Reading Ohio, Completed: The Conjure Stories

The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt (Norton Critical Edition)The Conjure Stories
Charles W. Chesnutt
(1887-1926, U.S.)
Norton Critical Edition, 2012
Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, editors

 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.

“Lonesome Ben”

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.

I read The Conjure Stories for my Reading Ohio project, for my 19th Century project list, and as my folklore selection for Once Upon a Time VIII.

*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.

Reading Ohio: Some Poems

I have been working on this post for weeks. Really. I just don’t seem to know what I want to write (or what I can write), but it’s becoming a burden now, keeping me from other posts, and even other reading. So I’ve decided to just bite the bullet and post it, my random, stumbling thoughts on some Ohioan poetry. (Darn it, Ohio, why’d you produce so many poets? This is only scratching the surface…)

I don’t really read much poetry (AKA haven’t read any lyric poetry since high school). I don’t really feel that I know how to read poetry. I blame this in part on high school English classes and their focus on “studying” poems–it almost seemed an instruction that the only way to read poems was this one way. I forget 3rd grade and the rhymes and amusements of Shel Silverstein. Third grade poetry was fun.

So it was with uncertainty that I picked up a volume of poems from the library to begin my explorations of Ohio writers. It was still February then, and I’d thought that in honor of Black History Month I should begin with some of Ohio’s African-American writers–not a few of whom were, or are, poets. (As a bonus, when I started this, it would also have been aligning with The Classics Club’s February theme–I guess I’m a bit a lot behind.)

I find, flipping though the pages of this anthology (Essential Pleasures, Ed. Robert Pinsky, 2009), stopping at random when a title or author’s name catches my eye, that it is not so difficult, actually, after all, to read poetry. Some is delightful, the play of sounds and words. Some is beautiful in its lyricism. Some I don’t understand. I discovered that I rather liked some of it, the small little stories told. The poems that tell stories I like best–perhaps why I have managed to read some of the epic poems on my own. (If you happen to be curious as to which poems I read, they’re all listed under my 2014 reads in the menu above.)

But I don’t know how to write about poetry. So I share here what I can–some biography, some random musings. My stumblings.


The anthology I picked up had two poems by African-American-Ohio poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Rita Dove, both of whom were born and raised in Ohio. There was also one poem by Langston Hughes–his connections to Ohio are less strong, but he did attend high school in Cleveland, and his maternal grandmother Mary Patterson attended Oberlin (the first college in the U.S. to regularly admit black students and oldest continuously operating coed college).

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872-February 9, 1906) was born in Dayton, Ohio to former slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. He grew up in Dayton, where he became good friends with Orville and Wilbur Wright, of “first in flight” fame. They would briefly co-publish a newspaper together. Although Dunbar had been active in high school activities–debate, school paper, literary society, his race would limit him after high school, leading to a job as an elevator operator. Working days, he wrote nights, eventually receiving attention for his poetry and publishing his first collection, Oak and Ivy in 1892. He continued to write and read at local gatherings, with growing attention leading to a reading at the 1893 World’s Fair. Ohio native William Dean Howells praised his 1895 collection Majors and Minors in a Harper’s Weekly column, leading to further fame. A collection of his two previous books, as Lyrics of a Lowly Life, may have been the best-selling work of African American poetry prior to the Harlem Renaissance. (His complete poems are available digitally HERE.) Dunbar’s legacy is mixed–although praised for his poetry, he has also been criticized for his dialect verses, which some have felt were a sell-out to white expectations and a reinforcement of stereotypes. Dunbar himself was upset that his more traditional poems did not find the same audience as his dialect verses. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES)

“Little Brown Baby”

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.
What you been doin’, suh—makin’ san’ pies?
Look at dat bib—you’s ez du’ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf—dat’s merlasses, I bet;
Come hyeah, Maria, an’ wipe off his han’s.
Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit,
Bein’ so sticky an sweet—goodness lan’s!

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
Who’s pappy’s darlin’ an’ who ‘s pappy’s chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
Fu’ to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you ‘s a scamp!
Whah did dat dimple come f’om in yo’ chin?
Pappy do’ know you—I b’lieves you ‘s a tramp;
Mammy, dis hyeah’s some ol’ straggler got in!

Let’s th’ow him outen de do’ in de san’,
We do’ want stragglers a-layin’ ‘roun’ hyeah;
Let’s gin him ‘way to de big buggah-man;
I know he’s hidin’ erroun’ hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do’,
Hyeah ‘s a bad boy you kin have fu’ to eat.
Mammy an’ pappy do’ want him no mo’,
Swaller him down f’om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t’ought dat you ‘d hug me up close.
Go back, ol’ buggah, you sha’n’t have dis boy.
He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ play-mate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now—go to yo’ res;
Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’—
Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!

Clearly an example of Dunbar’s dialect poetry. I don’t know enough, it makes me wonder if that was an accurate transcription of late 19th century African-American dialect, or just a “this is what white people think African-Americans sound like” transcription? Regardless, the love of the father for his son shines through. I found it a sweet, touching poem. It also made me curious as to his non-dialect poems. Not knowing where to begin with the Complete Poems, I elected to read “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902-May 22, 1967) was born in Missouri and lived in Kansas, Illinois, and New York, as well as Ohio, where he attended high school in Cleveland. He began writing poetry in high-school, and would later drop out of Columbia to travel the world. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1924, and was strongly influenced by his love of jazz. He would become strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, both for his love of Harlem, and his success as a writer, publishing over fifty works, including novels, plays, and short story collections as well as poetry. His politics would lead to some trouble in the McCarthy era, but he remains well-known and well-regarded. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(Opening lines)

I love this one–the images it conveys, the touching on things ancient and timeless. It touches the soul.

Rita Dove (August 28, 1952) was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She grew up loving to read and write, but didn’t realize that writing could be a career until high school. Her education included Miami University, two semesters in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. She began publishing, in magazines, anthologies, and eventually poetry collections. In 1987 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Thomas and Beulah and from 1993 to 1995 she served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first African-American and youngest writer to hold the post of Poet Laureate. She has continued to publish; her most recent collection was Sonata Mulattica in 2009. (BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCE)

“Gospel” (from Thomas and Beulah)

Swing low so I
can step inside–

a humming ship of voices
big with all

the wrongs done
done them.

(Opening lines)

I’ll be honest: I’ve had a lot of trouble with this one. I’ve gone over and over and over it, and I just don’t fully understand it. I can tell there’s a story there (I think), but I’m not sure what it is. There’s definitely a reference to the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (all the italicized lines in the poem), and I’m wondering if the rest of the poem is the “thoughts” of the poem’s voice (a character? the poet? a narrator?) in between sung lines. I’ve learned that this poem came from the collection Thomas and Beulah, which forms an overall story, so perhaps some of my confusion comes from reading it out of context.


I don’t intend this as my last poetry reading for my Ohio project, but the genre is so unknown to me, that I may yet shy away again. (Or possibly just read and not post on it. The posting seems the hardest part.) I did declare that I would participate in Richard’s April readalong for The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, so I’m trying to keep my toes in the water. (And for anyone looking for dead female writers, the poetry in the collection includes some by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.)  Book blogging/reading projects: here to make us try things we wouldn’t otherwise, right?