True Ignorance Revealed in Chesnutt's ConjureTales

In the initial reading of the Conjure Tales, one may conclude that Julius is an ignorant and selfish Negro who manipulates Annie and John for his own personal gains. Once the tales are reread and further analyzed, it is revealed that Julius is Chesnutt's chosen character in conveying the issues and treatment of the colored people. While Julius represents the old slave view, John, the white northerner who is ignorant to the southern experience of slavery, constantly holds his intentions and honesty in question.

John presents a narrow black and white perception of Julius and the stories he tells his wife Annie is able to see the gray. She understands the meaning behind the stories that Julius tells. Through understanding the meaning, Annie feels sympathetic and becomes vulnerable to seeing that Julius gets what he wants while simultaneously going against her husbandís decisions.

Through the interactions of these three individuals, in response to the stories told by Uncle Julius, Chesnutt successfully conveys the common ill treatment of colored people in slavery times. In addition, he identifies that the majority of the white world will forever remain ignorant in understanding what colored people endured during slavery, as well as the embedded effects thereafter.

Julius tells stories that deal with the issue of lack of respect for the colored family unit, which emphasize their lack of power to overcome. Through the treatment of the colored families, the reality that they were not people but property of white people is overtly present. Chesnutt conveys this theory best in "Po' Sandy," where, in spite of Tenie's conjure powers, Sandy was returned to his owner to do as he pleased.

As owner, Master Marrabo had the right to sell wives, husbands, or children with no regard to the separation he was creating. He traded Sandy's wife for Tenie and thought he could replace or justify it by "gin 'im a dollar, en 'lowed he wuz monst'us sorry fer ter break up de fambly" (16). Gestures like this were considered thoughtful of the slave owner, as he rightfully had no obligation to explain his business decisions to his slaves whether it directly involved them or not.

Through the turmoil of being constantly lent out, Sandy developed an understandable fear of being sent away from the plantation. By being lent out, Sandy was at a loss in that he had no idea what to expect when he got to the other plantations or what changes he would have to adjust to when he returned to Master Marrabo's plantation.

Understandably, Sandy was frightful when he was informed that he was needed to go to Robeson County for a Amont' er so"(17). Being that his master Awuz one er dese yer easy-gwine folks w'at wanter please eve'ybody," there was no telling how long Sandy might be gone. A month or so could easily become two, three, four or even twelve months without Sandy's approval or consideration. This was a constant reminder for Sandy that he was not a person, not his own man, but Master Marrabo's property.

Anyone, including a slave would fear this treatment and wonder if there was any justice in the world for such treatment to cease. Sandy had no hope left and confided in his wife the troubles of the enslaved colored people when he expressed the following:  "I'm gittin' monst'us ti'ed er dish yer gwine roun' so much. Her I is lent ter Mars Jeems dis mont', en I got ter do so-en-so; en ter Mars Archie nex' mont', en I got ter do so-en-so'tel it 'pears ter me I ain't got no home" (17).

Sandy wished to be turned into a tree not knowing it would happen and not understanding why it was a tree he wished to be turned into. He wanted to be a tree because he thought he could "stay on de plantation fer a w'ile," which could have been possible, pending a storm did not knock him down or someone came to cut him down. He had not though about those possibilities. He figured he was safe being rooted into the soil of the plantation rather than being a rabbit because "de dogs mought git atter' him" (18). Sandy did not realize that as a tree he was assuming the position he had been as a slave.

As a tree, he was stuck in the middle of the white man's world surrounded by Master Marrabo's control. They controlled Tenie who guarded him, which controlled his fate in the same way it was controlled when he was being sent from plantation to plantation. In a sense, being a tree took the little mobility (controlled mobility) that Sandy was allowed to have during the time. The controlled mobility he was allowed came at a price. The price was the two things that he considered essential in his life, which were his home on the plantation and his wife.

Sandy's sacrifice of his mobility was worth being the guaranteed (as he thought) of being in the presence of the only stable home he knew of (Mars Marrabo's plantation) and his wife. The thought of them being separated caused severe desperation, which was reflected in Sandy's transformation and Tenie's devotion in protecting him, as well as her guilt and despair when she fails her husband.

Chesnutt uses Julius to tell this story to emphasize the various effects slavery had on the black marital union. With respect to John and Annie's marriage, Julius tells this story in an attempt to get their understanding of slave treatment on a marital level. Julius represents a higher level of thinking than John in that he knowingly manipulates his gains through John and Annie in a way typically expected of a Negro, while his primary purpose is to educate them to the sufferings of the colored people. Julius accomplishes this by telling stories "revealing the Oriental cast of the Negro's imagination; while others poured freely into the sympathetic ear of a Northern-bred woman, disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery," which collectively are the Conjure Tales (16).

Although Master Marrabo believed that "Tenie wuz crazy" to believe Sandy was transformed into a tree in which the wood was used to build a schoolhouse, Annie understood that it was a terrible system "under which such things were possible" (22-23). To answer John's question of "what things," it is evident to Annie that "things" pertain to the circumstances in which Sandy or any colored man or woman would believe in, and seek conjure powers in an attempt to survive their doomed fate.

Julius's tactics caused John to take "his advice only in small doses and with great discrimination" (50). Although,John was accurate in guarding himself of Julius's manipulative ways, it hindered his ability to grasp the centrap point of Julius's stories. He was unable to understand the meaning of "Po= Sandy" as his wife did. This was partly due to his discrimination towards Julius's character and partly to the fact that he was a white northerner.

John had more insight and sympathy for the rabbit's foot in "Sis Becky's Pickaninny" than he does the circumstances that surrounded Sandy and Tenie. He is unable to understand the "childish superstition" that the fore-foot of a poor dead rabbit, with which he timorously felt his way along through a life surrounded by snares and pitfalls, beset by enemies on every hand, can promote happiness or success" (52). He is unable to see that the rabbit's foot is symbolic of the slaves' circumstances, that slavery surrounded slaves by "snares and pitfalls."

Like a rabbit, Sandy and Tenie were surrounded by pitfalls until they could not dodge them anymore and he was cut down for lumber and used to build the schoolhouse. John is ignorant to the fact that the rabbit's foot is a constant reminder of the treatment Julius's people endured during slavery. The treatment of the slaves is represented by every story in the ConjureTales. With that, and the Rabbit's foot, Julius is able to remember the past; therefore surviving the present and better preparing himself for the future.

Through telling the stories of the conjure woman, Julius tries to make John become aware of his true ignorance in reference to the suffering and hardship of the colored people. These attempts prove to fail, as John never becomes able to read between the lines. The sympathetic gestures of Annie, which represent those of her race who feel regretful and sympathetic of the past, have no influence over John's personal view that Julius or Negroes in general will do anything to manipulate white people into feeling sorry for them for their improvement. However, Julius (or Chesnutt) succeeds in proving that white people, as a community, will never fully understand the trials and tribulations that colored people have endured throughout slavery and thereafter.

Works Cited
Conjure Tales. Charles W. Chesnutt. Penquin Putnam Inc. New York, NY. 1991.

This Page is the work of Sheree Gray

Read more about Chesnutt's Fiction

Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page

About the Chesnutt Literary Web