Other Nature: Resistance to Ecological Hegemony in Charles W. Chesnutt's the Conjure Woman

By Myers, Jeffrey | African American Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Other Nature: Resistance to Ecological Hegemony in Charles W. Chesnutt's the Conjure Woman


Myers, Jeffrey, African American Review


The nation was founded on the principles of "free land" (stolen from Native Americans and Mexicans), "free labor" (cruelly extracted from African slaves), and "free men" (white men with property). From the outset, institutional racism shaped the economic, political, and ecological landscape, and buttressed the exploitation of both land and people. (Robert D. Bullard, "Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement")

[The Earth] is perceived, ironically, as other, alien, evil, and threatening by those who are finding they cannot draw a healthful breath without its cooperation. While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the Earth is enslaved, none of us is free. (Alice Walker, Living by the Word)

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An image from Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899) illustrates how the construction of the "Other" in the dominant American culture is as injurious to landscape as it is to groups of people. In the story "Po' Sandy," narrated by the former slave Julius McAdoo, a "conjured" slave, Sandy, has been turned by his wife Tenie into a pine tree in order to escape from his master, who plans to "lend" him to another plantation owner. Each night she turns him back into a man for a short time, before turning him back to a tree again in the morning. After some time, however, this "old pine" is cut down for lumber, an action that symbolizes, at the same time, both the dismemberment of the body of the slave and the exploitation of land in the form of logging. (1) Such images of slaves conjured into aspects of the landscape both wild and cultivated repeat throughout Julius's tales in The Conjure Woman. In "The Goophered Grapevine," Henry, a field hand, thrives in the summer when the grape vines are green and wither s in the fall when the vines themselves do the same. In "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," another slave, Dan, becomes a gray wolf -- already an endangered species when the tale takes place -- who inhabits, and ultimately haunts, a wild remnant of uncleared old growth forest. In Chesnutt's book, the bodies of the men and women who work the land are conflated with the land itself -- and the crops, trees, and animals that inhabit it.

Toni Morrison argues that the characteristics that delineate "whiteness" in American literature are constructed over and against "a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence" (5). Building on this idea toward a reading of The Conjure Woman that shows how Chesnutt's work is concomitantly critical of ecological and racial hegemony, I would add that the same gesture that constructs the (white) American individual over and against the "Africanist presence," at the same time constructs that self over and against the wild presence of the land itself. Both the slave and the tree -- which in the case of "Po' Sandy" literally conflate -- are viewed as property, as resources at the disposal of their owner. What gives the "master" his sense of mastery -- autonomy, individuality, agency -- is his construction of a subjectivity that takes its form in opposition to both slaves and nature, each of which is reduced to property," in the Lockean sense. The two constructions are really the same construction: Both the bodies of slaves and the pine forests of the American Southeast had to be exploited in order to make the fortunes -- and the culture -- that cotton and tobacco plantations made possible. If Chesnutt's stories reveal how plantation owners literally carved this culture from both the bodies of slaves and the forests themselves, Chesnutt also suggests, as I will detail below, that African Americans and the land they have worked, as well as surviving tracts of uncultivated and undeveloped land, have a symbiosis that the slave-owning plantation owners -- and the Northern capitalists who replaced them as land owners -- lack.

Thus, The Conjure Woman is not only a work that deconstructs the nostalgic myths of the antebellum South and attacks the turn-of-the-century racial caste system.

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