"The Inescapable Nature of Slavery"

    Charles Chesnutt's "Conjure Tales" are a collection of stories that focus on the use of conjure women, and conjuring in the lives of slaves. The tales are told by Julius, a black man and former slave, to a white married couple from the north after they move to North Carolina from Ohio. The center of all of the stories is the use of conjuring, or magic. The conjure woman and the idea of conjuring are explicitly linked to the institution of slavery. The slaves attempt to use the conjure woman as a way to escape reality and the slave owners use her to punish the slaves. It is ironic that the woman that the slaves go to for help, is the same woman that their masters use to punish and scare them. This is because no matter what a slave does slavery is inescapable, magic cannot even alleviate the pain of slavery and the power of the white man (for another paper that elaborates more on this idea read the work of Cheryl Miller).

    The opening tale of The Conjure Tales is "The Goophered Grapevine." This tale is about a slave owner that uses a conjure woman to curse his grapes so his slaves will not eat them. I think that it is interesting that in this tale it is not a slave that uses a conjure woman, but it is actually a white plantation owner. This is interesting because John a white male finds the idea of conjuring ridiculous. He states in "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny" "your people will never rise in the world until they throw off these childish superstitions and learn to live by the light of reason and common sense" (The Conjure Tales, 52). John says "your people" but in the first tale of the whole collection it is a white man that uses a conjure woman, "his" people. I feel that Chesnutt placed this story first specifically because it is a white person believing in conjuring.

    I also feel that this story is first to immediately draw attention to the link between slavery and conjuring. Not only do slaves believe in conjuring, but even their masters have been influenced by the slaves' complete belief in the magic of conjure women. The contrast between the master in the first story and John's beliefs about conjuring show how greatly the south and the citizens of the south have been affected, changed, and molded by slavery. John a white northern man finds the idea of magic simply unbelievable, but the southern white man will use the magic of conjure women.

    Every single one of the tales takes place on a plantation. In each story there are slaves and slave owners, this could simply be because Julius was a slave and it is the life that he has known, but that is not why. All of the stories are about slaves and slave owners because conjuring was necessary as a mode of survival for the slave. The slave used the conjure woman to take themselves to another world, one away from slavery and the atrocities that came with it. It is not only the idea that magic could work to help the slave, but the oral tradition of storytelling works as an escape from reality for the slave.

    The story "Po' Sandy" is a perfect example of the way in which slaves used conjuring as an escape from reality. The story is about a slave named Sandy who doesn't want to be moved from plantation to plantation any more so he uses a conjure woman to turn him into a tree. The idea that someone would actually want to be a tree shows the extremes that slaves would want to go to in order to escape slavery. The odd thing about the story though is that eventually the tree is cut down and the wood used to build a new kitchen for the master's wife. This happens because slavery was inescapable for the slave. Even magic could not free Sandy from slavery, it could alleviate it for a period of time, but it could not be escaped. Even in death poor Sandy is haunted by slavery by being the wood that is his masters house.

    "The Conjurer's Revenge" is another story which demonstrates how conjuring cannot remove a slave from slavery. A slave is turned into a donkey by a conjure man, and he is turned back in the end of the story because the conjurer wants to make sure he goes to heaven, and in the end the slave goes back to the plantation. Even though it is the intention of the conjurer to punish the slave, it is still important to note what he was changed into. Primus (the slave) is turned into a donkey, a beast of burden, and is sent back to the same plantation that he was a slave on. Once again, even in an altar reality the slave cannot escape slavery. The magic of the conjure woman/man can be used as a temporary relief from slavery, but the situation is so dire that even in fantasy, they are aware that slavery is at the current time inescapable.

Quotations are taken from: Charles Chesnutt. Conjure Tales and Stories of the Color Line. New York, New York: The Penguin Group, 1992.

This page is the work of Erin Fadden.

Read more about Chesnutt's fiction

Return to the Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page

About the Chesnutt Literary Web