Though Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932) was only "one-sixteenth Negro" he could have passed for white, but chose not to. A very well-educated man, hailing from our own Cleveland, Ohio, he was a professional stenographer, journalist, creative writer, and attorney. Of all these careers, it was creative writing that he yearned for the most success, and unfortunately, that was not to be. The Dover edition of this book includes introductory notes about Chesnutt's life:
"Chesnutt's literary goal was to effect a "moral revolution," the elevation of white people beyond the "unjust spirit of caste" that subjected his race to "scorn and social ostracism." . . .Chesnutt's career in literature did not take off very soon, nor did it last very long because he could not restrain his anger at racial injustice to "lead people on, imperceptibly."
Fortunately, Chesnutt's books are now more recognized for the masterworks that they are. Living in a "white man's world"
with the passion and sensitivity of a black man has enabled him to realistically express life as perceived by slaves and former slaves, resulting
in stories that contain wry and clever humor, mixed with poignancy, sadness, and frustration.
The "Tales of Conjure," of which there are four, are little gems that transport their reader to two different worlds. John and his wife Annie decide to leave northern Ohio and move south to North Carolina. They wish to buy land to plant a vineyard, and the stories take us through their process and progress. But it is their interaction with the "other half"—the people who had been slaves and operate in a whole different mindset than these northern folk from Cleveland that entertains us and makes us think.
John and Annie believe they have found a suitable plantation formerly owned by a man named McAdoo which had spent years in litigation after his passing. It had at one time a prospering vineyard of scuppernong grapes, but that had fallen into neglect and decay. As they arrive onto the land to investigate its possibilities, they see an old black man sitting on a log, stuffing his mouth with grapes. His name is Uncle Julius, one of the former slaves at that residence, and he has lots of tall tales to share.
In The Goophered Grapevine, he tells how slaves were stealing the grapes:
"Now, ef dey's an'thing a nigger lub, nex' ter 'possum, en chick'n, en watermillyums, it's scuppernon's. Dey ain' nuffin dat kin stan' up side'n de scuppernon' fer sweetness; sugar ain't a suckumstance ter scuppernon'. When de season is nigh 'bout ober, en de grapes begin ter swivel up des a little wid de wrinkles er ole age,—w'en de skin git sof' en brown,—den de scuppernon' make you smack yo' lip en roll yo' eye en wush fer mo'; so I reckon it ain' very 'stonishin' dat niggers lub scuppernon'."
So he goes on to tell about how mad Mars Dugal' McAdoo was 'bout his niggers stealing the grapes, so he went to Aun'
Peggy, the conjure woman who put a spell on the grapes that anyone who ate them would die. So nobody would eat them, except the new slave, old Henry, who
didn't know about the spell, and ate some. Aun' Peggy said it didn't count for Henry 'cause he didn't know, so she gave him some conjure medicine. Every
spring when the vines began to sprout, he had to rub the sap on his bald head and it would sprout hair and he would get young again. . .
After he finishes his tall tale, he concludes that John and Annie should really not buy this plantation because it is still goophered. But as it turns out, old Julius had been making a bit of money from the grapes. John and Annie do buy the land, but hire Uncle Julius as their coachman.
In Po' Sandy, Uncle Julius has more tales of conjure, this one about a slave named Sandy who is going to be sold, so his girlfriend, Tenie, who is also a conjurer, turns him into a tree. Then at night, she goes and turns him back to a man so they can be together. But she is sent away for a few days, and the tree gets cut down, and sawed up. That's why the old one-room building on the plantation is haunted, 'cause its pine wood is Po' Sandy.
In Dave's Neckliss, Uncle Julius tells about a really good slave who learned to read and was teaching the other slaves the Bible. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read. So Mars Dugal' finds out, and asks Dave what he has learned:
"Marster, I l'arns dat it's a sin fer to steal, er ter lie, er fer to want w'at doan b'long ter yer; en I l'arns fer ter love de Lawd en ter 'bey my marster."
So Mars Dugal thinks that's OK, and allows him to teach the other slaves the Bible. But there is another slave named Wiley
who is bad, and wants Dave's girlfriend, Dilsey. So he sets him up by stealing a ham and putting it under Dave's bed. Dave is beaten and has to wear a ham
chained to his neck.
This one, while still a tall tale, is perhaps more poignant than the others because it speaks of the unlimited cruelties that masters could inflict upon their slaves with no fear of expiation.
But there is another side of Chesnutt that is displayed in this collection, and it makes it obvious that his anger about racial inequality was not limited to whites, but to those racially mixed people who looked white, like himself, but who refused to claim their black heritage. There are two stories about members of the Blue Vein Society in the Northern Ohio city of "Groveland."
Here we find a particular quality of arrogance.
From The Wife of His Youth :
"Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins."
Mr. Ryder believes that part of the goal of moving upward must be to eliminate as much of the black blood as possible by marrying into a white family, or white-looking:
"I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white and extinction in the black. The one doesn't want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step."
These two stories about the Blue Vein Society are acutely cutting and acerbic, where perceived superiority is
rewarded with painful come-uppance. In this story, it is Mr. Ryder who must be put down a peg, but, as it turns out, he makes the right moral choice with
However, in A Matter of Principle, snobbishness has reached its peak. Here we find Mr. Cicero Clayton, who refuses, for the most part, to associate with black people. This puts certain restrictions on men who are eligible to marry his pretty daughter, Alice:
"Miss Clayton and her friends, by reason of their assumed superiority to black people, or perhaps as much by reason of a somewhat morbid shrinking from the curiosity manifested toward married people of strongly contrasting colors, would not marry black men, and except in rare instances white men would not marry them. They were therefore restricted for a choice to the young men of their own complexion."
In this story, the Clayton's receive a well-deserved blow, retribution in its most darkly ironic form.
Perhaps the most humorous story is The Passing of Grandison, about a slave who is completely happy, secure, and well-treated in the family whom he serves. However, the master's son, Dick Owens wants to win the hand of Charity Lomax by doing something daring and important, which consists of helping a slave to escape to Canada where he would be free. But how do you make a slave escape when he doesn't want to (and make it look like the abolitionists did it)!?
This collection contains ten stories, all important expressions of racial issues back in Chesnutt's time, and sadly, many are still on-going. It is a highly readable and compelling set of stories for everyone interested in understanding the history of slavery in America and the obstacles, frustrations, and certainly the brutal mistreatment of African-Americans or racially mixed people in this country.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt
All material on this site copyright © 2014 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.