The Conjure Woman and Other Tales
Deconstruction of Black Generalization in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman
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.
Role of the Fetish in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjuring Stories.
A fetish object assumes distinct, almost superstitious power and is often associated with sexual gratification, desire, and worship. As explained in “Sexualization in the Media,” “Fetishization marks a cultural, psychological, and social technique of fetishizing things by making them appear larger than life, animate, or sexually desirable”. It is argued that this process has profoundly inﬂuenced contemporary consumer culture. Pietz asserts that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.” With this in mind, fetishization within popular communication draws upon these cultural associations to create associative connections for products, brands, and organizations. Fetishization, as used in Charles Chestutt’s The Conjuring Stories, encompasses these concepts, but also refers to a broader cultural process of fetishizing objects via communicative technologies; especially in the short story Sis Becky Pickaninny, Chesnutt demonstrates the stages essential to fetishizing and the effect that it has on a person.
To paraphrase Jane Bennett, it is assumed and common to think of objects as passive and stable things, and humans as the active subjects in the world. However Bennett aims to dissolve this binary between subject and object in her work Vibrant Matter. Through her work she discusses and shows how worms, a dead rat, or a gunshot residue sample can all be ‘actants” and how they have the capacity to “animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle,” similar to the effect a fetishized object has on a person. This meaning objects are alive because of their capacities to make difference in the world, to have effects, to shape the web of interrelationships of which they are a part. This is the same effects Julius “lucky rabbit foot” has in the novel. Even though Julius story had no relevancy to the actual rabbit foot he is able to affirm that the moral, that if Sis Becky had possessed a rabbit’s foot to ward off evil, she would not have watched husband and child sold away from her. This a prime example of Bennett’s claim, because it shows how much power Julius puts into an inmate object. It is presumed that humans are in charge, and objects and materials are simply used, transformed, or set in motion by us. By emphasizing our dense interconnections and interdependencies, Bennett troubles this idea of a human-centered action in the world and with Julius fetish to the rabbits foot the idea is belied. At the end of Julius tale Annie health starts to improve that same day, and several weeks later John happens to find Uncle Julius’s rabbit’s foot among her things. With this Annie allowed an object to make psychological, mental, and physical changes within her body. She now has the belief that an object affect her health and good fortune, or she has fetishized the rabbit foot off the belief that it has good luck.
William Pietz in “The Problem of the Fetish, I” describes the characteristics of the fetish in his work and, similar to Bennett’s belief of humans allowing the connections that are made with items to turn to fetishes, he manages to display how Julius may have been able to turn a rabbit foot into a “fetish’ for Annie. The first characteristic being “the recognition that the object embodies truth,” or how Julius stated that if Sis Becky had a lucky rabbit foot none her problem would have happened. This “evidence” along with the fact that nothing bad has happened to Julius while he has had a rabbit foot is something that can’t be disproved by Annie therefore she must believe the rabbits foot holds truth. Annie is trusting this item of the stories and the belief that rabbit foots in general give off luck. This is further explained through Walter Benjamin work “The Language of Things,” where he affirms “It is therefore obvious at once that the mental entity that communicates itself in language is not language itself but something to be distinguished from it. The view that the mental essence of a thing consists precisely in its language-this view, taken as a hypothesis, is the great abyss into which all linguistic theory threatens to fall”. Through Benjamins beliefs the rabbit foot mental essence is one of luck although the foot can’t communicate this itself. This “itself” is a mental entity therefore as commutated to Annie and Julius that it is lucky and help with her fortune.
The second characteristic being “a fixed power to repeat an original event and order”. This is done through Annie’s sudden health recovery. Even though Annie has been getting progressively better during her time in Patesville, without the rabbits foot, her recent fetish to the item allows her to give acclaim to for her recent recovery to the object. It is through the belief that because nothing damaging has happened to Julius while he has had the foot and technically the same is happening to Annie, that she is able to feed into the fetish created by the rabbit foot and its origins.
This is akin to the third characteristic which is “the social value of things”. As said by Bill Ellis in “Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts and Fetishes” The origin of the rabbit foot and its superstitions “at one time in the past this belief was considered a Southern superstition, specifically one of strictly African-American origin. Certain features, too, suggest a distant affinity with Voodooism, or snake worship, a cult which seems to have been indigenous to tropical America. It was only the left hind foot of the rabbit that was considered lucky and the bearer had to rub it to activate the luck. In addition, it was believed that the rabbit’s foot was a source of protective magic in addition to bringing good fortune..”. This meaning the superstition of the rabbit foot dates back hundreds of years, and it social value has gained since. Additionally, although not mention in the story, the social value of a rabbit foot has always been one of luck, similar to a four leaf clover, or rainbows, it can be assumed that perhaps Annie has heard about the power of rabbit foot previously to Julius introduction of the object. However, she may not have fallen victim to the fetishism of this item until introduced by Julius.
This connects to the final characteristic, which is a “personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object”. John finds the rabbits foot two weeks later among Annie things, displaying that she has been with and held on to the rabbits for days after her introduction to the item. Comparable to how Julius kept the foot with him Annie is following that same. In Vibrant Matters Bennett says, “while the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus, or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces”. This meaning that human and nonhuman elements are always capable of affecting the bevy of processes of which they’re a part. This can include a new phone, clothing, belief system, dance, or in Annie case keeping a dead rabbit foot amongst her belongings.
One could argue back that Annie and Julius may not be fetishizing the rabbit foot, but may like the idea of the luck it can bring, or that the two can’t make a connection with an appendage or thing. This would be the case if Julius thought of the rabbits foot from Bennett’s ideology. Bennett’s theory is that people should rethink “objects” as (lively) “things,” unlike Annie and Julius, who see it as an object of magic, energy, and expected prosperity, rather an appendage from a dead rabbit. Flore Chevaillier discusses in his work, “Reading Pierre Bourdieu after William Pietz a,” a fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. If Annie was to internalize the rabbit foot as an actual thing, feelings of empathy and disgust would surface over her fetish. It is from Bennett’s proposal that she makes humans and objects considerably equal, therefore Annie and Julius would look at the rabbits foot as if a rabbit could hold their foot as a luck charm and it would be the same. This would complicate the fetishization because Annie and Julius could no long create a “personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object,” therefore discrediting Pietz last characteristic of a fetish. To create a personal connection with an appendage or in Bennett’s world an actual “thing” would mean Annie or Julius would think of the rabbits emotions as their own and even the rabbits foot as if it could be their foot, therefore disenchanting them fetishizing the rabbits foot or “thing”. Furthermore, it would complicate the belief that the rabbits foot holds magic or can bring good fortune. Being that the rabbit foot or “thing” it is a severed foot, one could speculate that a human foot is good luck or any “thing” could be good luck. Rather, Annie and Julius see the rabbits foot as a powerful object, one that is tangible and that they can make connection with, because it is not a thing, or just an idea. It is instead an object they can use to bring them luck and or use to better their lives, as most objects do.
This shows that Annie and Julius are so immersed in that which is being fetishized that they do not realize they affected by it or that they are affecting something. Nothing acts alone and as Bennett goes on to say, “Any action is always a trans-action, and any act is really but an initiative that gives birth to a cascade of legitimate and bastard progeny,” Julius and Annie did not know they were adding to the fetish and power of a rabbits foot and its “lucky powers”. Nor do they realize they are fetishizing this foot and allowing it to affect their lives and the lives of those who might have not believed in the rabbit foot previously. As Pietz mentions the social value of things is a characteristic of a fetish, and both Annie and Julius feed into that, not to mention even Chesnutt does as he tell this tale for others to read.
John however, does not feed into the rabbit foots fetish, yet through his narration’s the reader is able to see the forming of his power fetish. Being that the novel is narrated through John it is difficult to tell how much of Julius’s apparent relish is based on John’s stereotyped expectations, or how much is a calculated performance by Julius to get what he wants by exploiting John’s expectations. However, through John’s calculated view of the world the reader can see exactly what Bennett’s theory is trying to argue. John views most things as items and opportunities. John looks at the world in a “human-centered” view therefore cannot understand Annie or Julius fetish to the rabbit foot. He looks at items and even “things,” as Bennett would call them, as tools and stuff to be used to further him in life. An example of this would be, John and Annie’s reasoning behind moving to Patesville. The couple moved, yes because Annie need to come for her health, but mainly for Johns business purposes. Even Annie, who is a human, is still treated as an object to better John’s live or an excuse to further his business and power. Through Bennett’s theory the reader can see why Bennett’s feel as if everything should be either treated as an object or a thing. Through Johns character the reader see the illegitimate authority the John gives to himself, and according to Bennett it is the same authority we give to humans over things. With this the read can see John’s fetish of power. He shows it over Annie, Julius, and anything he can use to further himself into success.
Whether a power fetish or an object fetish, Chesnutt’s characters distinctly mirror how most human in the world function around objects. After hearing one irrelevant story by Julius, Annie immediately took to the rabbits foot as an object of health and benefit, fetishizing over it because of the belief it can bring her good fortune. John spent the entire novel focused on business and inflicting power over the people in his life, no matter how many time Julius tries to distract him of his ways. This proving that when a fetish is formed, it overcomes and effect a persons way for thinking and acting. Charles Chesnutt displayed this through multiple stories, but especially in Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninn.
Ellis, Bill (2002). Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts and Fetishes. Indiana : Indiana University Press.
Chevaillier, Flore (2015) Reading Pierre Bourdieu after William Pietz: Central State University.
Morgan, Florence A. H. “Novel Notes: ‘The Conjure Woman’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale. Literature Resource Center.
Bennett, Jane, 1957-. Vibrant Matter : a Political Ecology of Things. Durham :Duke University Press, 2010.
William Pietz , “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” Res: Anthropology and aesthetics 9, no. (Spring 1985): 5-17.
Benjamin, Walter. The Language of Things, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press.