"A Living Death": Gothic Signification and the Nadir in the Marrow of Tradition

Article excerpt

In his letter to Walter Hines Page dated 22 March 1899, Charles W. Chesnutt expressed dismay at the steady erosion of blacks' civil rights in turn-of-the-century America. Referring specifically to North Carolina's adoption of the "grandfather" clause that had been used to disenfranchise black male residents of several southern states, a law the Supreme Court upheld in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), Chesnutt worried about the growing hostilities confronting black Americans. In language that displays mistrust of the jurisprudential wisdom of the nation's highest court, Chesnutt finds its decision to be but one more abuse of blacks:

 
   the Supreme Court of the United States is a dangerous place for a 
   colored man to seek justice. He may go there with maimed rights; he 
   is apt to come away with none at all, and with an adverse decision 
   shutting out even the hope of any future protection there; for the 
   doctrine of stare decisis [the legal doctrine stipulating adherence 
   to precedence] is as strongly intrenched [sic] there as the hopeless 
   superiority of the Anglo-Saxon is in the Southern States. ("To Be an 
   Author" 121) 

As this passage makes clear, by the late 1890s, and especially following Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Chesnutt, like many African Americans, found the Supreme Court tacitly sympathetic to racist southern legislation. Beginning with the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 and continuing up through Williams v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court proved unwilling to overturn state laws that, it argued, only made possible the infringement of constitutional rights but did not target any particular group to suffer discrimination (Sundquist 237, 421). By deferring to states' rights throughout post-Reconstruction, the Supreme Court in effect allowed the persistent and deliberate hollowing out of black civil rights gained in the Reconstruction amendments.

For Chesnutt, the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld Mississippi's "outrageously unjust and unconstitutional law" travestied the promise of Emancipation and revealed the Court to be a place of disheartening mystification ("To Be an Author" 121). That a black person, in seeking from the Supreme Court redress for "maimed fights," might "come away with none at all," demonstrated the Court's role in restoring the political and social conditions of a quasi-slavery (emphasis added). As Eric J. Sundquist describes, blacks faced a return to a "second slavery" without the Court's protection of their constitutional rights (228). Moreover, as Chesnutt's comment underscores, because of stare decisis, "an adverse decision" by the Supreme Court effectively "[shut] out even the hope of any future protection," thus threatening not just to recuperate white oppression of blacks but to make it a permanent feature of Jim Crow America.

The prospect of permanent confinement to a second-class status made post-Reconstruction America the "nadir" moment for blacks. (1) Lacking legal protection of their recently won civil rights, African Americans confronted the specter of the antebellum South. In the same year that Chesnutt wrote to Page, he published The Conjure Woman (1899), a collection of thematically related stories that depicted the conditions of slave life on several neighboring North Carolina plantations. Hoping to counter the plantation nostalgia popularized by writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, Chesnutt appropriated the local color dialect story to feature the oppressive brutality of the Old South's "peculiar institution." Through their representation of slavery's dehumanization of blacks, the stories deromanticize the bygone southern idyll and haunt the post-Reconstruction South with its repressed history.

Chesnutt's representation of conjure as a black folk-belief system involving the supernatural and giving agency to black resistance has generated analyses of The Conjure Woman as gothic fiction. …