Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Losing Limbs in the Republic: Disability, Dismemberment, and Mutilation in Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Stories

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Losing Limbs in the Republic: Disability, Dismemberment, and Mutilation in Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Stories

Article excerpt


In December 1916, while delivering a lecture to the National Buy-a-Book Campaign in Philadelphia, African American author Charles Waddell Chesnutt offered an account of the particular kind of Black characters he wanted to see represented in imaginative literature as well as a glimpse of the ways disability and blackness intersect in the American cultural imagination. His talk, "The Negro in Books," demanded more fair and balanced portrayals of Blacks. Rather than depicting the "servile, groveling menial" or "the absurd buffoon," two stock character types that flooded the literary market of his era, Chesnutt urged writers to create more diverse images of Blacks and to produce bold and daring characters who resist authority in the face of numerous "hardships" and "handicaps" (180). Chesnutt's reference to the "handicaps" inflicted on Black bodies calls attention to the way that disability has shaped the racial subjecthood of Blacks in America. From the slave codes that mandated dismemberment and disfigurement as punishments for the fugitive slave to the nineteenth-century scientific theories that claimed Blacks suffer from an innate biological defect, disability has been deployed to injure, discipline, and stigmatize Black bodies in the antebellum and postbellum periods.

The concept of disability holds a special resonance for Chesnutt's work, which focuses on the transformations of the Black body as a result of antiblack violence as well as on how disability infiltrates the national discourse. In his 1889 short story "The Origin of the Hatchet Story," for instance, Chesnutt retells the myth of George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree as a Roman story of an emperor's son (Little Rammy) who, after receiving a new scimitar, tests out his blade by mutilating several palace slaves. Seemingly out of sheer curiosity, Little Rammy slices off the ear of a "Nubian eunuch," scalps one of the "ladies in waiting," amputates a cook's finger, and finally decapitates his "father's favorite Hebrew slave, Abednego" (83, 84). And in his 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, which explicitly engages the 1896 legal case of Plessy v. Ferguson as well as provides a fictional account of the 1898 riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, Chesnutt compares the brutal standard of the "color line" to the "veritable bed of Procrustes" (61). Chesnutt writes,

Those who grew above it must have their heads cut off, figuratively speaking,-must be forced back to the level assigned to their race; those who fell beneath the standard set had their necks stretched, literally enough, as the ghastly record in the daily papers gave conclusive evidence. (61)

Moving from slavery to segregation, "Hatchet" and Marrow illuminate the manner in which Chesnutt's work links bodily disintegration to race, mythology, and politics, which all coalesce in the gruesome images of amputation and the grim allusion to lynching. These violent practices allude to what Chesnutt refers to in his essay "What Is a White Man?" as the "disability of color," a phrase that captures how the health and wholeness of the "so-called Republic" are sustained by the injury and terror of Blacks as well as their isolation and containment (839, 837).

If part of Chesnutt's aim in "Hatchet" and Marrow is to show a continuity between slavery and Jim Crow and if part of the reason Chesnutt links disability and race in "White Man?" is to reveal how disability crosses into turn-of-thecentury American social practices, then he accomplishes these goals with considerable aplomb in The Conjure Stories.1 The Conjure Stories spotlights disability through its focus on bodily dispossession and literal and figurative dismemberment. In his stories, Chesnutt depicts characters like Uncle Julius McAdoo-a freedman whose body is susceptible to disability-alongside characters like Henry in "The Goophered Grapevine," Sandy and Tenie in "Po' Sandy," Primus in "The Conjurer's Revenge," Dave in "Dave's Neckliss," and Viney in "The Dumb Witness"-enslaved men and women whose vulnerability to deformation and madness make them intimately familiar with the precariousness of corporeality. …

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