Charles Chesnutt & Uncle Julius: Nowhere to Turn
On March 14, 1862, Federal forces captured the inlet port city of New Bern, North Carolina, which they would hold through the rest of the Civil War. Slaves soon gathered behind the new Union lines. Local white landholders fled. A chaplain in one of the Massachusetts regiments occupying the city, a man named Horace James, undertook to organize the “contraband,” as the dislocated slaves were then called, after the ingenious fashion of General Benjamin Butler. He arranged for them to settle along the Trent River on plots of land that had been abandoned. To honor their protector, the now freed slaves named their settlement James City.
The freemen prospered and, according to James, by 1865 most of them had laid up considerable property, in the form of livestock, carts, and the like, and a number had succeeded as merchants. And there they lived for twenty-eight years until, in 1893, Governor Elias Carr dispatched a regiment of the First North Carolina Militia to evict the men and women of James City. Title to the land had long been in dispute in the courts—that is, until a decision was made, in 1891, to transfer the land to its antebellum owners so as to make enforceable certain deeds possessed by the white family who had, at the end of a long series of exchanges, most recently purchased it from them (or rather, from their successors). In 1893, when the eviction orders were put into effect, the black men of James City had no choice but to sign three-year leases to work the land they had owned, or so they believed, for thirty years. They had nowhere to turn; all frontiers were closed. For a while these men had dwelt in possibility, a fairer house than prose. But soon enough the “swarthy specter” of slavery took “its accustomed seat” at the nation’s Post-Reconstruction feast. America was again what W.E.B. DuBois said it really had always been: an armed camp for the intimidation of black folks.
The James City farmers’s predicament, however sensational its details may be, was hardly unusual in the North Carolina that Charles Chesnutt knew as a young man. Something about the tenuous hold that black farmers always had on the land is subtly communicated in “The Goophered Grapevine,” the first story in Chesnutt’s first book, The Conjure Woman.
In that story, we are told of how Uncle Julius, who had, since 1865, been making a “respectable living” on the land he once worked as a slave, is displaced in 1877 by a new white owner—in fact, by an Ohioan named John, who had been seduced southward into North Carolina by the promise of cheap land. In short order, John secures a legally binding deed to Uncle Julius’s old estate, the title to which had been in dispute, amongst Old Master’s heirs, since the war. Uncle Julius might as well have been living in James City. What, then, was life like in North Carolina for men and women like Uncle Julius—of whom there were some 330,000 in 1865? They were, of course, subject to the same uncertainties, as to political and economic arrangements, that affected white folk when the Confederacy collapsed. But their situation was unique, and new laws were passed (and old ones retained) that specifically limited their freedom of movement, and their ability to seek employment on fair terms. Black “souls,” because they inhabited “black” bodies, were not allowed to “select their own society,” if I may steal the line from Emily Dickinson. The new Black codes (as they were called) allowed for $500 fines to be levied “from time to time” against blacks who entered North Carolina from other states; a native North Carolinian freedman, on leaving the state for six months, was liable to same sanctions. Black girls were to be bound out as apprentices until the age of twenty-one, whereas white girls achieved their majority at eighteen. County courts could hire out the children of any black parents who were, in the eyes of the court, not profitably engaged in “some honest, industrious occupation”; no such provision existed in the case of white parents. And in all cases former masters were to be granted first right to apprentice men and women whom they had previously owned. Vagrancy laws, while artfully written to avoid mention of race, were clearly intended to apply disproportionately to blacks, and of course they did. White employers were allowed, under the law, to pay black laborers in kind (i.e., in clothing, food, etc.) rather than in cash. And marriage between whites and blacks was a criminal offense. (For details regarding the legal and social contexts in which a man like Uncle Julius had to live, see Sharon Ann Holt, Making Freedom Pay: North Carolina Freedpeople Working for Themselves, 1865-1900, on whose fine work I have, here, drawn.)
In short, when Chesnutt’s fictional Ohio couple, John and Annie, stroll onto the old plantation in 1877 with an eye toward turning it, again, to profit, Uncle Julius has little choice but to charm them, by whatever wiles he has, into a relationship of patronage: on his own, and without white protectors, he would indeed be insecure. His sole asset—and his friends and family alike depend on him to use it well—is his wit. He must wear the mask and sing for his supper; The Conjure Woman tells the story of how he set about to do exactly that.
“The Goophered Grapevine” appeared first in 1887 in the Atlantic Monthly, and, in that text, Chesnutt makes clear at once when the action of the story takes place: “ten years ago”—or 1877. That year, of course, saw the collapse of the last of the Reconstruction-era Republican state governments (the freedmen and their children were now, again, at the tender mercies of the Southern Democratic Party). And John and Annie, the white couple who have come south from Ohio to buy some land “for a mere song,” typify certain post-Reconstruction developments—to wit, the influx of Northern capital into cheap Southern labor markets, and the like. Chesnutt has so arranged things as to represent, in this engagement between John and Uncle Julius, the new regime whereby Southern blacks would answer not to white “owners,” as they had before the war, but to white capitalists. In this connection, consider John’s account of his first impression of the plantation he ultimately buys:
I went several times to look at a place that I thought might suit me. It was a plantation of considerable extent, that had formerly belonged to a wealthy man by the name of McAdoo. The estate had been for years involved in litigation between disputing heirs, during which period shiftless cultivation had well-nigh exhausted the soil. There had been a vineyard of some extent on the place, but it had not been attended to since the war, and had lapsed into utter neglect. The vines—here partly supported by decayed and broken-down trellises, there twining themselves among the branches of the slender saplings which had sprung up among them—grew in wild and unpruned luxuriance, and the few scattered grapes they bore were the undisputed prey of the first comer.
John’s eye is naturally, inevitably proprietary. As we soon learn, and as John himself admits, the vineyard had not at all been “neglected”: Uncle Julius has been farming it, if on a modest scale, for 12 years—from 1865 to 1877, in fact, precisely the years of the Reconstruction. But John looks out on the land with what must be called a “white” gaze: a thing not used by a white man is, for him, simply a thing not genuinely “used.” His sense of entitlement is manifest—as manifest as had been the entitlement of white folks, in the 19th century, to the western lands that had so long been “neglected” by Native Americans. So there is inevitably a note of finger-wagging, if indulgent, disapproval in John’s voice—as if he had caught a child nicking a bit of candy—when he first lays eyes on Uncle Julius: “Upon Annie’s complaining of weariness I led the way back to the yard, where a pine log, lying under a spreading elm, afforded a shady though somewhat hard seat. One end of the log was already occupied by a venerable looking colored man. He held on his knees a hat full of grapes, over which he was smacking his lips with great gusto, and a pile of grapeskins near him indicated that the performance was no new thing.” John wastes no time in sizing Julius up, in an ethnological sort of way: “He was not entirely black, and this fact, together with the quality of his hair, which was about six inches long and very bushy, except on the top of his head, where he was quite bald, suggested a slight strain of other than negro blood. There was a shrewdness in his eyes, too, which was not altogether African, and which, as we afterwards learned from experience was indicative of a corresponding shrewdness in his character.”
For John, race is a question of blood, and in this he is a typical late-19th century American; in those days there was much interest, of a pseudo-scientific nature, in character traits associated with Anglo-Saxon blood, or Gallic blood, or Teutonic blood, or Negro blood, and so on. Any cunning, or “shrewdness,” Julius might display must, of course, derive from white blood of some sort. (As for Julius’s authentic Negro blood: some indication of what its legacy means to John may perhaps be gleaned from his later report that Julius “was a marvelous hand in the management of horses and dogs, with whose mental processes he manifested a greater familiarity than mere use would seem to account for.”) But all the while, in this story, Chesnutt lets us see that “race” is much more likely a role we learn to perform than an identity we are simply born into. And Julius is a consummate performer, shrewd in ways that John’s facile theories make him utterly unable to understand; Julius always wears a mask. He puts John and Annie at ease by playing the deferential, self-deprecating “darky”: “But ef you en young miss dere doan’ min’ lis’nin’ ter a ole nigger run on a minute er two w’ile you er restin’, I kin ‘splain to you how it all happen,” he says, in introducing his tale of the “goophered,” or bewitched, grapevine. He evokes, when it suits his purposes, nothing so much as the minstrel stage:
“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’ for sweetness; sugar ain’t a suckumstance ter scuppernon’. W’en 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 sot’ 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’.” He doesn’t so much affect naiveté as affect an affected naiveté, a thing sure to delight the more paternalistic instincts of a man like John: “Nex’ spring, w’en de sap commence’ ter rise in de scuppernon’ vime, Henry tuk a ham one night. Whar’d he git de ham? I doan know; dey wa’n't no hams on de plantation ‘cep’n’ w’at ‘uz in de smoke-house, but I never see Henry ’bout de smoke-house. But ez I wuz a-sayin’, he tuk de ham ober ter Aun’ Peggy’s . . .” Surely this is calculated. Otherwise, why all this coyness over a theft that supposedly happened decades earlier? Is it simply to put the white couple at ease as to his essential honesty? I rather doubt that. Julius is playing out the script of the darkie who “professes too much,” let us say, which, indeed, as he probably well knows, has the paradoxical effect of putting his auditors at ease. Notice also that Julius exercises great tact when criticizing—mocking, really—his old white master: “So atter a w’ile Mars Dugal’ begin ter miss his scuppernon’s. Co’se he ‘cuse’ de niggers fer it, but dey all ‘nied it ter de las’. Mars Dugal’ sot spring guns en steel traps, en he en de oberseah sot up nights once’t er twice’t, tel one night Mars Dugal’ – he ‘uz a monst’us keerless man – got his leg shot full er cow-peas. But somehow er nudder dey couldn’ nebber ketch none er de niggers. I dunner how it happen, but it happen des like I tell you, en de grapes kep’ on a-goin’ des de same.” Julius knows perfectly well how it happened: Old Massa was a fool. To call him a “monst’us keerless” man understates things in a highly artful fashion—all the more artful, given that the story allows us to suppose, without ever quite specifying the matter, that Julius is making most of this up on the spot. His portrait of Mars Dugal’ is ingeniously satirical.
But what does Julius intend to accomplish with the conjure tales that so delight his white auditors? First, of course, it appears that Julius hopes to dissuade John from buying the old plantation (which Julius can claim by right of long labor, if not by legal title). This is precisely what John thinks he is up to: “I found, when I bought the vineyard, that Uncle Julius had occupied a cabin on the place for many years, and derived a respectable revenue from the product of the neglected grapevines. This, doubtless, accounted for his advice to me not to buy the vineyard, though whether it inspired the goopher story I am unable to state.”
But the reader has to ask: Is Julius really naive enough to suppose that a conjure story might frighten a calculating, up-to-date, white man like John out of buying a likely spread of land—a white man who amuses himself, as we later learn, by reading hyper-rationalist (and pretentious) treatises on epistemology? Hardly. Julius’s motives must be much more complicated. Telling the stories gives him a sort of “mastery.” At times he can, of course, affect John’s behavior in ways beneficial to him; he gets a stipend out of John, and more. But he also exercises a certain moral and intellectual authority over John. The stories Julius tells are sophisticated parables about slavery, and also about post-Reconstruction race relations. For example, in “The Goophered Grapevine” the slave Henry is bewitched in a special way: when the sap rises in the vines each spring, old Henry grows spry and energetic (even to the point of “cuttin’ up didos” with the women); his hair grows back and curls up “in little balls, des like dis yer reg’lar grapy ha’r, en by de time de grapes got ripe his head look des like a bunch er grapes.” When the sap falls in autumn the transformation runs in reverse: Henry’s hair falls out, and he begins to get “ole and stiff in de j’ints ag’in.” Master McAdoo soon enough cashes in—it has to be “a monst’us cloudy night when a dollar git by him in de dahkness,” Uncle Julius tells us—by selling Henry dear in the spring and buying him back cheap in the fall, and in this way makes $5000 in five years. The parable couldn’t be plainer: the body of the slave is identified with the crop and with the land; essentially, the slave’s body, like the land, is harrowed, plowed, inseminated, harvested. And Master McAdoo’s exploitation of the slave’s body perfectly complements his exploitation of the body of the land, which he exhausts and impoverishes out of greed to the point where, by the time the war breaks out, it yields him nothing. In spinning his tale of “The Goophered Grapevine,” Julius quietly contrasts two sorts of ownership of the land, two kinds of relationships to it. The ways of old Master McAdoo and of John are alike essentially exploitative and capitalistic; they would subordinate the land. Julius’s way—for he has been working the vineyard between 1865 and 1877, a considerable length of time, and one perfectly aligned with the Reconstruction—is altogether different. It is, as we say now, sustainable, and one inescapable moral of the “The Goophered Grapevine” story is that slave agriculture is literally “unsustainable”: McAdoo was doomed to failure.
But does Julius really believe in all this “conjure” business? Likely he does not, at least not in any naively “superstitious” way. His interest in the tales he spins is moral, political, and even, by all appearances, “literary.” Such tales as “Po’ Sandy,” “Hot-Foot Hannibal” and “The Gray Wolf’s H’ant” seem made to order, as even John comes to believe. These and other tales so perfectly suit Julius’s ulterior motives that it is hard to believe he hasn’t designed them expressly for the purpose of realizing those motives. So it is probably not accurate to say that Julius “believes” in the conjure stories in quite the way that he pretends to, though this is not to say that his relation to the folk-culture of the slaves is purely instrumental and artful. What Julius seems to see in the old stories is how “conjuring” was itself a politically interested enterprise. Almost always in these tales, conjuring is a way for slaves to exercise some kind of power over their masters. So, Chesnutt, through his mouthpiece Julius, offers up what is really a penetrating analysis of the folklore of the slaves: he shows us how that folk-culture rose up out of specific material conditions, and how it was in fact a way of managing those conditions, both literarily (that is, symbolically), and also practically. The old folk tales Julius draws on, then, are quite complex in their motivation and social function—every bit as complex as the goopher stories Julius himself makes up (for we have to conclude that a good deal of what he relates is improvised). For this reason, the issue of whether or not Julius “believes in” the “truth” of these tales is doubly complicated: the tales surely do, as he feels, have a kind of mythic “truth,” quite apart from any merely “factual” truths about the fate of Henry (in “The Goophered Grapevine”), or Tenie and Sandy (in “Po’ Sandy”), they may propose to set forth.
The Conjure Woman, as many have pointed out, belongs alike to the post-war genres of “local-color fiction” and the “plantation tale.” The development of both these genres is intimately linked to the social, economic and cultural transformation of America in the post-Reconstruction years. These years saw the nationalization of markets for industrial and consumer goods, as intercontinental transportation and communication became a fait accompli; the nationalization (at least in the letter of the law) of patterns of social relations and civil rights, as regional political differences were diminished, in part, by passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution; and, in a sense, the nationalization of a common American “culture,” as disseminated through magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, for example, which now enjoyed a truly national readership, and in which a number of Chesnutt’s stories first appeared. The effect of these developments was, almost inevitably, a gradual attenuation of radical “regional” differences, though this took a good many years to work itself out. So, “local color” fiction, evolving out of this cultural matrix, and existing against its background, performed what Richard Brodhead calls “the work of “mourning”: precisely at the moment when authentic regional differences were vanishing, these same differences became a kind of literary fetish. Much local-color writing is therefore marked by a nostalgia, and at times it tends, when it turns its attentions to the past, to clothe the antebellum years in an almost idyllic dress.
The “plantation tale” was a specific sub-genre in the local-color tradition, and, as historians and literary critics have shown, its cultural function seems to have been quite complex: it arose just as Reconstruction ended—that is to say, just as President Rutherford B. Hayes, making good on the bargain that had resolved the controversial 1876 presidential election, withdrew the last Federal troops from the last of the Southern capitals still harboring them, and as political and economic “reconciliation” became a fact of American life.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that plantation tales, such as those published by Joel Chandler Harris (author of the “Uncle Remus” series) and Thomas Nelson Page, had, as Brodhead explains, “the more or less overt function of excusing the North’s withdrawal from the plight of the freed southern slave.”
Freed slaves in these stories seem to have little but nostalgia for the old days, and remain with their former owners as what used to called “faithful retainers.” A typical statement of the plantation ideal is given by Colonel Owen in Chesnutt’s story “The Passing of Grandison,” collected in his second book, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. The Colonel has just elicited from one of his slaves an expression of devotion, which, unbeknownst to him (so caught up in the plantation myth is he), will prove to be terrifically disingenuous: “The colonel was beaming. This was true gratitude, and his feudal heart thrilled at such appreciative homage. What cold-blooded, heartless monsters they were who would break up this blissful relationship of kindly protection on the one hand, of wise subordination and loyal dependence on the other! The colonel always became indignant at the mere thought of such wickedness.”
In the “plantation tales,” black men and women seem perfectly content with a condition of political inequality, and the stories in which they appear often seem devoted to the purpose of assuring Northern readers (and Southern ones) that things in the South really aren’t so bad at all, and that relations between former slaves and former owners are essentially cordial and healthy.
Chesnutt himself was well aware that “plantation tales,” together with other, cognate media—from minstrelsy to popular novels—fulfilled precisely this function. In any case, it was into these combined literary and economic circumstances that Chesnutt introduced his much more complex and subtle (even counter-cultural) version of the “local-color” “plantation tale.” There is an analogy to be drawn between the “conjures” described in Uncle Julius’s stories and the stories themselves: both are exercised (partly effectively, partly not) against “white” authority. And we can regard The Conjure Woman itself in this light: as a partly effective, though not completely satisfactory, effort on Chesnutt’s part to subvert “white” literary authority. The antagonism, here, is played out even in the history of the book’s composition and publication. It was Chesnutt’s first book, and its contents were arrived at though a kind of compromise on Chesnutt’s part with his (white) establishment publisher, Houghton Mifflin and Company, of Boston. Chesnutt considered the plantation tale genre too constricting. It did not allow for a broad range of representation of African-American life, and he had determined to abandon it. Houghton Mifflin, however, declined at first to publish the “non-plantation fiction” he had begun to write, and asked him instead to submit a number of new “conjure” stories, together with those he had already published; out of these, Houghton selected what became The Conjure Woman. So, generally, we can see that Julius’s position as a storyteller addressing, and being constricted by, an exclusively white audience is analogous, in certain respects, to Chesnutt’s position as an African-American author writing within an almost exclusively white literary establishment: he is able to do remarkable things, many of them subtly and ironically subversive, but there is something unsatisfactory about the fact that he, like Julius, is never really given complete liberty. At the end of the day, at th end of the tale, there really is nowhere to turn.
It is worth asking now what Chesnutt intends to accomplish in The Conjure Woman. We have already seen that he essentially “dramatizes” his relation to his white audience in the relationship between Julius and the white Northerner, John. The stories perform, for Chesnutt, a certain ironic “educative” role. He is (like Julius) at once charming his readers, and criticizing and admonishing them; and he does this in ways that no doubt remain unknown to some of his white readers (for that matter, many of his early readers assumed that he was white). Chesnutt is also engaged in an indirect sort of literary criticism: he is revising and critiquing the “plantation tale” genre, and the “plantation myth” itself (as he does in “The Passing of Grandison”)—and doing so, moreover, in astonishingly ingratiating ways. Citing Chesnutt’s aspiration, as expressed in an 1890 entry in his journal, to “elevate” his white readers, Joseph McElrath and Robert Leitz speak tellingly of Chesnutt’s effort to “mask his condescension toward unregenerate white readers,” the better to win their confidence. McElrath and Leitz continue, again quoting from Chesnutt’s journal: “The `trumpet tones’ used by the abolitionists would not work: `the subtle almost undefinable feeling of repulsion toward the negro, which is common to most Americans—and easily enough accounted for—cannot be stormed and taken by assault; the garrison will not capitulate: so their position must be mined, and we will find ourselves in their midst before they think it.’ [Chesnutt] would win `social recognition and equality’ for the African-American by accustoming `the public mind to the idea; and while amusing them . . . lead them on imperceptibly, unconsciously step by step to the desired state of feeling.’” This Chesnutt accomplishes, insofar as anyone can, in The Conjure Woman. In the years to come he would rely increasingly on the trumpet tones of the abolitionists, in novels of bitter protest, like The Marrow of Tradition and The Colonel’s Dream, whose sales never met those of the “conjure” stories, causing his publisher to drop him. After that he continued to write, but for the most part published little—a few essays here and there. Having been “post-bellum” but “pre-Harlem,” as he puts it in one of those essays, sums up his predicament. And to support himself and his family he had, as I say, nowhere to turn other than to the successful legal stenography business he had established in Cleveland.
N.B. As for the fact and concept of treating fugitive slaves as “contraband of war”—for which innovation Gen. Butler was largely responsible—our Wikipedians explain: “At Fort Monroe in Virginia’s Hampton Roads, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler, commander, came into the possession of three slaves who had made their way across Hampton Roads harbor from Confederate-occupied Norfolk County, Virginia and presented themselves at Union-held Fort Monroe. General Butler refused to return escaped slaves to masters supporting the Confederacy, which amounted to classifying them as “contraband,” although credit for first use of that terminology occurred elsewhere. Three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory had been contracted by their owners to the Confederate Army to help construct defense batteries at Sewell’s Point across the mouth of Hampton Roads from Union-held Fort Monroe. They escaped at night and rowed a skiff to Old Point Comfort, where they sought asylum at the adjacent Fort Monroe. Prior to the War, the owners of the slaves would have been legally entitled to request their return (as property) and this would have in all likelihood have occurred. However, Virginia had just declared (by secession) that it no longer considered itself part of the United States. General Butler, who was educated as an attorney, took the position that, if Virginia considered itself a foreign power to the U.S., then he was under no obligation to return the 3 men; he would instead hold them as “contraband of war.” Thus, when Confederate Major John B. Cary made the request for their return as Butler had anticipated, it was denied on the above basis. For a link to Chesnutt’s works at Documenting the American South, click here. For a link to his works at Project Gutenberg, click here. And for his works at the Internet Archive, click here.