African American Folklore as Racial Project in Charles W. Chesnutt's the Conjure Woman
Shaffer, Donald M., Jr., The Western Journal of Black Studies
In this essay, I will examine Chesnutt's use of black folkloric material and vernacular forms in The Conjure Woman. Chesnutt's collection of stories responds to a tradition of Plantation fiction that often portrayed black people in stereotypical terms. Chesnutt effectively writes against the grain of that popular fiction by appropriating African American folklore as a counter-hegemonic racial narrative. The text accomplishes this through its portrayal of Uncle Julius, an ex-slave storyteller whose colorful folk tales are ostensibly deployed as a means of outwitting his white employer. However, his stories also illustrate the ways in which the characters of these folk tales utilize symbolic forms and practices such as conjuration in establishing personal agency and challenging racial proscriptions. Thus, I will argue that Chesnutt represents the act of story-telling in the collection as a symbolic expression of black agency and racial formation (Omi and Winant, 1994, p. 56). Indeed, Chesnutt's marshals black folklore as a means of exposing both the past horrors of slavery and the continuing effects of racial inequality. In doing so, these stories of racial transformation, often involving the supernatural metamorphosis of characters into animal form, (re)define blackness as positive value within the dehumanizing system of American slavery. Therefore, by evoking African American folklore as an interpretative framework for (re)constructing racial meaning, Chesnutt's literary work functions as a "racial project," Michael Omi and Howard Winant's (1994) term describing the representational strategies underlying processes of racial formation (p. 56). As "racial project," Chesnutt's fiction posits at once the social reality and the social fiction of race in America.
When "The Goophered Grapevine" was first published in 1887, its author Charles W. Chesnutt was relatively unknown. The first story penned by a black author to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Goophered Grapevine" would later become the opening piece in Chesnutt's collection of black vernacular tales, The Conjure Woman, published in 1899. It was his first major fictional work. Although it has often been described as a "novel," The Conjure Woman is perhaps best understood as a collection of folk tales narrated from several points of view, the most central of which is Chesnutt's ex-slave storyteller, Uncle Julius McAdoo. After its publication, Chesnutt would quickly gain a reputation as a writer of "color line fiction" and plantation stories of slavery. Ironically, the latter placed in him a category that included authors such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, whose stories of plantation life framed the old South (and slavery itself) in romantic terms. In a 1901 letter addressed to Chesnutt, his friend and sometimes adversary, Booker T. Washington, wrote "I think you have a golden opportunity to create sympathy throughout the country for our cause through the medium of fiction" (Washington, personal communication, 1901). Washington adds in the same letter that the principle authors of Plantation fiction, Harris and Page, "have done infinite harm through their writings" (1901). Chesnutt echoed Washington's concerns, writing in response "it has been the writings of Harris and Page and others of that ilk which have furnished my chief incentive to write something upon the other side of this very vital question" (Chesnutt, personal communication, 1901). The "question" Chesnutt tacitly refers to here is the so-called "Negro question," perhaps the most important question of his day as it involved both the social uplift of black people after emancipation as well as their status as citizens after the failures of reconstruction.
If Chesnutt believed himself to be "upon the other side of this vital question," he then clearly viewed mainstream literary representations of black people as part of the problem. These mainstream representations were popular precisely because they proffered a reductive view of black culture and lived experience as entirely derivative of slavery. …