In order to rationalize the south’s peculiar institution of slavery, the southern plantation novel surfaced. It idealized the plantation lifestyle by creating and romanticizing characters that otherwise would be viewed upon as evil by blacks—the oppressed. Life was portrayed as easy and carefree by the staple icon, the plantation owner or planter—faithfully called a “Southern gentleman.” In expressing the general view of the white middle class, southern plantation novel authors created a proslavery agenda that defended the institution of slavery. A defense of the southern way of life attempted to shift the view of slavery from evil to good until Charles W. Chesnutt came along. Little did the avid white readers know that Chesnutt would disrupt the positive image that the south received thus dismantling notions of the African-American community as a whole by writing a series of folk-tales.
Folk-tales and myths are arguably one of the most widely effectives pieces of fiction that can alter the view of the reader. Chesnutt took advantage of this genre and employed its characteristics to speak to his white audience. Often passed down from generation to generation, folk-tales remain concrete but descriptive in their telling and contribute to a larger meaning at large. Some may be found to be true and others not, but it is important to identify and analyze the true meaning that lies behind the broad story that is told. Attention to detail within figurative language, simple plot, character analyzation, and overall themes can uncover significant social intentions within the text that secretly work to break down certain pre-conceived notions of something. In The Conjure Woman and Other Tales, Chesnutt utilizes plantation-like dialect, stereotypes, and the conjure woman to subconsciously deconstruct negative biases and perceptions of the black community to his white audience.
As the novel begins, a white man by the name of John moves to North Carolina with his wife on advice from their family doctor. Being in search of economic prosperity, he hopes to utilize the grape industry by prospecting a vineyard for cultivation. It is at this point, Chesnutt uses his brilliant imaginative mind to tell a tale of the cursing of the land through a man named Uncle Julius. He goes into great depth about the way in which the piece of property came to be dangerous and infertile. Given the story was birthed during the peak of slavery, Chesnutt strategically uses plantation-like dialect to effectively reveal the lack of education that slaves possessed. Uncle Julius explains, “Long de nex’ spring, after de sap ‘mence’ ter rise, en Henry ’n’int ‘is head en sta’ted fer ter git young en soopl, Mars Dugal’ up ’n tuk Henry ter town, en sole ‘im fer fifteen hunder’ dollars,” (Chesnutt 11). At first glance, the first thing that might be noticed is the language or dialect that is spoken to form sentences. Its distracting nature to many symbolizes a deeper meaning that is being forced upon the reader. His use of dialect can be interpretive of the great horrors of the institution of slavery. With thorough analyzation, Julius’ underlying statement about the how a man named Henry was taken into town to be sold for fifteen hundred dollars covertly exposes the horrors that blacks went through during slavery. Whites, being that they were given rights and treated as human beings, were oblivious to the oppressive nature of blacks and how detrimental it was for the African-American community. In contrast, blacks during this time period were denied the right to literacy in the system of slavery. Empathy begins to not only play a role in the way that the reader reacts to the stories, but also allows for a space of welcomed compassion and circumstantial reflection. By the main characters, John and Annie, and the general white audience absorbing the language, the plantation-like dialect most likely serves as a tool for furthering the antiracist social agenda of the southern plantation novel within the reader by invoking antiracist emotions towards the characters within the inner narratives. In the tale, Po’ Sandy, after Julius explains the story of Sandy and lumber, Annie says, “John, I don’t believe I want my new kitchen built out of the lumber in that old schoolhouse,” (Chesnutt 22). It is only when Annie is able to engage with Julius’ stories and read the ways that the dialect functions as a metaphor, that she is able to react with such emotions that characterize true empathy for the horrors of slavery that blacks experienced. Overall, plantation-like dialect between the black characters within the inner narratives raises awareness and exploits the reality of black life during slavery, leading to a feeling of sensitivity around the subject. These emotions are largely due to the reference of stereotypes throughout the novel.
In the novel, stereotypes come to play a major role in the acquisition of emotion from Chesnutt’s white audience. As a description is given of the grapes that grew in the vineyard in The Goophered Grapevine, Julius says, “Now, ef dey’s an’thing a nigger lub, nex’ ter ‘possum, en chick’n, en watermillyums, it’s scuppernon’s,” (Chesnutt 7). The above quote stating that blacks don’t love anything more than possum, chicken, watermelon, and scuppernongs is a stereotype that is enforced by judgements of one group of people by another. It is a generalization of a person or thing by a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image. While it may seem Chesnutt reinforces racial normalizations by explicitly choosing a black man to say them against the black community, he is in fact countering prevailing stereotypes by offering insight into common misconceptions of the black community. Chesnutt’s strategically includes a reinforcement of stereotypes of blacks to critique John, Annie, and other white readers who mainly stereotyped black slaves without remorse. For this reason, he is in a way subtly making their subconscious biases aware in order to slowly deconstruct the thought process of people that are unlike them. Stereotypes were complete myths that were utilized to unfairly gain and retain white power over black slaves and their opportunities. Therefore, subconscious biases and judgements are subtly attacked and brought to light when Julius mentions “black” food thus imploring a reaction from Annie and John. While Annie becomes an engaged reader, understanding the metaphorical aspects of Julius’s tales and reacting with empathy, John consistently misses the point. In the tale of Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny, Annie angrily responds to her husband, “Those are mere ornamental details and not at all essential. The story is true to nature, and might have happened a hundred times, and no doubt did happen, in those horrid days before the war,” (Chestnutt 53). Because of a slave being sold and separated from her child, getting help from a conjure woman to see him on a regular basis, and eventually being returned to her son by magic, Annie begins to understand the truth that Julius presents as complex and abstract rather than concrete. This is important because it validates Chesnutt’s purpose of including stereotypes, being that she is white, therefore symbolizing the white community. Chesnutt sends a helpful message both explicitly and implicitly about race and ethnicity through stereotypes and the conjure woman which comes to be a focus of the novel.
As the first inner narrative begins and the tales following, the Conjure Woman and her representation proves to be a central theme for not only the inner characters but the main characters as well, like Annie and John. Chesnutt’s ability to give power to the conjure woman in unconventional ways, despite the time period, displays her influence over his white audience. The Conjure Woman can be seen as a staple image of the black woman that stands strong and ultimately acts out of the benefit for others. She is more powerful than whites through a display of responsibility of whites to blacks in the tale of The Goophered Grapevine. It is in this moment when the white plantation owner, Mars Dugal, relies on her, “Mars Dugal’ hearn ‘bout Aun’ Peggy’s doin’s, en begun ter ‘flect wher’r er no he could n’ git her ter he’p him keep de n* off’n de grapevines,” (Chesnutt 8). This rare circumstance is made evident to symbolize her influence and credibility on whites considering whites utilized blacks only for free-labor purposes. Similarly, Annie is moved by her and keeps a mental note of the land’s history. In this way, his white readers are allowed to see her strength and power, something in which black woman during the time are discredited for. She embodies a black, all empowering female figure that is independent of white control from her white counterparts. Her representation of a deconstruction of societal norms of black womanhood through her traits and strengths is monumental in and of itself.
In Conjure Woman and Other Tales, Chesnutt includes plantation-like dialect, stereotypes, and the Conjure Woman within the inner narratives as a tactic to evoke personal thought within his white readers. Taken as a whole, the tales suggest that the overlying meaning causes a failure in empathy, but considering Annie’s reaction, empathy is evoked and the romanticizing image of the southern plantation novel is undone by her being exposed to such terrors of black life. He may cause one to think about how the change in mindset among the upcoming generations would be different if he were to abstain from including various entities in his book. It can be concluded that his white readers would most likely fail at recognizing his intent and remain judgmental against black society hence keeping the readers’ thoughts beforehand intact for the sole purpose of not being aware of the slave experience. Chesnutt’s contribution to the world of literature has not only educated, but has done so in a way that is unrecognizable from the surface. His unique tales alter and redefine the works that preceded them, offering historical, sociological, and psychological insight into the slave experience in the United States. Complex and hypnotizing, these stories make clear why Charles Chesnutt has continued to captivate audiences for a century.