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Margaret Walker

Theme: The African American Experience During the Civil War
Grades: Grades 11-12

Based on the life of Walker's own great grandmother, this best-selling book, published in 1965, has been called the first truly historical African-American novel. Drawing on the written record as well as an oral history of plantation life, the story celebrates the African folk roots of the African-American experience. Vyry, the remarkable heroine of Jubilee, survives the cruelty of slavery, the hardship of the Civil War, and the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction—all the while holding on to her dream of freedom.

Note: Since this novel deals realistically with issues of slavery and racial oppression, offensive terms are frequently spoken by some of the characters. You may wish to discuss this issue with students before they begin reading.

  1. Concept Web.
    Have students work independently or in small groups to create a word web or other graphic organizer that explores one or more of these concepts: slavery, oppresion, prejudice, freedom.
  1. Role-Playing.
    Prejudice, discrimination, and freedom from oppresion are central themes in Jubilee. Have students explore these powerful concepts by role-playing or discussing one of the situations that follow: (1) have you ever been treated unfairly because of race, religion, gender, social or economic status, or the way you look or dress? How did you personally respond? Do you think that your response was an appropriate one? Why or why not? (2) Think of people you have read about who successfully overcame oppression. For example, you might recall that Pilgrims migrated to America in pursuit of religious freedom and that Frederick Douglass became a prominent leader in the antislavery movement after he escaped from slavery. What kinds of oppression—economic, social, cultural, religious—do people experience? What steps can people take to fight oppression? What qualities or traits do you think might help or hinder someone who is fighting against oppression?
  1. Whose Side Are You On?
    Have the class hold an informal debate or discussion as to how Reconstruction should have been handled. To do so, have students play the roles of characters in the last third of the novel, such as Vyry, Innis Brown, Randall Ware, Jim, Henry Turner (in the Georgia State House), old Doc, Mr. Pippins, Mr. or Mrs, Jacobson, Reverend Whittake, Miss Lucy, Mr. or Mrs. Shackleford, and Mr. Porter. Students should prepare arguments based on their reading of the novel and the related readings as well as on their own research. Some students may wish to play the roles of historical figures not in the novel. Make sure the debate maintains a constructive tone and doesn't degenerate into emotional outbursts.

  1. The Sounds of Music.
    Throughout Jubilee, Walker quotes lyrics from African American spirituals. In this project, students will research the history of spirituals and locate the lyrics and music of a favorite spiritual. Students will conclude the project by presenting a brief oral report and by sharing a spiritual.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Divide the class into small groups. Then have the members of each group work together to research spirituals. Suggest that they use an on-line or print encyclopedia, a dictionary of music, or a book about spirituals, or consult a music teacher or a musician who is familiar with spirituals, to find answers to questions such as: What are spirituals? When and where did spirituals originate? How are spirituals related to traditional African music? Why did people sing sprituals in the years around the Civil War? Why do people sing spirituals today? What kinds of emotions do spirituals express? What musical instruments, if any, are associated with spirituals? What are the titles of some well-known spirituals?
  • After groups finish their research, have them prepare oral reports. Ask them to plan to conclude their reports by performing or by playing a recording of their favorite spiritual. Have students who read music assist those classmates who plan to perform a spiritual from sheet music.
  • Have groups take turns presenting their oral reports. Beforehand, make sure that groups have any equipment they need—a record player, tape recorder, or CD player—to play recordings of spirituals. After all the groups have concluded their presentations, have students discuss why they think Walker incorporates lyrics from spirituals in her novel. Ask them: How do the spirituals quoted at the beginning of chapters capture the mood of the novel? How do the lyrics reflect what events take place? Also, have students indentify and discuss lyrics from spirituals they have heard recently.
  1. Slave Narratives.
    Have students find and read portions of a slave narrative such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Then have them write a comparison and contrast essay to examine similarities and differences between the slave narrative they read and the fictional account of slavery in Jubilee.

  2. Explore the Underground Railroad.
    In Chapter 17, Vyry and her children attempt an escape from John Dutton's plantation by way of the Underground Railroad. Instruct students to research the Underground Railroad and then write a report about how some enslaved people were conducted to freedom.