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“The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites."1 African American author Charles W. Chesnutt viewed his conjure woman stories as a way to bridge the gap in race relations between African American and white people. The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales, published in 1899 by Houghton Mifflin, is an anthology of the short stories Chesnutt published in magazines.
Until recently, critics dismissed The Conjure Woman’s context and themes as typical Plantation Tradition genre literature. However, contemporary analysis recognizes the unique place in history that Chesnutt represents in African American literature. Chesnutt wrote his conjure woman stories in the space between when African Americans were supposed to forget what happened to them and when they began to join together in their fight for the rights they deserved.
"Conjure" is a loosely-bound set of spiritual/religious practices part of African American culture. A conjure woman (or man) is a person the community goes to for healing or help. They hold a position of power among their group and are both feared and admired.
The conjure woman sometimes makes a concoction of roots, plants and herbs, bodily fluids, and everyday items that symbolize the person’s request. In addition, they have the power to transform people into other living forms, such as trees or animals. A conjure woman can also talk to animals and insects to get them to do their bidding.
In Chesnutt’s anthology, the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, and the conjures, goophers, provide solutions to problems common while living as an enslaved person. For example, the conjure woman finds a way to reunite a mother with her baby after being sold to a different plantation. Another time, she teaches a brutal slaveholder a lesson in cruelty.
The Conjure Woman takes place in the fictional town of Patesville, North Carolina. John, a wealthy, white grape farmer from the North, narrates a frame story of his observations since he moved himself and his wife, Annie, to the South due to her failing health. In addition, he shares his reactions to stories told by an old freedman, known familiarly as Uncle Julius, who worked the plantation before the Civil War.
A frame story frames the main narrative. It surrounds the story with a story.
In a deviation from the norm, the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, helps the slaveholder McAdoo keep fieldworkers out of his sweet grapes by putting a curse on them. However, when an older enslaved man new to the plantation eats some without knowing about the curse, Aunt Peggy gives him an anecdote, which he is supposed to repeat every year.
“The Goophered Grapevine” was the first story published in The Atlantic written by an African American.
The anecdote has a strange effect on the man–every spring, his hair grows back, and he regains the strength of his youth. Then, as the growing season nears its end, he becomes bald and tired. This pattern continues until the year a “specialist” messes with the grapevines, and they die. The enslaved man dies as well.
Sandy is a hard worker, so when his slaveholder’s children married, they all wanted him as a gift. However, his slaveholder doesn’t want to create tension among his children, so he begins sending Sandy to each of their homes for a month. Unfortunately, Sandy’s wife is sold to another plantation while he is away, which is hurtful, but he finds love again with a new woman, Tenie.
Sandy and Tenie fall deeply in love, and Sandy no longer wants to travel between the plantations because he is scared he will lose Tenie the same way he lost his first wife. Tenie tells Sandy she’s a conjure woman, and they decide to turn Sandy into a tree, so everyone will think he ran away. The plan works–by day, Sandy is a large pine tree, and at night, Tenie transforms him back into a man so they can spend time together.
Eventually, they decide it would be best for Tenie to turn them both into animals so they can run away together and be free. But Tenie is sent out to work at another plantation for the day without being able to let Sandy know what’s going on. While she’s gone, the slaveholder decides to cut down Sandy and turn him into lumber. Tenie is inconsolable, and the room built out of Sandy is known to be haunted.
A slaveholder named Jeems McLean is unnecessarily hard on the enslaved people that work on his plantation. He feeds them as little as possible, forbids them from socializing, and is physically and verbally abusive. When he leaves on business, he puts a poor white man, Johnson, in charge, who is even worse.
Before leaving, Jeems McLean discovers one of his enslaved fieldhands, Solomon, has been dating one of the enslaved women and sends her away. Solomon visits the conjure woman one night to see if there is a way to get his woman back and make McLean treat them all better. Aunt Peggy secretly turns McLean into a slave, and he’s brought to his own plantation to be broken in by Johnson.
Johnson starves the transformed McLean and beats him repeatedly and mercilessly to break his spirit. Finally, when the transformed McLean cannot perform the simplest of tasks as an enslaved person, Johnson gets rid of him out of fear of losing his temper and killing him. The conjure woman has Solomon give McLean a goophered sweet potato to change him back before he’s sent away to be sold in New Orleans.
When McLean returns, he claims to have had a nightmare. He fires Johnson and runs him out of town. Next, McLean brings Solomon’s girl back. Finally, he starts feeding everyone better and allowing them to enjoy their free time together.
As the title implies, “The Conjurer’s Revenge” is a story about a conjure man who puts a curse on someone to get back at them. In this case, an enslaved man named Primus steals a hog that belongs to a conjure man. When the conjure man figures out who stole his hog, he turns Primus into a mule.
Primus lives as a mule until the conjure man falls deathly ill and wants forgiveness for his sins. He dies while transforming Primus back, leaving him with a clubfoot.
An enslaved person, Becky, gets married and has a baby, Moses, on the plantation where she’s held. Soon after her baby is born, her husband is sold to a plantation so far away that she’ll never see him again. However, she takes comfort in that she still has their child and keeps doing the work she’s forced to do.
Her slaveholder, Pen’leton, likes to bet on horses and makes a deal to trade Becky for a prize racehorse one day. The new slaveholder tells Pen’leton he won’t bring Becky’s baby with her, then tricks her into leaving willingly. Once Becky learns the truth, she becomes hysterical but gets to work at the new place after being threatened.
After a day or so, Moses becomes lethargic and refuses to eat because he misses his mom. Finally, the woman caring for him goes to see the conjure woman for help. Aunt Peggy changes Moses into a hummingbird so he can visit his mom. Although Becky doesn’t know for sure the hummingbird is Moses, it reminds her of him, and both perk up for a while afterward.
The woman goes to see the conjure woman when he begins declining again, and she turns Moses into a mockingbird. Again, Moses is happy to see his mom, and the behavior of the mockingbird reminds Becky of her son, so both feel better afterward. However, the woman caring for Moses soon realizes this is a temporary fix and asks the conjure woman to do something that will reunite them permanently.
Aunt Peggy gets a wasp to sting Pen’leton’s new racehorse on the knees until they swell up. After a couple of times of this, Pen’leton believes the horse is lame and demands Becky back. The new slaveholder initially refuses, but the nightmares the conjure woman makes Becky have about Moses dying leave her useless for working. Eventually, he decides a sickly horse is worth more than a sickly slave and makes the trade. Becky and Moses are together again, and Moses grows up and earns enough money to buy their freedom.
In another tale of revenge, an enslaved man, Dan, accidentally murders a conjure man’s son for trying to steal his wife. He goes to see the conjure woman for protection, but eventually, the conjure man catches up with him. He tricks Dan into thinking he doesn’t know Dan is responsible and then tells Dan he will help him kill the witch who has been riding him.
Being ridden by a witch means that a witch sits on a person while they’re sleeping to absorb their energy and make them sick. It was thought the witch changed form to gain access to their victim. However, a scientific explanation for the feeling of having been ridden is sleep paralysis.
Before meeting with Dan, the conjure man snatched up his wife and turned her into a black cat. Later, he changes Dan into a wolf and tells him the cat is the witch and that he must tear its throat out. The cat turns back into Dan’s wife as she dies, and Dan runs away in horror.
Furious, he returns to the conjure man’s house and rips his throat open. The conjure man tells him they’re even while he bleeds out and tells Dan to drink a potion to change back into a person. Dan drinks the potion, only to find he’s been tricked again and will now be a wolf forever. He hangs around his wife’s grave until death, then haunts the area.
In “Hot-foot Hannibal,” a slaveholder chooses a husband for the enslaved woman working in his house, Chloe, who doesn’t interest her because she is already in a relationship with Jeff. As her arranged fiancé, Hannibal, becomes increasingly sexually aggressive, Chloe and Jeff decide to see the conjure woman for a solution.
Aunt Peggy makes them a doll that interferes with Hannibal’s work performance to the point that he is put back into the field, and Jeff replaces him. But unfortunately, Chloe and Jeff become so wrapped up in their happiness that they forget to take the doll back to the conjure woman so she can remove the curse.
Hannibal’s work continues declining so badly the slaveholder decides to sell him in the spring. Hannibal is angry about the turn of events and tricks Chloe into thinking her man is cheating on her. Chloe reacts by confessing to the slaveholder about using a conjure woman against Hannibal. The slaveholder sells Jeff instead. After Jeff is gone, Hannibal rubs it in Chloe’s face that he tricked her.
Chloe regrets acting in haste and misses Jeff so badly that she becomes physically ill. The slaveholders try to get Jeff back for her but are told he drowned. Chloe soon wastes away until she dies.
Chesnutt wrote The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales as his take on a popular genre in the late nineteenth century called Plantation Tradition literature. Plantation Tradition stories offered a revisionist view of the American South before the Civil War and challenged the progress made during the Reconstruction.
The Reconstruction Era lasted from 1865-1877 and attempted to rebuild the South after the Civil War, while also creating and protecting the rights of the formally enslaved.
Anthropology emerged as a serious study in the late nineteenth century. It argued that racial and cultural details could be recorded objectively and viewed through a scientific lens. This and the societal changes of the nineteenth century influenced writers to begin discarding previous writing styles that idealized reality in favor of writing stories about what life was really like.
Plantation Tradition stories straddled the line between the old and the new. Written using a nostalgic tone and stereotypical African American characters, they pandered to their white audience’s emotions. However, Plantation stories included vivid regional and cultural details. For example, they sometimes went as far as to explain in a note at the beginning of the text that the African American dialect used in the dialogue was an accurate written account of the dialect spoken in that area. In addition, their white narrator acts as an interpreter for the reader. These scientific-like details made readers feel like Plantation Tradition stories were intellectually stimulating, and that their white authors knew enough about the subjects of race and slavery to speak for the African American community.
Charles W. Chesnutt constructs The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales to show readers how Plantation Tradition stories are problematic. Chesnutt uses his white narrator, John, as an objective observer to display how his objectivity leads to sympathy. Chesnutt further proves that this sympathy is dangerous because it creates a familiarity with the subject of slavery in the objective observer’s mind. This familiarity allows a white audience to typecast African Americans rather than recognize them as individuals.
An analysis of The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales shows that Chesnutt made a conscious effort to share the living conditions of the African American community in the South before and after the Civil War. He spoke to white literary audiences to educate them about the struggles African Americans faced.
The main characters in The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales reflect racial and economic conditions after the Civil War.
John is a carpet-bagger: a Northerner who went to the South after the Civil War to profit off its weakened state. In “The Goophered Grapevine,” he shares that they moved to the South because “land could be bought for a mere song.” John condemns the institution of slavery throughout The Conjure Woman because he feels it has made those generations of African Americans permanently ignorant. Unfortunately, because he believes African Americans are ignorant, he can’t see past his bias and learn from Uncle Julius’s stories.
Annie is John’s sickly wife. Chesnutt juxtaposes her with John. While John takes Uncle Julius’s stories literally and misses their point, Annie reacts to them emotionally and perceives the moral lesson underneath the entertaining tale.
Uncle Julius is a trickster character. The stories he tells John and Annie to pass the time contain knowledge about the conditions of slavery and also set John up.
The trickster character in African American literature and folklore originates in Africa. Trickster characters use dishonesty, manipulation, and pranks to overcome obstacles. Their misbehavior upends a power structure. For example, in “Po’ Sandy,” Uncle Julius tells John that he shouldn’t reuse the lumber from an old schoolhouse to build Annie an outdoor kitchen because it’s haunted. After John buys new lumber, Uncle Julius asks if he and members of his church congregation can use the old schoolhouse as their church.
Aunt Peggy is the conjure woman in the majority of the stories. She is a free woman, and although the slaveholders claim not to believe in what she does, they also don’t go out of their way to offend her.
Chesnutt uses the popular structure of Plantation Tradition literature to show how the African American experience was in danger of getting lost in the face of progressivism. Anthropology and Realism believed themselves to be more forward-thinking, and, therefore, more legitimate than previous modes of thinking. Chesnutt challenges their arrogance by pointing out their weaknesses.
Realism in writing began in the mid-nineteenth century and attempted to portray life as authentically as possible.
The structure of Plantation Tradition stories attempts to mimic the field report of an anthropologist. First, an authoritative white figure asks an ex-slave to tell them a story, which they record faithfully in exact detail, down to how the former enslaved person speaks. Then, they decipher the experience for the audience.
Including the story written in dialect creates an image of the narrator listening to the former enslaved person in the reader’s mind. The former enslaved person’s story becomes a testimony, and the narrator’s interpretation is an unbiased depiction of reality.
The structure of Chesnutt's Plantation fiction creates a face-off between literary objectivity and sentimental oral tradition. In “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” John dismisses the story as an “ingenious fairy tale,” to which Annie replies, “‘[T]he story bears the stamp of truth, if ever a story did.’” John doubles down on the condescension, saying, “‘especially the humming-bird episode . . . to say nothing of the doings of the hornet.’” Annie disagrees, pointing out that Moses and Becky’s forced separation “‘might have happened half a hundred times, and no doubt did happen, in those horrid days before the war.’”
He questions the validity of an objective perspective by creating a character whose detachment highlights his inability to see reality. In contrast, Annie’s ability to empathize with the characters in Uncle Julius’s stories opens a window into his and others’ lived experiences.
The way Uncle Julius speaks highlights the ways African Americans are stereotyped. Uncle Julius’s dialect traditionally categorizes him as intellectually and racially inferior. As a result, John seems to feel sorry for Julius. In “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” he says Uncle Julius’s stories are sad not just because of what they are about but because of their “shadow . . . of slavery and ignorance, the sadness, always, of life as seen by the fading light of an old man’s memory.” However, Uncle Julius uses this bias to his advantage when dealing with John, and in each tale, the reader learns that he’s used his stories to trick John in some way.
The dialect Chesnutt writes in The Conjure Woman is extra thick, indicating that Uncle Julius exaggerates it in his speech. In other words, Uncle Julius is masking. He picks up on John’s prejudice and plays the part of the ignorant, eager-to-please former enslaved person to get what he wants from him. At the beginning of “The Conjurer’s Revenge,” John observes Uncle Julius walking up to their house on a Sunday afternoon and remarks that he “advanced with a dignity of movement quite different from his week-day slouch.”
Masking refers to the double life African American people have historically been forced to live to survive in America. A standard mask was for enslaved people to act happy to be in servitude.
Themes in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales include:
Chesnutt challenged mainstream efforts to cast the antebellum South as “the good old days” in The Conjure Woman by turning Plantation Tradition tropes against themselves. By playing the part of the happy-go-lucky freedman, Uncle Julius is allowed to express his memories of slavery.
In the frame narrative of the first story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” John observes that “as [Uncle Julius’s] embarrassment wore off, his language flowed more freely . . . [and] he became more and more absorbed in the narrative, his eyes assumed a dreamy expression, and he seemed . . . to be living over again in monologue his life on the old plantation.”
Chesnutt contradicts Plantation Tradition’s whitewashed slavery stories by revising history through an African American folk lens, meaning Uncle Julius uses colorful metaphors to make the traumas of slavery more pleasant for his audience. When John asks Uncle Julius if he “‘[made] that [story] up all by [himself]’” in “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” Uncle Julius looks sad and replies that his mother told him that story when he was a young child before John and Annie were born.
Some of Uncle Julius’s stories go back generations. His denial that “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare” is made up redefines folklore as memory and eyewitness testimony. When Annie says “The Conjurer’s Revenge” is ridiculous, Uncle Julius responds, “‘Dey’s so many things a body knows is lies, dat dey ain no use gwine roun’ findin’ fault wid tales that mought des ez well be so ez not.’” In other words, he implies that she needs to reexamine her definition of truth.
The Conjure Woman is Chesnutt’s polite refusal of nineteenth-century portrayals of slavery. In contrast with other Plantation Tradition literature, Chesnutt centered the stories in The Conjure Woman around the day-to-day life of an enslaved person and their interactions with slaveholders. Most importantly, Chesnutt included the enslaved people’s reactions to slaveholder behavior, and how it affected their lives.
Uncle Julius’s stories show a world where slaveholders see enslaved people’s usefulness, not their humanity. For example, in “Hot-foot Hannibal,” Jeff is sold because the slaveholder’s wife is still angry that Jeff and Chloe’s actions caused some rare flowers to be ruined. In addition, Chesnutt counters the popular argument that former enslaved people missed slavery by describing the psychological and physical abuse used to condition them in “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare.”
African American author and political activist Charles W. Chesnutt wrote The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales.
The Conjure Woman collected Charles W. Chesnutt's plantation stories that were published in magazines and anthologized them in 1899.
The Conjure Woman takes place in the fictional town of Patesville, North Carolina.
Conjure is a loosely-bound set of religious practices part of African American culture. A Conjure Woman (or Man) is a person the community goes to for healing or help. They hold a position of power among their group and are both feared and admired.
Charles W. Chesnutt wrote The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales as his take on Plantation Tradition, which was popular at the time.
What did Chesnutt hope to accomplish by writing his conjure woman stories?
Chesnutt hoped to bridge the gap of racial understanding between African Americans and whites with his conjure woman stories.
What does the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy, usually do for the other characters in The Conjure Woman?
Aunt Peggy usually helps the other characters in The Conjure Woman solve the problems they encounter as enslaved people.
How did anthropology influence literature in the late nineteenth century?
Anthropology influenced late-nineteenth-century literature by introducing the idea that racial and cultural details could be recorded objectively and viewed through a scientific lens.
Plantation Tradition literature:
All of the above
True or False: Chesnutt allows John to speak for the African American community.
False: Chesnutt uses John as an objective observer to show how his objectivity leads him to typecast African Americans.
What is the purpose of the white narrator in Plantation Tradition literature?
The white narrator in Plantation Tradition literature acts as an interpreter who explains the ex-slave's stories to the audience.
How does Chesnutt use the structure of Plantation Tradition literature in The Conjure Woman?
Chesnutt uses the structure of Plantation Tradition literature to create a face-off between literary objectivity and sentimental oral tradition in The Conjure Woman.
True or False: Uncle Julius exaggerates his dialect because he wants John to like him.
False: Uncle Julius exaggerates his dialect because he is aware that John is prejudiced and that he can trick him by behaving how John expects him to.
How does folklore function in The Conjure Woman?
Folklore functions as memory and eyewitness testimony in The Conjure Woman.
True or False: Chesnutt's portrayal of slavery differs from other Plantation Tradition literature.
True: Chesnutt centers the stories in The Conjure Woman around the day-to-day life of an enslaved person and their interactions with slaveholders. Most importantly, Chesnutt included the enslaved people’s reactions to slaveholder behavior, and how it affected their lives.
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