Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"He Came but He Don't Believe": Teaching Chesnutt and Conjuring through the Lens of Gloria Naylor's Mama Day

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"He Came but He Don't Believe": Teaching Chesnutt and Conjuring through the Lens of Gloria Naylor's Mama Day

Article excerpt

    Willow Springs. Everybody knows but nobody talks about the legend of
   Sapphira Wade. A true conjure woman: satin black, biscuit cream, red
   as Georgia clay: depending upon which of us takes a mind to her. She
   could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a
   bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning
   to start the kindling going under her medicine pot: depending upon
   which of us takes a mind to her. She turned the moon into salve, the
   stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature
   walking up on two or down on four.
                                                    --Mama Day
 3
   Dey was a conjuh 'oman livin' down 'mongs de free
niggers on de
   Wim'l'ton Road, en all de darkies fum Rockfish ter Beaver
Crick wuz
   feared er her. She cud wuk de mos' powerfulles' kin'
er
   goopher,--could make people hab fits, er rheumatic, er make 'em
des
   dwinel away 'en die; en dey say she went out ridin' de
niggers at
   night, fur she wuz a witch 'sides bein' a cunjuh
'oman.
            --description of Aunt Peggy in "The Goophered
Grapevine" 36 

Nearly a century separates these two depictions of conjure women by Gloria Naylor and Charles W. Chesnutt. The reasons for these contrasting accounts--Naylor's is arguably much more positive and reverential than is Chesnutt's--are open for discussion. What I would like to do here is share a teaching strategy that I have found helps students to better understand these contrasting accounts, some potential reasons for the differences between them, and how those differences are connected to larger issues in African-American literary history. My hope is that doing so may generate ideas among Chesnutt scholars and teachers of how to approach the complex and perhaps vexed use of conjure in his work.

My approach to these two writers' treatments of conjure is slightly unique in that I introduce students in my upper-division African-American literature survey to Naylor's Mama Day before they encounter any of Chesnutt's conjure stories. Though they often view it as a baptism by fire, we begin with several class periods devoted to African-American literary theory. We start with excerpts from key writings by Sterling Brown--his introduction to 1937's The Negro In American Fiction with its delineation of racial stereotypes--and by W. E. B. DuBois--the "Forethought" and Chapter 1 "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" from The Souls of Black Folk with its landmark explanation of double consciousness. From there we move to some of the significant theories of Houston Baker, including "repudiation" and "mastery of form and deformation of mastery," and of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., focusing on his development of the theory of literary "signifyin'" and "the speakerly text." (1) We finally spend some time on African-American feminist/womanist theory. After these readings, in a section I have entitled "Testing Theory and Reading the Past through the Present," we read and discuss Mama Day.

My purposes for this structure are several. First, I find that Mama Day gives students a chance indeed to "test" almost all the theories we have discussed, including masking, double-consciousness, literary stereotypes, signifyin' (both linguistic/cultural and literary), cultural imperialism, mastery of form and deformation of mastery, and concepts of African-American women's literary history. I also find this novel touches on, in varying degrees, almost every significant topic and theme we will cover through the rest of the course: slavery and its oppression as well as the continual resistance of those who were enslaved, Reconstruction in the South, Jim Crow laws, African-American folk traditions, intra-racial prejudice, gender issues, and interracial relationships, to name a few. Finally, and not of negligible importance, Mama Day gives students a pleasurable break from the heavy duty, dense theory they have immersed themselves in over the previous class periods while still fully engaging them intellectually. …

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