buffer” role through an overseer named Mr. Grimes. While reading, we can feel the seething anger that dwells inside this bamboozled poor white, who is told he is “middle class” yet lives in abject poverty, with very little chance of any upward social mobility. The passage is so unique in American literature that it warrants quoting at length:
The poor whites hated both the slaver and the slaves, for they reasoned that the cotton planter and the slave kept bread out of their mouths. They even envied their own kin who always had bread and lived securely in their Big Houses. The slaves claimed that the poor whites were lazy and wanted the easy jobs, shifting the hard work on them, while the whites got wages and the slaves got none. Sometimes the poor white worker brought his family with him – women and children – but they only came for the midday meal of collards or peas and cornbread. While the black women and children worked in the fields, only the white men worked – leaving their women and children in the wagons. These poor white children often had swollen bellies and many of these people died of pellagra and dysentery, and some of them ate the red clay. Their measly little farms where the land was no good hardly ever brought them a good crop. They lived back in the piney woods and they were always throwing taunts and filthy epithets at the black slaves who taunted them back again as “Ignunt, and worthless, and lowdown, thievish, sickly looking trash.” This conflict always seemed to amuse the planters like Marse John, who never failed to dole out food and clothing to these people, but let the drivers and the sheriff keep the peace. Most times the driver was the sheriff (52f).
Walker’s Jubilee animates on every page these socially explosive and historically determining situations, how every law against African American bond laborers, as well as against free African Americans, is accepted and internalized by the white majority. In How I Wrote Jubilee she explains her drive: “I was also very much intent on showing the interrelationships of class as well as race and on keeping in mind how these interrelationships shape the political, economic, and social structure in the entire panorama of the novel, just as they do in real life” (64).
Writing from the bottom up
The ways in which white male supremacy has structured the minds of the American working classes are extremely complicated. The concept is difficult to grasp largely because our country does not acknowledge its existence as a fundamental problem. Yet Walker generated a huge national response when Jubilee was finally published: critically acclaimed, it sold well over a million copies. Thus it is essential to examine Walker’s interweaving in literary form of historical events and the expression of complex individual human emotions. Moreover, evident in Jubilee’s supplementary socio-biographical materials is the fact that Walker studied closely Georg Lukács’s method by which she could use social interrelationships, between capitalists and workers and between African Americans and poor whites, to structure her own epic form. “I have Lukács to thank,” she said, “for an understanding of the popular character of the historical novel; for the recognition that I was among the first dealing with characters looking up from the bottom rather than down from the top” (How I Wrote Jubilee, 64). In the eye of Walker’s subjectivity, the abstract (class struggle) moves into the concrete (the individual characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions), and in this way the social world in which African American chattel slaves lived is animated by Walker through their own individual actions, and, as we shall soon see, in Vyry’s three life-determining decisions.
In understanding how Walker applied Lukács’s concept of the objectively abstract in relation to the subjectively concrete, Allen’s thesis on the origins of white racial oppression is useful. Abstract form without social content (the everyday life of laborers) creates a closed structure without human agency, but by looking at the life of workers as it really is – a daily enforced dependency on the capitalist world – Walker’s epic novel and Allen’s theory of U.S. history both advance a new kind of thought. Historically, the U.S. capitalist world has always made itself up as it goes along, in incessant pursuit of present profit. This way of organizing society has created enormous gaps and ruptures within their system, allowing for catastrophic mistakes, always perceived through ideological illusion. The fantasy life of the capitalist depends on the reality of the worker, yet what the worker is trying to attain is the fantasy life of the capitalist. Applying Lukács’s Hegelian literary theory to Jubilee, we see how fiction can represent social life as it is and has been – as embroiled in the constant push and pull of internal conflicts against an objective (or externalized) social order. Hence, the reality of a worker is distorted and confused, as most workers are trying to find a better life in a civil society engineered by their class oppressors. More to the point, if the first American working class was African American, what does this mean for American literature and culture, labor history, sociology, and political theory? What does it mean for all the official myths, symbols, and archetypes of “Americanness”?
The form Walker uses in Jubilee is a synthesis of a singular narrative style, historical research, orally transmitted genealogy, folk philosophy, social and economic theory, and a wealth of American Africanisms. These “raw materials” are arranged into what Pierre Bourdieu calls socioanalysis: a dialectical method by which the author’s subjectivity is put into conscious relation with her main characters’ objectively changing fate to shape the major contours and patterns of historical reality.1 Through this kind of method, Walker injects historical fact and the socially symbolic into the personal decisions each of her characters makes. In other words, to advance the argument that African American bond laborers were the first American working class, she presents the defining situations and circumstances of American history through a “typical” African American consciousness. In Lukács’s terms, this consciousness is an “immanent ideal,” without which
the outside world cannot be represented. Both the parts and the whole of such an outside world defy any forms of directly sensuous representation. They acquire life only when they can be related either to the life-experiencing interiority of the individual lost in their labyrinth or to the observing and creative eye of the artist’s subjectivity (79).
Lukács conducted his study of the novel by recourse to Hegelian dialectics. He describes the abstract in a novel as “a systematization which emphasizes the conventionality of the objective world and the interiority of the subjective one” (70). A bridge of “abstract systematization” connects the completely factual and objective world to the entirely subjective and imagined one. To have only the subjective reality of the outside world, without the objective abstract, would be to strip the individual character’s actions of historical consequence. The outside world would then be reduced to a cluster of incoherent and impregnable thoughts. In fact, however, there is a hierarchy in levels of abstraction. Walker, through her study and her systematic awareness of this hierarchy, transfigures it poetically, making the reality in fiction much more sensuous. According to Lukács, the hierarchical levels can be used by the literary artist in three different ways:
(1) abstract, the nostalgia of the characters for utopian perfection, a nostalgia that feels itself and its desires to be the only true reality; (2) abstract, the existence of social structures based only upon their factual presence and their sheer ability to continue; (3) abstract, finally, the form-giving intention which, instead of surmounting the distance between these two abstract groups of elements allows it to subsist, which does not even attempt to surmount it but renders it sensuous as the lived experience of the novel’s characters, uses it as a means to connecting the two groups and so turns it into an instrument of composition (70).
The first use of the abstract is based on the imagined roles of the individual characters. For instance, the nostalgia felt inside the characters’ different realities is purely fictional and based on the reality of the imagined world of the writer. In the second abstract, it is apparent that, if social structures are dependent only on the factual world, then the individual character’s actions and thoughts can be easily miscomprehended – that is, they will be perceived as a mere reflection of objective reality instead of being perceived as part of a high-stakes symbolic exchange. In this scenario, the abstract becomes irrelevant and the outside world indecipherable. The third use of the abstract is a combination of the first two uses: it enables the writer to build a sensuously felt world inside the character’s individual self in relation to, and mediated by, the volatile outside world surrounding it and trying to absorb it.
Walker reaches into the emotional vulnerabilities of her readers by structuring her novel according to what Allen termed the “social engineering of the ‘white race.’” Allen argues that the real historical events for African American workers of the antebellum, civil war, and post-bellum worlds were a direct outcome of Anglo-American capitalist “abstract systemization,” i.e. the pursuit of present profit through the super-exploitation of black labor. In the terms of Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, the capitalist world is the abstract outside world that determines every subjective psychological and emotional response within it. In this way, the complex subjectivity injected into each of Walker’s characters reflects not only her many decades of historical research, but also her own view of human emotions. As she explains in How I Wrote Jubilee:
My characters look like and talk like and act and think and react like human beings, but in reality they are only the fictive creatures of my imagination. Their language and their actions are familiar, their world is familiar, and they move toward a definite point in reality, but they are people in a world of imagination. They are so real, so intensified, that I become involved with them, so exaggerated that they seem of exact human proportions, and I struggle and suffer with them. But their ultimate reality is one of verisimilitude, for my novel is a canvas on which I paint my vision of my world (64f).
The abstract in Jubilee is the objective reality based on Walker’s historically researched approach to the outside world. Therefore, the subjective decisions that Walker imposes on her characters spring from a reality made from the push and pull of individual subjectivity against objective reality. In other words, there is a constant reversal of subject and object. This can be seen in Vyry’s intense internal struggle over what is right and wrong according to the white fascist world in which she was raised. This “outside” reality is an agitator or antagonist of the internally concrete (or psychology), causing it to forcefully challenge the fictional character’s changing subjectivity (or social being). “On the problem of verisimilitude in the novel,” Walker said,
I recognize the fact that I was constantly faced with the difficulty of taking real and consciously chosen Negro characters like Randall Ware and Henry McNeil Turner and making each of them point up his historical significance, while at the same time shaping them into fictitious characters of my imagination. I am sure I follow a long line of predecessors in this. In terms of these realistic demands on the story, I think of my work as a mixture of what the twentieth century realists, naturalists, and symbolists all do (64).
Walker enables us to perceive the vastly complex mental manipulations of the mass social world acting on Vyry’s consciousness. Powerful reactionary forces have twisted many of her decisions, often blinding her. They have determined her preference for one life over a different one. Vyry’s emotional expression of intense frustration and internal chaos is why the interpenetration of abstract and concrete is so important to Walker’s form, for without it, a controlled naturalistic, positivistic point of view replaces the real historical experience. Walker avoids the danger of positivism by following Lukács’s concept of the dialectical use of the abstract. Lukács wrote:
There is a danger that instead of an existent totality only a subjective aspect of that totality will be given form, obscuring or even destroying the creative intention of acceptance and objectivity which the great epic demands. This danger cannot be circumvented but can only be overcome from within. For such subjectivity is not eliminated if it remains unexpressed or is transformed into a will for objectivity: such a silence, such a will, is even more subjective than the overt manifestation of a clearly conscious subjectivity, and therefore, in the Hegelian sense, even more abstract (74).
This particular approach to subjectivity is evident at the end of Jubilee, in Walker’s decision to have Vyry choose Innis Brown for her life partner. Not only does it reveal an intense inner struggle on the writer’s part with the subjective aspects of totality, but more importantly it shows the specific subjectivity of Vyry in relation to her own perception of that reality – a reality that is already irreducibly opaque and alienating in the extreme.
Vyry’s three decisions
The main character in Jubilee is based on Walker’s great-grandmother, a young African American woman named Vyry, who was born into chattel slavery. In How I Wrote Jubilee Walker speaks specifically of Vyry and the effects of chattel slavery on her psyche:
My great-grandmother was a definite product of plantation life and culture. She was shaped by the forces that dominated her life. In the Big House and in the Quarters, she was raised according to Christian ethics, morality, and faith, and she could not react any other way. Her philosophy of life was a practical one, and she succeeded in getting the things she wanted and prayed for. She realized that hatred wasn’t necessary and would have corroded her own spiritual well being (62f).
At the beginning of the story we see young Vyry’s mother, Hetta, die from bearing fifteen children. This is an important starting point for many reasons, for it establishes quickly the socio-historical context as well as the difficult psychological and emotional circumstances that will confront Vyry in the years to come. For example, she will never know stable love from another female because there is always a rational fear that her female friends and family might be sold or killed. This fear shapes Vyry mentally and emotionally into the worker she is. Plantation economics, along with the lack of a stable female community, cause Vyry confusion at a very young age. She is hated by Marse John’s wife, Big Missy, because she is living proof of John’s infidelity. Vyry’s mother died when she was too young to understand this, and the woman taking care of her, Mammy Sukey, died trying to save a terminally-ill field hand. The only woman she has left is Aunt Sally, and Vyry attaches herself to her. Instead of the extended family originating from African and Caribbean familial traditions, whose purpose is to benefit the whole, a makeshift family system develops that is constantly disrupted by the chattel system, as women are perpetually sold or die bearing children.
This is not a stable and trusting communal environment; rather, it is one of constant emotional turmoil. It is the selling of Aunt Sally that compels Vyry to doubt that a female community or family is possible. This special structure of feeling is established in the narrative early on:
The darkest day in Vyry’s young life came without warning. Big Missy and Marse John had arranged to sell Aunt Sally. She would go first to Savannah and then by boat to New Orleans, where she would go on the auction block and be sold to the highest bidder. The morning she was ordered to go, she and Vyry went as usual to the kitchen. Big Missy came out in the kitchen after breakfast and told Aunt Sally to get her things together; there was a wagon in the backyard waiting to take her to Savannah. Now Aunt Sally was ready. She had her head-rag on and she had tied in a bundle the few things she had in the world including the few rags of clothes she wore…. Tears were running down her fat black cheeks and she could not control her trembling lips. Vyry stood dazed and numb. Even when Aunt Sally hugged and kissed her, Vyry did not cry. She could not believe this was real, that she would be forced apart from Aunt Sally, that Aunt Sally was leaving and going somewhere. She heard Aunt Sally saying, “Good-bye, honey, don’t yall forget to pray, Pray to God to send His chilluns a Moses, pray to Jesus to have mercy on us poor suffering chilluns. Goodbye, honey, don’t you forget Aunt Sally and don’t forget to pray. Aunt Sally know she ain’t never gwine see yall no more in this here sinful world, but I’m gwine be waiting for you on the other side where there ain’t gwine be no more auction block. Goodbye, honey-child, goodbye.” Even then Vyry’s eyes were dry. But then she saw poor old Aunt Sally clinging to Sam and Big Boy. She heard her sobbing pitifully, “Oh, Lord, when is you gwine send us that Moses? When you gwine set us peoples free? Jesus, how long? Marster, how long? They is taking all I got in the world from me, they is sending me way down yonder to that cruel auction block! Oh, Lord, how long is we gotta pray?” …Then Vyry found herself shaking like a leaf in a whirlwind. Salt tears were running in her mouth, and her short, sharp finger nails were digging in the palms of her hands. Suddenly she decided she would go with Aunt Sally, and just then Big Missy slapped her so hard she saw stars and when she saw straight again Aunt Sally was gone (70f).
By putting the spotlight on a young female African American bond laborer, Walker perceives in Vyry’s emotional life the general fears, struggles and hopes of the entire African American working class, as well as the difficulties, dilemmas and solutions under racial slavery and white racial oppression, its necessary corollary. Of great significance to Walker is the problem of how a worker gets stuck in a particular mentality and how a female worker in particular changes her views in relation to changes in the course of history itself. She renders Vyry a “typical” example (in terms of objective social circumstances) of a single mother – a female worker without a sisterhood and a woman struggling to attain personal freedom also without the benefit of any patriarchal protection. In this light, there are three specific decisions Vyry makes in Jubilee that cause her the most internal anguish, yet at the same time open up a horizon of realistic hope.
The first major decision Vyry makes is when Randall Ware plans to buy her on the auction block. Randall Ware is a free African American, well educated and wealthy from his own hard artisan labor: he is a skilled blacksmith on whom the whites in the community depend. When Vyry meets Randall she is fourteen, and through Randall she begins to perceive social class; her own class-consciousness is awakened. Walker stresses this awakening in the following passage:
Meanwhile, Vyry was troubled with strange emotions. She could not get the black face of the free man out of her mind. She still felt the casual touch of his hand on her arm. Above all she was fascinated with his talk of freedom, of buying her freedom, of making her free to marriage with him. He told her he had money. Did he have enough? Was he telling the truth? Was he playing and spoofing with her? Did he mean what he said? Who was he, anyway? (78)
Later, when Vyry finds out who Randall actually is, she becomes more intrigued by the mysterious man:
A nigger with book learning? A nigger with money and a nigger free on top of all of this? Was she dreaming? Was such a thing ever heard of in Georgia? Maybe he can teach me how to read and write and cipher on my hands. But it was the idea of freedom and the proposition he had raised in connection with that miraculous idea that fascinated her most…. She had never thought of anything else except accepting her lot as a slave, obeying her master and mistress and working hard. She had been resigned. She had never before thought about freedom. Now the idea of being free began to take hold of her and to work up and down and through her like milk churning to make butter. All day long she though of nothing but Randall Ware and freedom. At night she dreamed confused dreams in which she struggled to be free while something struggled against her to keep her in chains (78f).
Class-consciousness is reaching into Vyry’s ideas and feelings, and it starts to change her outlook on life. Yet she cannot fully understand her desire for freedom or how to attain it due to her social location in the chattel slavery system, buried in it as she is. And as she is consumed with the idea of being free, at the same time she falls head over feet in love with Randall:
She could not explain to herself why she had finally lost all resolution and given in to the fiercely passionate but tender embraces of this black magnet, nor why she pushed back into a corner of her mind the idea of freedom and the marriage that was to come after.… She did not tell him that in his arms she found such comfort, nor would she willingly admit her heart hungered after this love he offered her and she in turn could give; he was just as inarticulate (108).
If the goal is to attain freedom in a racist-fascist society and love blossoms from pursuit of this goal, how does it survive all the obvious dangers and pitfalls therein much less transcend them? Randall Ware has been in love with Vyry from first sight and, when Vyry admits her own love for Randall, they “jump the broom” to celebrate the union. Shortly after, he tells Vyry that he wants to buy her with his money once the seasonal auction begins. The day before the auction Vyry sends Willie, a mentally slow child, to take a critical message to Randall: “He was docile and obedient, but he could not be trusted with any big responsibility” (90). The message Vyry sends to Randall is that he should get a white man to buy her because their own plan is close to being discovered. Due to the life-determining nature of the message, it must get delivered safely and securely.
And so Vyry’s decision with whom to send the message is shocking. Her type of thinking is not that of a class-conscious person. A class-conscious person would know that to send a slow child would allow too much room for disaster. Walker suggests that this type of thinking is the product of a racialized and gendered female worker, a single mother and a bond laborer struggling for freedom without any social or female community support. Without support, and under the extremely brutal socioeconomic conditions that Vyry has learned to endure, rational decision-making is highly problematic. The decision she makes is not thought out, and a terrible mistake does in fact happen: Willie is interrogated by one of the white patrollers and he shows Vyry’s urgent message to Randall instead of his pass. Vyry’s whole life was pending on the message. Why, then, would she give it to a slow child who is completely unreliable? Perhaps she wants the plan to be sabotaged so that she will not have to go through with her quest for freedom. Vyry is scared because life outside of the chattel slavery system is simply unthinkable. She possesses no vocabulary for it.
There are two incidents that happen right before Vyry sends her message that could explain her irrational decision. First is her meeting with Marse John about setting her free and his manipulative way of keeping her entangled on the plantation: “When I die you will surely be free. It’s already in my will” (121). Second, and before her meeting with Marse John, is the painful branding of an “R,” for runaway, on the face of her biological sister and coworker Lucy. This institutionalization of terror causes extreme confusion in terms of class-consciousness. The system has trained Vyry and every other African American chattel slave to fear freedom and to feel that the world outside chattel slavery is not only inconceivable but also far worse than slavery. When the chance for freedom finally comes to Vyry, she makes an irrational decision that proves she does not know how to attain her goal.
The second decision is when Vyry decides to escape from the plantation and ends up getting caught, after which she is hauled back and sadistically beaten, nearly to death. Randall Ware had told her to leave their two babies behind and escape by herself, to meet him on the Underground Railroad where a good plan had been laid; later they would arrange to buy their children from Marse John. Vyry feels unsure about Randall’s plan: “Naw. Big Missy’ll sell them. She hates me worser than poison.” But Randall replies with logic: “She won’t do no such thing. They too young to bring a price. I got plans to see they are taken care of. We’ll have them again as soon as we get out of the South and out of danger” (137). When the time comes for Vyry to go, she looks at her children and feels too scared to leave them. Randall had warned Vyry that if she chooses to take their children she will be caught. Yet the impulse to bring her children along is too strong for Vyry and she ends up taking them anyway. This action slows her down and results inevitably in her getting caught and then severely punished. Was Vyry’s decision to take her children along a conscious one?
At this point in my essay, to better understand Walker’s interest in a black female chattel slave’s approach to class-consciousness, I would like to compare Vyry with Harriet Jacobs, who did take a class-conscious approach to protect her children. In fact her story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1865), is about living in a small attic for almost seven years without them. Jacobs was tortured by her master, Dr. Flint, who plagued her with aggressive sexual assaults. Jacobs, much like Vyry, was hated most by the master’s wife, because of the extra attention he gave her. Her children were also tortured because they were linked with their mother’s status as a chattel slave. Before deciding to hide, Jacobs plans to run away by herself, leaving her children in hope of finding a way to buy their freedom. She is encouraged to run away by her Aunt Nancy, who is similar to Randall Ware’s liberating persona, in particular in the fact she is literate and has taught Jacobs how to read and write – something Randall would have done for Vyry had they not suffered the forced separation that they did.
When my friends tried to discourage me from running away, she [Aunt Nancy] always encouraged me. When they thought I had better return and ask my master’s pardon, because there was no possibility of escape, she sent me word never to yield. She said if I persevered I might, perhaps, gain the freedom of my children; and even if I perished in doing it, that was better than to leave them to groan under the same persecutions that had blighted my own life (119).
Jacobs’ class-consciousness comes into play when, instead of running away, she decides to fake a runaway and then disappears into a small attic on Flint’s grounds. Her thinking is that if she fakes an escape, Flint will in revenge immediately sell her children, and then they will be in a better position to be bought. That is, once she herself is free, she can arrange, with the help of the Underground Railroad, for her children to have a better life somewhere else. Jacobs reflected on her situation, and then decided that the best route for freedom was to trick the Flints – unlike Vyry, who did not think through her situation or heed Ware’s warnings of taking their children through the swamp.
Jacobs suffered as she watched her children, always anxiously, through a little peephole in the attic. But her actions are those of a class-conscious worker, who understood that careful forethought and planning was the best way to get her children and eventually herself to freedom. She realized that significant risks had to be taken, as the world around her is so backward that any “right” way is nothing but a slow and tortuous death. Jacobs touched on this in her autobiography, as she used cunning many times to avoid Dr. Flint’s sexual assaults: “Thus far I had outwitted him, and I triumphed over it. Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants” (85). Many times she wanted to leave her cell and be close to her children. In one instance, when her children are sent to jail, Jacobs recalls:
I was daily hoping to hear that my master had sold my children; for I knew who was on the watch to buy them.… When I heard that my little ones were in a loathsome jail, my first impulse was to go to them. I was encountering dangers for the sake of freeing them, and must I be the cause of their death? The thought was agonizing.… I suppose my friends feared a reckless movement on my part, knowing, as they did, that my life was bound up in my children (86).
Vyry, unlike Jacobs, doesn’t realize that her actions will also affect her children and their future. Up to this point Vyry has the determination to attain freedom, and she finds that freedom realistic with Randall Ware. However, when the time comes for her to actually go through with the instructions – to go on the Underground Railroad, which requires leaving her children behind – she does the opposite. Here is evidence that Walker’s intention and overall message is for her readers to anticipate class-consciousness by questioning how the socioeconomic environment presses against an individual’s everyday decision-making. The contrast between Vyry and Harriet Jacobs could not be bolder, as Jacobs, through a series of meticulously planned steps, and with the help of radical Euro-American abolitionists, is eventually reunited with her children in the North.
Vyry’s agonizing choice poses a central problem in Jubilee. A single mother would understandably feel nervous about leaving her children behind in a very dangerous situation. At the same time, everything is dangerous for a chattel slave, especially a female one with small children. What if she did leave her children to attain freedom, first for herself and then for them? Wouldn’t she then be in a much more advantageous position from which to secure their future health and happiness? These are questions that Vyry needed to closely consider, but she did not think about them. In this situation, Walker shapes the self-awareness of a young African American woman worker by drawing out her emotional connections to the outside world, which is racist, hostile, and opaque. The shaking loose of a worker’s awareness depends largely on radical historical change, Walker argues. Such change would need to be antislavery on a national scale to alter Vyry’s social, emotional and mental state. For Jacobs, it was the radical abolitionist movement. For Vyry, it was Randall Ware and everything he represented as a free black man. Yet Vyry’s resistance to him indicates how deeply embedded the racist-fascist system had become in the psyches of African American bond laborers, particularly young women.
The turning point comes at the center of the novel, when Vyry is punished for attempting to escape. Here, Walker shows acutely and in depth the extreme obstacles for African American bond laborers trying to attain freedom. The desire to rebel, or to project externally the hatred of injustice, was outlawed and, when expressed individually, physically beaten out of them. To keep African Americans as bond laborers, it was necessary that fear be driven into their bodies and minds in the form of pure terror: containment of a whole working class by physically forcing them to forget what it is like to dream outside the “normal.” As Walker states about Vyry:
There was not much time for thinking, and she was glad because thinking was so confusing. She did not like to remember all the painful things, and with no time to think, she had even less time to daydream her hopeless, unreal dreams of freedom. If she kept her mind on the present work at hand, she could keep busy without dreaming or thinking. Thus life went on without anything changing her world or changing her life as a cook in the Big House (89).
These workers are not at all ignorant, Walker says; rather they have settled into their oppression or enforced habitus, for it is the only way they know how to survive. Vyry courageously takes a chance for freedom, but psychologically she is sidetracked by a gendered and racialized consciousness imposed on her from above, the consciousness of a “normal” worker, a false consciousness produced in her by the slave system’s own fear of sudden change, of violent overthrow from below. Before Vyry is caught and whipped, we see her determined to gain freedom. After she is whipped, we see a dramatic change in her. The passion for freedom has left her spirit.
It is essential to discuss why Walker chose a young woman as the main character of her epic novel of America. Rational thought is under a thick fog created by the political agenda of the slave-owning ruling class, which is enforced ceaselessly and fascistically by the poor whites. This transformed African American women psychologically and emotionally in ways that have had the broadest consequences in U.S. society.
During this time of rapid capital accumulation, the individual human being was not thought of as a person but as a mechanical tool endowed with the power to reproduce itself. Walker shows this explicitly with Vyry’s mother Hetta, who not only produced wealth through her labor-power (commodities such as cotton and rice), but also the next generation of bond laborers, through her own forced reproductive labor. It was immediate profit for the big planters, since African American children could start doing small jobs while still young, and then a few years later could be sold on the auction block for fast profit. As mentioned, the book opens with Hetta dying at the age of twenty-nine while giving birth to her fifteenth child. This was the “common life” of a female bond laborer, and most African American girls saw it as their future, too. Walker shows that this produced a state of catastrophic fear that eventually turned into a numb tolerance of the capitalist system of racial slavery and oppression. It also produced a role reversal in intimate relationships. For, as we will see, Vyry chooses the ex-bond-laborer Innis Brown because of his perceived trustworthiness, conservative loyalty and social stability, whereas she rejects the free man Randall Ware because of his perceived political radicality and social instability. Anti-slavery is misunderstood, denied, and internally pushed away, evident in Vyry’s final decision: she does not feel good being with Randall precisely because he is a politically liberatory presence in her life.
It is not surprising that under this totalitarian system of exploitation and abuse, African American female bond laborers shut down parts of themselves. Demoralized and dominated on every level, they were compelled to relinquish sacred parts of their souls directly connected with their bodies’ sensuality and sexuality. How then could they possibly make rational decisions, whether as workers or as mothers? Thus, it is with mutilated faculties of thought and feeling that Vyry agonizes over her decisions regarding freedom, her children, and being a productive worker. Her successes and failures in the struggle for freedom are those of all female African American laborers and single mothers.
The third decision Vyry makes is when she does not wait for her husband Randall after hearing of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This situation reveals how capitalist racial and gender oppression had already transformed Vyry’s habitus, in which racialized and feminized (under masculine domination) consciousness supersedes class-consciousness. Through persistent pleas for her hand, Innis Brown, an ex-slave from a neighboring plantation, becomes the man with whom she ends up leaving the abandoned plantation. Racially oppressed working-class women can be expected to avoid the expression of powerful feelings, Walker suggests, and to misperceive – through complex sublimations – what is going on politically in the world around them. In the novel, we see this not only with African American bond laborers but also with poor whites. Both stay with their own, in sharp contrast to the period before Bacon’s Rebellion, when a racial mentality did not exist, and blacks and whites intermixed and organized together.
Why does Vyry trust Innis, a man she barely knows, and not Randall, a man she has known since she was a young girl? Vyry’s mentality is that of a racialized female worker: she can relate to Innis with ease because of their shared oppression, whereas Randall has never been a slave. Moreover, this racialized mentality, for men and women alike, congeals in a patriarchal domain and seems to be the driving factor in shaping Vyry’s specific female and racial consciousness. Vyry feels a safety with Innis. There is also a direct parallel, in terms of the idea of loyalty, between Willie’s devotedness to Vyry (which led Vyry to trust him with her life) and Vyry’s decision to stay with Innis – who ends up savagely beating her child Jim – rather than waiting for Randall and the realistic dream of a better life. In each case, had Vyry been aware of how to use class-consciousness to her advantage, she would have decided differently.
Unaware of how white supremacy has twisted her view on intimate relationships, Vyry still struggles relentlessly with her forced socialization. She is upset that Randall took so long to return, even after learning the precise political reasons why (Randall was attending a Republican convention, to help elect African American representatives). Her decision to leave with Innis instead of waiting for Randall shows an entrenchment of racialized mental and emotional complexes. It becomes clear that Vyry is not thinking of the future and the certain dangers that she and her children will face as a result of leaving with Innis. In fact she does not love Innis; she loves Randall and has recognized all along that her hopes and dreams are with him. Hence, if she had been thinking clearly regarding the well-being of her family, she would have waited at the abandoned plantation for Randall, knowing that a liberated future was ahead. However, living under a racialized patriarchal and capitalist system of rule, Vyry cannot help but choose Innis, who seems to her comfortable, familiar, and reliable.
At the very end of the novel, Walker has Vyry decide with whom she will stay as both a wife and a free African American proletarian: either Innis Brown, an uneducated and heavily conditioned ex-chattel slave, or Randall Ware, a well educated and wealthy man who wants to liberate her and their children and help the ex-bond laborers fight for full freedom. Ware offers Vyry education, financial security, and an everyday life involved directly in the affairs of the nation. Vyry decides to stay with Innis, as she views Ware as a threat. Yet where the real danger lies is with Innis, as Walker will soon reveal in a scene where Innis brutally whips Vyry’s son Jim. Still, Vyry has difficulty connecting Innis’s slave-driving approach to her son Jim, as well as Innis’s rejection of schooling for their children, with the damaging mental effects of white supremacy. When Innis whips Jim for not working hard enough in the field, the situation scares Vyry and she tries to understand what has just happened:
Innis Brown had tried to be a good father to her children, and he had been as fine as he could be…. It wasn’t just a matter of prejudice that Jim was her first-born child and she loved him dearly. But all that confusion in her house yesterday went back to something in her life that she thought she had forever escaped. It brought back all the violence and killing on the plantation when Grimes was driving and beating the field hands to death…. She was sick of killing and violence. She was sick of the hate that went with it. Was this kind of evil going to follow her all the days of her life? (380f).
By having Vyry stay with Innis, Walker highlights two important elements of her novel. First, Vyry’s final choice is a lucid expression of the political state of the outside world: her refusal to accept an active life in civil society with Randall and their family, which she refers to dismissively as “nothing but a dream,” is consistent with the political overthrow of Reconstruction and the full restoration of fascist white supremacy. Second, Vyry proves by staying with Innis that she prefers bonds of filiation over those of affiliation. As Vyry explains it to Randall, “‘Innis and me has got a marriage, Randall Ware. We has been through everything together, birth and death, flood and fire, sickness and trouble. And he ain’t never thought once about hisself first; he always thought about us. You and me didn’t have no chance to make a marriage. Slavery killed our chance’” (409). Apparently Vyry is showing loyalty towards Innis because he supported her while Randall was off at war, and because of their shared experience with hard times under racial oppression. But white supremacy has distorted her view of a healthy relationship. Her relationship with Innis is a negative one, which also has caused her to be suspicious of the political struggle for self-emancipation. Randall tells Vyry that he will take care of her and their children, but Vyry associates money with the system of slavery, and then automatically aligns him with whites:
“Big House don’t matter to me. I was a slave in a Big House and I knows that don’t mean warm loving home and peaceful night’s sleep. Your money was always gwine buy everything, even me and my freedom, but it was a dream, Randall Ware. I tells you it wasn’t nothing but a dream” (409).
In this last conversation between Vyry and Randall, Vyry cannot help but obstruct the path of her own self-emancipation. She views Randall as merely idealistic, despite his objective achievements which, as Vyry knows well, came from determined and principled hard work and great self-sacrifice in the political arena. Here, Walker shows the peculiar scale of the mental manipulations practiced on the minds of American workers by white male supremacy. Randall is now unsafe in Vyry’s eyes, because he presents a political activism she feels would cause her more social pain and emotional anguish. Whereas at the beginning of the novel he was her symbol of freedom, after enduring slavery and then the horrors of KKK terror during Reconstruction and the White Restoration, seeing Randall after these many years apart seems to provoke in Vyry a desire to have nothing to do with white supremacy – she is sick of the fight. But racial and gender oppression persist, and she will never be safe from them. She does not at this moment see that the life of an African American worker is always political, precisely because of the constant struggle against white supremacy.
And this is where the epochal character of Walker’s novel asserts itself once again. If Vyry had decided to live a life with Randall, how would her future, and by extension the future of all African American people, have been different? To quote Du Bois: “The present mincing horror at free womanhood must pass if we are ever to be rid of the bestiality of free manhood.” Thus Walker ends the novel with a question: Why does Vyry stay with Innis in the face of all the opportunities offered by Randall? Walker’s ending is strategic: it is a reminder that all social oppressions produce complex internal conflicts. The objectifications of the many emotional and psychological complexes of Vyry in Jubilee trigger a new way of thinking and feeling. They point to the effects of capitalist oppression on the individual psyche in a society in which many do not think of racialized gender discrimination as a fundamental working-class issue. Walker has brought to vibrant life the extraordinarily complex inner world of African American workers. In so doing, she has called into real existence the otherwise abstract external forces they have always resisted – the fascist agents of white racial oppression, the poor whites, as well as their paymasters, the capitalist ruling class.
Walker has written: “Throughout the whole chain of events the Negro was a pawn, and he remains such today. We are a minority group with a subculture and we are unrecognized by the dominant culture” (How I Wrote Jubilee, 63). Yet there is great power in compelling this kind of national recognition, especially for today’s white working-class majority whose own political fate remains tied directly and intimately to that of America’s originary working class, the African American people. National recognition in this sense means collective awareness of the central pattern of U.S. history and society – the “Southern strategy,” as it became known under Nixon and Reagan: replacing, in bad economic times and during widespread social discontent and upheaval, an emergent revolutionary proletarian class-consciousness with an old reactionary white racial one. As I have argued, the path to a combative multiethnic American class-consciousness, elaborated systematically in Walker’s Jubilee, lies in a new concept of American labor, one that puts a final end to the legacy of bond-servitude and continues the civil rights struggle against white supremacy – a struggle always in motion and the only one capable of preventing a return to white fascism.
Allen, Theodore W. 1994. The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Vol. 1. New York: London and New York: Verso.
______. 1997. The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, Vol. 2. London and New York: Verso.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Masculine Domination. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1998. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Free Press.
Jacobs, Harriet A. 2001. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Dover.
Lukács, Georg. 1974. The Theory of the Novel. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Walker, Margaret. 1990. How I Wrote Jubilee. New York: Feminist Press.
_______. 1966. Jubilee. New York: First Mariner Books.
1. “Socioanlaysis” is a style of interpretation Pierre Bourdieu uses in his work Masculine Domination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). I have tried to remain consistent in my analysis of Walker’s Jubilee with Bourdieu’s definition, in which, as he says, the idea is to treat the objective analysis of society “as an objective archeology of our unconscious” (3).