Old Julius often beguiled our leisure with stories of plantation life, some of them folk-lore stories, which we found to be in general circulation among the colored people; some of them tales of real life as Julius has seen it in the old slave days; but the most striking were, we suspected, purely imaginary, or so colored by old Julius’s fancy as to make us speculate at times upon how many original minds, which might have added to the world’s wealth and literature and art, had been buried in the ocean of slavery.
The Conjure Stories is a short story collection by the late 19th century/early 20th century African-American author Charles W. Chesnutt. Born in Cleveland, Ohio to free blacks from Fayetteville, North Carolina; his family returned to Fayetteville after the Civil War. Chesnutt grew up, taught school, and married in Fayetteville before eventually returning north to Cleveland with his family, where he passed the bar exam, began a successful court reporting business, and started writing. The Library of America describes his literary career thus:
…Charles W. Chesnutt broke new ground in American literature with searching explorations of the meaning of race and innovative use of African American speech and folklore. Rejecting genteel Victorian hypocrisy about miscegenation, lynching, and “passing,” Chesnutt exposed the deformed logic of Jim Crow with novels and stories of formal clarity-creating, in the process, the modern African American novel.
There are several unifiers in this particular collection of stories (a collection created, not by the author, but the editors–although, it should be noted most, if not all, were either published in Chesnutt’s collection The Conjure Woman or submitted by Chesnutt to his publisher for inclusion): the Fayetteville setting (here called Patesville), the framing device of a white narrator from the North (John) around a story told by his hired hand (ex-slave Julius) and ending with commentary by John or his wife Annie, most have a thread of the fantastic–conjuring–running through them.
“Do you live around here?” I asked, anxious to put him at his ease.
“Yas, suh. I lives der ober yander, behine de nex’ san’-hill, on de Lumberton plank-road.”
“Do you know anything about the time when this vineyard was cultivated?”
“Lawd bless you, suh, I knows all about it. Dey ain’ na’er a man in dis settlement w’at won’ tell you ole Julius McAdoo ‘uz bawn en raise’ on dis yer same plantation. Is you de Norv’n gemman w’at’s gwine ter buy de ole vimya’d?”
“I am looking at it,” I replied; “but I don’t know that I shall care to buy unless I can be reasonably sure of making something out of it.”
“Well, suh, you is a stranger ter me, en I is a stranger ter you, en we is bofe strangers ter one anudder, but ‘f I ‘uz in yo’ place, I wouldn’ buy dis vimya’d.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, i dunno whe’r you b’lieves in cunj’in’ er not,–some er de w’ite folks don’t, er says dey don’t,–but de truf er de matter is dat dis yer old vimya’d is goophered.”
“Is what?” I asked, not grasping the meaning of this unfamiliar word.
“Is goophered,–conju’d, bewitch’.”
He imparted this information with such solemn earnestness, and with such an air of confidential mystery, that I felt somewhat interested, while Annie was evidently much impressed, and drew closer to me.
“The Goophered Grapevine”
The first thing I really noticed was how difficult it could be to get through these stories, largely due to the heavy dialect employed by Chesnutt. I’m not certain to what extent the dialect was expected by white audiences or how accurate Chesnutt was in representing the actual speaking patterns of ex-slaves from the Fayetteville region, but this quote (from a letter Chesnutt wrote to his editor) is certainly suggestive that the dialect was more about audience expectations than reality:
Speaking of dialect, it is almost a despairing task to write it. . . .The fact is, of course, that there is no such thing as a Negro dialect: that what we call be that name is the attempt to express, with such a degree of phonetic correctness as to suggest the sound, English pronounced as an ignorant old southern Negro would be supposed to speak it.
Of course, a glance at a dialect map of the U.S. today suggests that at the very least, Julius would have spoken a different dialect than John. But Chesnutt’s statement suggests that Chesnutt had to create something acceptable to white audiences, and that this included an audience belief that an ex-slave must surely be ignorant.
Fortunately, Chesnutt was a better author than to just pander to his audience. Instead, he subtly subverted the various stereotypes they might expect, allowing the slaves and freemen that populate Julius’s tales to cover the whole range of human characteristics, thereby showing his white audience that African-Americans were just as human as they were and undermining the nostalgia for a lost way of life then common in “plantation fiction.”* With the matter-of-fact voice of Julius narrating, it is hard to ignore the everyday ugliness of slavery–an ugliness present even on farms and plantations where the masters were otherwise decent folk, for the ugliness of slavery was that the slaves were not people, but property that could be disposed of–traded or sold–at will. Chesnutt proved that the slaves were people by showing their very human emotions, as they reacted to separation or jealousy or pettiness. And he showed nothing that suggested that it was a time to be nostalgic for.
Yet at the same time, the stories sometimes felt awkward to read–as a 21st century reader, at least. There was the casual use of racial terms, considered derogatory today but maybe not to Victorians; Julius was usually the speaker, though whether this implies that these words were truly more acceptable or just expected as part of “dialect,” I don’t know. Then too the occasional employment of a stereotype, e.g., “blacks like chicken,” as a story-instigator. Sometimes this stereotype would be subverted by the end of the story, but at others it seemed that Chesnutt was content to let it lie–Julius agrees with John about the chicken, while Annie, on the other hand, questions them both. Chesnutt often used Annie to provide an alternative perspective to John’s.
As it happens, I came across The Classics Club’s June question while thinking about this post. It regards how we deal with racist/sexist issues in classic literature. While I didn’t really answer that question here, I do think that Chesnutt’s The Conjure Stories demonstrate how a classic can be both awkward to read from a present-day viewpoint and offer an important look into the past.
*A genre I was not aware of prior to reading selections of the essay “A Critique of the Plantation Legend” by William L. Andrews. (Included in part in The Conjure Stories, originally published in The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 55-60 and 67-69.) Incidentally, I was very glad I decided to order (from the library) the Norton edition. There weren’t very many notes to the stories themselves, but the contextual and critical essays I read were both enlightening and interesting.