Vyry’s Song: Remembering as an Uncontested Place

           Memory, like imagination, is a place of elucidative trepidations, symmetry compressed to myrrh from bifocal consciousness, sediment and stoicism forgetting all but grace through the rushing richness of the flooding mind composing “recollection that moves from the image to the text. Not the text to the image” (Morrison 2294). Margaret Walker’s imaginative process to “extend, fill in, and complement slave autobiographical narratives” in Jubilee relies on what Morrison refers to as “a kind of literary archeology” (2294). Through self-recollection the cosmos of the mind relents its dissipating repose and breathes new life into the story of one, and in the process, its poignant generational cognate edges against the age to accompany a song that speaks for all ages and all people. In Jubilee, fiction is Remembering and it is through the act of memory that proves the strength of the individual over group structured dominance. 

            At the risk of doting insufficient and politically charged terms, one may look to Michael M. J. Fischer’s “Ethnicity and the Arts of Memory” to introduce the subject of “future-oriented” remembering that assists in producing Jubilee:

The search or struggle for a sense of ethnic identity is a (re-)invention and discovery of vision, both ethical and future-oriented. Whereas the search for coherence is grounded in a connection to the past, the meaning abstracted from the past, an important criterion of coherence, is an ethic workable for the future. Such visions can take a number of forms: they can be both culturally specific (e.g., the biblical strains of black victories over oppression) and dialectically formed as critiques of hegemonic ideologies (e.g., as alternatives to the melting pot rhetoric of assimilation to the bland, neutral style of the conformist 1950s).” (196)

Vyry’s story, through Walker’s process of imaginative memory, proves to be both “culturally specific” and a “critique of hegemonic ideologies.” In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison notes a common “objectivity” in many of the slave narratives that was often encouraged to achieve a natural empathy from a dismissive white America (2292). Overtly virtuous character may be easily scrutinized as posturing but it is these values which synchronize harmoniously with the individual strengths that top-size dominance and control. This examination of character cannot be purely fictional or representational strategies. Being, as it is, memory of being, such representations must relay truths that are constantly in motion towards a future liberation. Fischer goes on to say that (re)visioning is far from new:

Only the soul that engaged in memory exercises, in recollections, in preserving the knowledge of this world when proceeding to the next and avoiding the waters of Lethe…would be able to escape the cycles of rebirth, the flux of meaningless repetitions, and the reductions of human beings into mechanical or bestial ciphers. (197)

            Jubilee is the retelling of Margaret Walker’s family history. Vyry is Walker’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown. Randall Ware’s actual name is preserved, complimenting his continued physical presence as noted in the Jubilee’s acknowledgments:

The records of his transactions in real estate during the Reconstruction are in the County Courthouse of Terrell County in Dawson, Georgia. The bank of Dawson and the Bus Depot covers the spot where his smithy and grist mill stood and where, in 1947, I saw the anvil he had used a hundred years ago.

The contrast between the material tangible evidence of Randall Ware’s possessions and what is left to recover from Margaret Duggans Ware Brown is striking. The only possession left from “Vyry” is a photograph. What is a photograph but as memory? Walker further reasserts, “I have a true photograph of my great-grandmother, who is the Vyry of this story.” As Toni Morrison states, self-recollection (memoir) and fiction are not mutually exclusive and there is a place “where those two crafts embrace and where that embrace is symbiotic” (2290-2291). Walker’s creative memory joins historical representation in a place unfictionalized.

            Walker’s extensive research and personal endeavor to locate her personal oral tradition onto the written page (re)creates Jubilee into “this unique Afro-American literary genre” as a “celebration of freedom and restoration” (Klotman 142). Discussing the differences between the roles of the historian and the novelist, Walker believed that they can be largely the same as “more people will read fiction than will history, and history is slanted just as fiction may seem to be. People will learn about a time and a place through a historical novel” (Klotman 139). On the topic of “why white America produces biographies, while black America produces autobiographies” critic Arnold Rampersad claims that “autobiography is predicated on a moral vision, on a vibrant relation between the a sense of self and a community, on a retrospective or prophetic appeal to a community of spirit, be it religious or social” (Fischer 197).

            Margaret Walker’s remembering is situated firmly in an examination “of perception and understanding, or misperception and misunderstanding, that constitute failures of mutual recognition [as] a central study for a socially critical moral epistemology” (Code 157). Walker’s moral framework “listens attentively to narratives of moral agency achieved or thwarted; engaged practices of working toward achieving a sense of how things are ‘over there’; and a readiness to interrogate and (re)negotiate sedimented beliefs, prejudices, and stereotypes that naturalize unjust social arrangements and interaction” (Code 157). Jubilee’s personalities and each of their unique situations, from Big Missy to May Liza, participate within a larger moral framework that guides the reader into nuanced principles to be extracted as sources for a triumphant way of being.

            Jubilee is centered on Vyry’s stages of development that coincide and run parallel to a matured understanding of freedom. Vyry’s story is in the tradition of the slave narrative which Morrison situates as stating, “This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents the race” (2291). This singular story as shared experience is denoted by the historical person’s fictional name, Vyry. Walker establishes Vyry’s name in the second chapter. The context in which the reader learns her name is directive: “Vyreeeeeee! Oh, you Vyree! Gal, don’t you hear me calling you? You better make haste and come here to me. I don’t wanta hasta come after you. You make haste now, you hear me Vyree? (39). Here, the name is a contested place. Vyry’s role is stringently reinforced by Aunt Sally who commands her to associate her identity with the expectation of complete submission.

Masterfully orchestrated by Walker, the scene of her name, her calling, follows Vyry’s first thoughts on freedom. As she attends to her morning duties, a still small voice looks beyond the plantation:

[O]h, how she wished she were going some place. She wished herself out where the fields ended, where the wagon road was winding, and the Central of Georgia Railroad was puffing like a tiny black speck along the tracks. If she were only free as a bird, free as the morning doves on the wing… (38-39)

Her youth and limited exposure to the world prevents a mature understanding of slavery both as an individual and of the institution itself. Still, the natural association of escape with the traditional folk symbol, the train, and the unfettered freedom of flight with the morning doves, illustrates her innate understanding of personal margins and borderlines. The place Vyry is called to attend to compliments Aunt Sally’s role as a person in position to reaffirm Vyry’s servitude and continue the generational cycle. The kitchen, the place of work, “was made of bricks that were baked Georgia clay, and the same slaves who had made the bricks cut the oak timbers which trimmed the handsome mansion of Marse John” (40). Vyry, “accustomed, now, to the big brick fireplace with its brick oven where Aunt Sally did all the cooking” is superficially, presumptuously, assimilated into her role. After Aunt Sally dies, Vyry assumes her role in the kitchen when no one else can be found to replace her (86).

            Vyry’s struggle to realize freedom is matched only by her cemented character of adamant virtue. Her moral sense is more concentrated and focused than the dominant group’s imposition of broadly defined lines between free and unfree, superiority and inferiority. Her private song, first situated verbally and overtly phrased as “Flee as a bird to your mountain,” matures in time. Her voice is “promised to be as rich and as dark as Aunt Sally’s” with such strength that “then the whole valley would fill up with her song” (38). In this, the valley, or what can be called society, is removed or replaced by the voice. At this point in the story that valley is still seen through relatively innocent eyes. Vyry’s world view will develop and with womanhood her experience, her existence, will develop beyond archetypal representations into a song – a voice – that communicates the unutterable pitches of her emotional range. The magnitude of emotive response that cannot be entirely expressed in perfect terms is echoed in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself:

[T]hey would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out–if not in the word, in the sound; –and as frequently in the one as in the other. (48-49)

As Douglass states, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (51).

In Jubilee, Vyry’s notions of freedom are in continuous fluctuation, “from little awareness of its meaning to passionate desire for its fulfillment and finally, after years of promise and frustration, resignation” (Klotman 141). As Vyry ages, she gradually becomes more familiar with the national scope of her personal disposition. Aunt Sally takes her to the Big Meeting Nights to hear Brother Ezekiel preach, “For a long time Vyry did not understand that these meetings served a double purpose” (46-47). Walker composes and maintains the fulfillment of Vyry’s intellectual maturity and realization of freedom with womanhood, “Aunt Sally had promised her mysteriously that when she was older and had her ‘womanhood’ she could be baptized by Brother Ezekiel” (47). The association of baptism and womanhood signifies motherhood as the transcendent identification and matured understanding of God. These Sunday meetings also contribute to her education in national concerns over the approaching civil war and emancipation.

Bother Ezekiel is Vyry’s first love. He represents God the Father and the good seed of Vyry’s individuality: “Vyry loved Brother Zeke. He spent time explaining puzzling things to her when nobody else had time to pay her any attention. He soothed her fears, quoted Bible verses to her, and told her funny stories” (57). Brother Ezekiel also represents a combination to her two future husbands; the literate activists with a degree of freedom, Randall Ware, and the nurturing companion who was not free until emancipation, Innis Brown. In an interview with Walker she is asked about the militant nature of her poem “For My People” and the seemingly contradictory spiritual tone in Jubilee:

I tried to show several points of view in Jubilee. I am dealing with a number of characters, and I have only one who manifests a kind of militant spirit, and that is Randall Ware. That is precisely what I had intended. I could not take a woman like Vyry, who reflects the Christian upbringing of the Quarters and of the Big House, and show her as a revolutionary. To me that is completely out of the question. (Egejuru 29)

            Again, Walker’s alignment of “womanhood” and freedom are stressed when Vyry meets Randal Ware. Her sexual maturity and longing for love are bridged with Ware’s promise of freedom if she marries him. Accompanying Ware’s sexual advances, and Vryr’s responsive interest, is yet another stage of contemplating freedom:

She tried to imagine what it meant to be free. She had never before entertained faintest idea or hope of freedom, except some dream of an answer to prayer, when God would suddenly appear and send a deliverer like Moses, and set free all the people who were in bondage such as she. (94)

At this point Vyry has matured to fully realize the collective whole in bondage. It is also at this point that Walker dispels what Robert Stepto refers to in the introduction of his book, From Behind the Veil, as the “pregeneric myth” of literacy as a means of realizing freedom. Vyry does not require literacy as a precondition of realization of self and in fact dismisses its essential role in self-identification. Upon learning Randall could read and write she is astonished and briefly considers,

Maybe he can teach me 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. (94)

Marriage and the role of motherhood occupy Vyry’s mind as being most strongly associated with freedom. It is in motherhood that she is most like a creator, and free. Randall’s literacy, and ability to “cipher” on his hands, points to his creative abilities. It is through the work of his hands that he is most like a god. Just as it is his anvil that remains at the time Walker was writing Jubilee, though Walker herself the living testament to Vyry’s creative powers.

Angelyn Mitchell discusses the power of the female voice in the narratives as “a response to the fact that women have either been left out of or included in demeaning, disfiguring, and misleading ways in what has been for the most part an exclusively male account of the world” (8). However, Mitchell notes,

[W]hen women are allowed to speak for themselves…their literature takes the trouble to record the genuine ‘thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women, experiences that make the realities of being black in America look very different from what men have written (8).

Womanhood continues to drive the lens of freedom in Jubilee. At the time Miss Lillian is too be married Vyry considers freedom nothing more than “unreal dreams” (107). Marriage as a bridge to freedom, as promised by Randall, becomes an untrustworthy bargain, “she wished had never seen him nor heard him talk of freedom” (107-108). By the time Vyry is a mother abolition is a “boring subject” (152). The unattainability of freedom is just another source of frustration. She is resigned; “Why work myself up all over again about freedom? Freedom is a secret word I dare not say” (152). As a mother, the word itself is not simply unutterable but insufficient. The intimate experience demands a language that doesn’t exist. The creative process, imaginative remembering, is a freedom that remains uncontested as it is through Vyry’s soul source of strength.

Code, Lorriane. “Narrative of Responsibility and Agency: Reading Margaret Walker’s ‘Moral Understanding’” Hypatia. 17.1. Winter 2002 (156-173). JSTOR Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself With Related Documents.” Ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. Print.

Egejuru, Phanuel and Robert Elliot Fox. “An Interview with Margaret Walker.” Callaloo. 6. May, 1979. (29-35). JSTOR Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Fischer, Michael M. J. “Ethnicity and the Arts of Memory.” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Eds. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 194-233. Print.

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Mitchell, Angelyn. “Her Side of His Story: A Feminist Analysis of Two Nineteenth-Century Antebellum Novels – William Wells Brown’s ‘Clotel’ and Harriet E. Wilson’s ‘Our Nig’.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. 24.3. Spring 1992. (7-21). JSTOR Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Morrison, Toni. “The Site of Memory.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2004. 2290-2297. Print.

Stepto, Robert. From Behind the Veil. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Print.

Walker, Margaret. Jubilee. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.