Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Memory, Ancestors, and Activism/Resistance in Charles Chesnutt's Uncle Julius

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Memory, Ancestors, and Activism/Resistance in Charles Chesnutt's Uncle Julius

Article excerpt

I. MEMORY AND ANCESTORS IN AFRICAN COSMOLOGY

In general, readers recognize Charles Chesnutt's 1899 short-story collection, The Conjure Woman, as an example of the African-American folktale tradition, and its central narrator, Uncle Julius, as the archetypal trickster figure of this narrative form. While this is the most apparent folklore icon that he mirrors as the storyteller of the community, Uncle Julius represents a far more profound and principal figure. In his role as storyteller, Uncle Julius serves as the storehouse of the community's collective history and memory; as he initiates acts of remembering (telling the community's stories), he is the interceder between the world of the living and the dead. In this capacity, Uncle Julius reminds us of the longstanding significance of this role in African-American culture.

In numerous historical and anthropological studies as well as in fictional works by African and diasporic-African authors, we find academic and creative explorations of the importance of memory and the act of remembering in Africana societies. Toni Morrison's Beloved has been a seminal work of fiction in this regard--for its emphasis on the importance of memory/remembering and the prolific scholarship focusing on this aspect of the novel. Morrison's heroine is freed from the horrors of the past only by confronting the past, and this confrontation occurs through a coalescence of both individual and communal remembering. This dynamic is conveyed early in the text as Sethe explains the pervasiveness of memory in human experience: "Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it's you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It's when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else" (36).

From centuries-old African rituals that invoke ancestral spirits to African-American religious testimonies, blacks have maintained cultural practices that call for individual and communal remembering. Remembering, that is, the memory act, affirms the individual's understanding of self as inexplicably tied to the group or community. Through memory, individual and social place and responsibilities are ordered, and the connection between carnal and spiritual worlds is preserved. In many African belief systems the relationship between the supernatural and the human makes the human experience in the material world fulfilling. Moreover, the supernatural is presumed to exert power over humans, oftentimes steering individuals on the course either to great failure or great achievement. In many instances, the supernatural entities wielding power in the lives of humans are the ancestors who have passed beyond the world of the living. The ancestors hold great power over the living, and they regularly exert these powers in response to the requests, deeds, and needs of their living charges. The ancestors are then remembered by the living so that they will watch over them and help them in times of trouble.

Among African people, specific funereal and ancestor rituals are performed to recognize the presence of those departed spirits that continue to influence the conditions of those still living in the union of mind and body. The renewal or affirmation of human connectedness to the supernatural occurs ritually through ceremonies, but spiritual interveners are called upon when people experience troubles or circumstances that require contact with the spirit world. The stable relationship between worldly and other-worldly beings depends on reciprocal acts. These otherworldly beings, whether gods, ancestors, divinities, or spirits, must be worshipped and venerated to ensure the fortunes of those in the corporeal world. As the most immediate entities connected to the interests of those living, the ancestors must be awarded due attention because they "bless, protect, warn, and punish their living relatives depending upon how much their relatives neglect or remember them" (Ray 103). …

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