Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Baring Slavery's Darkest Secrets: Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Tales as Masks of Truth

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Baring Slavery's Darkest Secrets: Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Tales as Masks of Truth

Article excerpt

Masks have long been employed by creative artists to impart certain unpleasant truths that might not otherwise be heard. Nowhere is this masking more apparent than in the literature of African-American writers, who of necessity, often must employ screens to get their message across. One of the first post-slavery Black writers to use the technique effectively was Charles Waddell Chesnutt in his groundbreaking work, The Conjure Woman, a collection of seven stories published in 1899. (1) As its title suggests, the work deals with the effects of witchcraft, but more important than the subject matter is the author's sharp penetration into slave psychology. Here used to combat the ills of plantation life, conjuring becomes in itself a means of survival for the hapless slaves who had little else to sustain them. Ranging the gamut from the grotesque and pathetic to the comic and tragic, the conjure tales expose, under the guise of folklore, the scourge that was slavery. Thus, underlying these fanciful and frequently mystifying works, there is invariably another dimension--the sphere of nightmare the slaves inhabited. Always, this world emerges as a horribly real one from which there was no exit. Small wonder, then, that for the enslaved, grim and often comic fantasy provided an escape from confronting reality. In these spellbinding, often bizarre pre-Civil War tales, the reader comes in contact with the superstitious, the metamorphic and the unnatural in great measure. But whatever form the stories take, there is never any perception that slavery was other than inexcusable. On the surface, they might seem like entertaining slave narratives, but as a group, the stories serve as Chesnutt's dark fable of his own times.

Set in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the stories strip bare Southern society of its artificialities, all the while subtly excoriating a system that had allowed such terrible atrocities to flourish. In detailing the dreadful plight of transplanted Africans and focusing on the horrors of slavery and its tragic consequences, Chesnutt called upon his knowledge of the appalling conditions under which the freed slaves lived after the Civil War. Inevitably, he manages to capture the demoralizing nature of slavery as he underscores, time after time, the toll involuntary servitude took on human dignity and decency. Indeed, his incisive exploration of the tribulations of African slaves in the South is no bewitching fairy tale, no idyllic pastoral; rather, Chesnutt depicts an America where the lives of the powerless freed and former slaves veered perilously close to nightmare. Using pervasive and subtle irony to make his point, Chesnutt reconstructs a fictive universe that weighs Southern society in the balance and finds it wanting. Everywhere he accentuates the fact that in bondage the slaves had come to know what to expect from their masters; set at liberty, they faced a far deadlier problem, existing as they did in a limbo world--subjects of the United States, with none of the attendant perogatives, denizens of a craven new world that was both afraid and unwilling to embrace them. Captives still, the former slaves emerge as lost souls, physically free, emotionally lost, economically deprived, socially outcast, and spiritually isolated from their former captors. Its growing pains now beginning, American society found itself having to come to terms with these disparate brethren, these strange outsiders so dramatically different in appearance, so foreign in customs. Thus, rendered rootless by enslavement and impotent by the absence of the cultural ties so necessary for self-identity, the freed blacks stood precariously on the threshold of their new home, a people apart.

Not surprisingly, the literary scene was no better than the social climate. Possibly feeling the burden of the past too difficult a load to shoulder, the South chose to look the other way. In seeking to rid themselves of blame for their role in the enslavement of Africans, Southerners embraced the romantic genre as a defense mechanism, a fictive panacea aimed at camouflaging reality. …

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