A Catalyst for Racial Equality

    Charles Chesnutt created his fictional works to emphasize the racial problems that existed between the blacks and whites, exaggerating the slaves' struggle for freedom with the help of a conjure woman. In the Conjure Woman Tales, Chesnutt uses the conjure woman to explicate the dilemma of racial equality by suppressing the slaves despite their plea for freedom. The [conjurer] "...evokes a world of mean-spirited, penny-pinching masters whose preoccupation with profit limits them to a narrowly utilitarian attitude toward their slaves and life itself," (Chesnutt, xi). The conjure woman's bewitching spells always seem to help the white master but never seem to help the black slave. No matter how much freedom it appears the slave will have with the conjurer's spell, the slave always seems to remain the property of the white man, always under the control of his master.

    Throughout the Conjure Woman Tales, both blacks and whites, slaves and masters, ask the conjure woman to help resolve a problem. Her spells are strong enough to prevent slaves from eating forbidden fruit and powerful enough to send a master into a temporary reality of a slave, but her spells are not strong enough to set a black man free or to end slavery in its entirety. All of her spells are temporary and all of them have tragic endings that amplify the horror owned by slaves.

    In the "Goophered Grapevine," the conjure woman evokes a spell for a white master, Mars Dugal. Asked by Mars Dugal to keep the slaves from eating his grapes, the conjure woman damns the grapes to kill anyone who eats them. The spell, which is one of violent extremes effectively shows what measures a master would take to control his slaves and force them to be disciplined and respectful of their master. It is not enough for the conjurer to evoke a spell that would make slaves sick after eating the forbidden fruit, she has to use a violent method of prevention, "…en a'er a nigger w'at eat dem grapes 'ud be sho ter die inside'n twel' mont's," (Chesnutt, 7). Chesnutt is showing his audience here that not only are masters extremely violent with their slaves, but that had no other alternatives. Using only light discipline to control a slave would not be as effective as showing examples of violence. Once someone has eaten the grapes despite the spell the other slaves would be more apt to straying away from them rather than witnessing a slave become deathly ill. The grapes were too delicious to let illness prevent them from enjoying them, however, death was a harsh penalty to pay and is a successful diversion.

    Of course there are instances where the slave requests the conjure woman to cast a spell and help him find freedom. When the slave is granted his wish, the result is always extreme. In "Po' Sandy," Tenie, the female caretaker and her husband, Sandy, a hard-working slave, are separated from each other due to orders of their master, Mars Marrabo McSwayne. It is apparent, if not already in the previous story, that black slaves had no rights. Their master dictated their lives. Their sense of family was near to none, especially in this particular story. Slaves are only viewed as a piece of property, invaluable and dispensable; "...Mars Marrabo knowed de res' would n' be statisfied ef he gin Sandy ter a'er one un 'em; so w'en dey wuz all done married, he fix it by 'lowin' one er his chilluns ter take Sandy fer a mont' er so, end den ernudder frer a mont'er so, en so on dat erway tel dey had all had 'im de same lenk er time..." (Chesnutt, 16). Mars Marrabo gives his children Sandy to use for one month each because he is such a great worker. However, it makes no difference how wonderful Sandy is, he still does not receive the same respect as his white master. Trying to keep a marriage going for a slave is a hard thing to do when your master separates you from your wife. It's not that Mars Marrabo has no concept of family because Chesnutt starts off "Po' Sandy" by talking about Mars Marrabo's children and how they are given the privilege of Sandy for one month. Mars Marrabo obviously loved his children to give him his most hard-working slave away to them for a month's time. Master Marrabo, however, has no sympathy for his slaves are his property -- available only to convenience him.

    Tenie wants to spend more time with her husband and as a result, she conjures up a spell and turns him into a tree. Although he is still Mars Marrabo's property -- a tree stabilized on his land, he has temporary freedom from work and can freely spend time with his wife who frequently changes him back when they are alone. Yet as a tree the consequences are the same as if he had remained a slave. As Mars Marrabo's property, Sandy is controlled by constraints, only being able to see his wife when she can "get away" from the plantation. He is also abused by surrounding objects such as a woodpecker and a man with an axe, both of which symbolize the common "beatings" a slave would endure when they have disappointed their master. The conjured spell again works to convey a message to Chesnutt's audience: slaves are always the property of their master, regardless of where they are and who or what they become. Their master and their master's environment control them. Sandy's story ends in gruesome detail as he [the tree] is chopped down and grinded, used for his master's new kitchen. Despite their efforts, Sandy and Tenie could not escape the plantation. The hex was not strong enough to grant them their freedom, however, Mars Marrabo's power is strong enough to keep his slaves as his property and under his control. Once again, the white man wins and the black slave loses.

    In the Conjure Woman Tales, Chesnutt explicates the evil of the master and the control they had over their slaves. The conjure woman is the catalyst for the slaves' fight for racial equality, yet her power doesn't seem to be strong enough to grant the slaves' their freedom. Her power is only strong enough to give them temporary freedom that actually ends up suppressing them more. She does however, successfully shows how a master treats his slave and her hexes metaphorically symbolize the reality of their horrors. The master's conjure is more powerful and more extreme then the slaves' because he has absolute power in the slave/master relationship. There is absolutely nothing the conjure woman can do to help the requesting slave seek the freedom they desire. Perhaps this is because she is also black and her powers are limited. Charles Chesnutt uses her character to illustrate the struggle of racial equality in the relationship between slave and master and foreshadows the future struggle of racial equality between blacks and whites, long after slavery has dissolved.

This page is the work of Carie Lund.
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