Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Conjure Woman”

Later 19th century fiction from or about the South could be categorized as post-apocalyptic.  The war was not merely a traumatic defeat.  It also ushered in a radical transformation of society.  Reconstruction, as Du Bois points out, was a revolutionary act, led by black people, mostly former slaves.  In a matter of months, former slaves created themselves a political culture, social structure, economy, and culture in direct opposition to slavery.  Now, it does not take a historian to mention that many of these gains were taken away by whites as they reestablished their political dominance; nevertheless, the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed the world that existed.  A world that for most people in the South was natural and enduring.  Change, even slight, was unthinkable.  The destruction of the slave society was impossible.  Predictions of the end of slavery, before 1860, could only be described as apocalyptic and therefore something to fear and resist (at least for most of those in the mid-century cultural industry and white power structure).

19th Century Apocalypse

19th Century Apocalypse

My point is that what was unthinkable in 1855 was real ten years later.  The culture, society, economy, and politics of slavery were abolished.  Visions of the end of capitalism often take the same apocalyptic tone.   Either we end up with a collapse of civilization (The Walking Dead), a totalitarian state (1984), or silly utopianism (Star Trek).  In any case, the end of capitalism is unthinkable.  (I am not the first to make this point – see Mark Fisher http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw9dyGEVYUA)By calling the literature of the later 19th century South, post-apocalyptic, I hope to encourage our readers to be a little less fearful of the end of capitalism.  After its end, we will likely find many challenges but I doubt it will mean any Mayan zombies (or whatever that was supposed to be about).

The next volume of the Library of America that I will cover in this series in a collection of Charles W. Chesnutt’s writings.  Chesnutt was born a Northern.  Both of his parents were free blacks from North Carolina.  They returned to North Carolina – with eight-year-old Charles – in 1866 to take part in the efforts to create new communities in the old South.  They were part of the great revolution of Reconstruction.  Chesnutt’s father helped create Howard school, ran for public office, and opened a grocery store.  Chesnutt quickly entered into academic life and eventually became a school principle in Fayetteville A.M.E. Zion Church.  Chesnutt was a child of the apocalypse that ended the slavery society.  He shows us that we should not fear the end of the way things are.  The exploited rarely do.

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The Conjure Woman was published in 1899.  It is a short collection of seven stories, covering less than a 100 pages.  The plot is about a white Northern (of some means) who comes South for his wife’s health.  He starts a farm, taking advantage of the cheap land and cheap labor in the post-war South.  Each story contains within it a story told by “Uncle Julius,” a former slave who works on the land and becomes the narrator’s laborer.  He provides amusement for the narrator, who enjoys his stories of the South under slavery.  He also seeks practical advice from Julius, who is an expert in local conditions.  When the interests of the narrator and Julius conflict, however, Julius uses his story-telling to manipulate his boss.  By telling stories of conjuring, Julius attempts to convince his boss to change his course of action.  This scheme sometimes works.  The narrator is often condescending and does not often take the stories seriously – suggesting the permanence of racism, held even by Northern whites.  In the first story, for instance, the narrator is discussing growing a vineyard.  Julius objects, providing a complex story about how the vineyard is “goophered.”  Julius is not blindly superstition.  As the narrator always discovers, his stories are meant to protect his interests.  The grapevine supplied some income to Julius.  In “Po’ Sandy,” Julius tells of a man who allows himself to be turned into a tree to avoid being sold (his previous wife was sold to another plantation).  He is, unfortunately, chopped down and turned into a schoolhouse.  Julius uses to this story to prevent the schoolhouse from being turn into the narrator’s new kitchen.  In fact, Julius wants the schoolhouse to house his schismatic congregation.  We could be impressed with Julius’ ability to tell tales, use those stories to challenge his employers schemes, we are frustrated by the unequal relationship between the two.

The Conjure Woman provides plenty of local flavor.  Julius’ dialog (most of the stories are his words) is written in Southern black dialect.  The superstitions and folklore of Southern blacks held some influence on Northern audiences.  The narrator is a reflection of these Northern audiences, curious of their defeated brothers.  There is something almost colonial about this “gaze.”  The slave south was a different country.  Even in 1900, the sectional divides in the nation remained strong.  But the South was militarily defeated, occupied, and reformed.  For decades it continued under the economic influence of the North (again reflected in the narrator, a wealthy Northerner).  Part of our discomfort with this story comes from the seemingly abusive relationship between the narrator and Julius.  The narrator humors Julius, is amused by him, but ultimately does not him seriously if he poses a threat to the profitability of the farm of his plans for its development.

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Another part of the story we should point out is that the land the narrator purchased, is, for Julius, his home and the source of his income.  Most of the narrator’s plans to develop the land were direct threats to Julius’ independent livelihood.  All of this makes the narrator’s pretense and humor toward Julius more disgusting.  As equals, the narrator could have learned from Julius about a topic of some interest to him.  Julius is instead trying to defend is autonomy from his employer, so that relationship is corrupted and embittered.  It is a familiar situation for those in colonial relationships: unfortunate, and unnecessary.

 

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One response to “Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Conjure Woman”

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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