The Powerlessness of the Conjure Woman
The Negro slaves of Charles Chesnutt=s Conjure Tales had very little they could call their own. Because of the color of their own and their ancestors= skin, they were denied the right to vote, to own property, to be free. The only right they had that wasn=t regulated by the whites was their imagination, and their faith. And so they invested what was often a blind amount of it in the powers of conjure, or a mixture of elements that could miraculously transform their lives from powerless to powerful. But in many ways the blacks didn=t empower themselves with their faith in the conjure, as much as worsen their plights, and through no fault of their own. Their faith in the power of the Conjure Woman was simply not strong enough to overcome the powers of the white man, and the injustice that ultimately ruled in the white man=s favor.
This theme of injustice runs through many of Chesnutt=s Conjure Tales, and in many of his other fictions as well. There is a certain inevitability that runs throughout the Marrow of Tradition - many of the white characters, like Tom Delamere, literally get away with murder, while innocent men like Sandy are nearly lynched, simply because of the color of his skin. There is this same sort of injustice running through the Conjure Tales; many of the slaves still behave as though they are guilty even after they have been found innocent. In ADave=s Neckliss,@ long after Dave has been pardoned for something he never did to begin with, he turns into the very ham he was unjustly accused of stealing. And in the AGoophered Grapevine,@ Henry=s attempts to avoid the backlash when he Asteals@ a scuppernon ends up backfiring when he, too becomes transformed into the very object he unwittingly steals. In both of these tales the slaves are Asaved@ - Dave is saved by another slave=s confession to the crime, and Henry is saved by a magical antidote whipped up by the Conjure Woman, and yet they still remain prisoners. Chesnutt seems to be saying that no matter how hard the slaves try to free themselves from the tyranny of their circumstances, they are doomed to remain enslaved to it.
This inequity occurs time and time again throughout the Conjure Tales, and is related, ironically, by a former slave, Julius, and the only black man who seems to have control over his circumstances. After he is finished relating the sad story of Dave, he tells John, AEber sence denYw=eneber I eats ham, it min=s me er Dave. I lacks ham, but I nebber kin eat mo= d=n two er th=ee poun=s befo= I gits ter studyin= bout DaveY@ (Dave=s Neckliss, 122) and right afterwards, he leaves the house with a basket on his arm with the remainder of John=s wife=s ham. Julius seems to be the only black man in these tales to have control over the white man, and exercise it; and contrary to the way Julius always bests John, the slaves in these tales are always one upped by their master, despite the use of the Conjure Woman=s magic. But this situation is never the direct fault of the Conjure Woman. Even though the white men in these tales generally dismiss the powers of the conjure woman, and magic in general, as nonsense, as when John chides Julius= belief in Alucky@ rabbit=s feet (long before the whites adopt this superstition for themselves) in ASis Becky=s Pickaninny, saying Ayour 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,@ (Sis Becky=s Pickaninny, 52), there still remains that shadow of doubt in their minds; and it=s a substantial enough shadow to spur Annie to hide a Alucky@ rabbit=s foot in a handkerchief in a pocket of her blue dress; and motivate Mars Dugal, in the Goophered Grapevine@ to seek the powers of the conjure woman to aid him in protecting his Ascuppernons@ from being eaten by his slavehands. But, ultimately, the conjure woman=s power is no match against the power that the whites held, simply because of the color of their skin. She couldn=t mix up any legal mumbo jumbo that would be a match for the legal powers that prevailed at the time against the black people. Even though Dave is Aacquitted@ of his crime when another slave admits to it, he is still burdened by the shackles of slavery. And even though Henry avoids being killed for eating a scuppernon, he still must pay a price for being a black man. And when any of the slaves seek the powers of the Conjure Woman as a way to improve their lot, instead of simply trying to escape an impending danger, then they were even more debilitated as a result. When Sandy of APo= Sandy@ is turned into a tree in order to escape being sold to yet another plantation, and so that he can spend more time with his Awife@ Tenie, his troubles just begin. True to the nature of the slave=s lot, Sandy Adid n= git erlong widout his trials and tribulations.@ (APo= Sandy,@ 19) As a tree, he was either picked at by woodpeckers, or hacked at by other Aniggers.@ And just when Tenie decided to Afix up a goopher mixtry w=at would turn herse=f en Sandy ter foxes, er sump=n, so dey could run away en go some=rs shar dey could be free en lib lack w=ite folks,@ (APo= Sandy,@ 19) her Master forces her to leave the plantation in order to tend to his sick wife. (For additional comments on this subject, see the essay xxxxxx by Erin Fadden.) Anytime the slaves attempted to find freedom Aen lib lack w=ite folks,@ they were thwarted, whether that freedom was as simple as eating a scuppernon, or as complex as actually leaving their families and slave status behind. The slave couldn=t find the freedom to live like white folks because the slave simply wasn=t white.
It wasn=t just the physical entrapments that the slaves sought to flee that ultimately entrapped them. They also encountered obstacles when they attempted to control their emotional situations, and such intangible concepts as love and commitment. Such concepts were out of the control of most people, black or white, but in these tales, the blacks rarely won their fights. In AHot-Foot Hannibal,@ Chloe and Jeff both conspire to defy their master, who orders Chloe to marry Hannibal, a man she doesn=t love, instead of Jeff, the man she does love. They render Hannibal lame via a conjure woman=s potion, hoping their master will eventually have to replace him with Jeff. But their plan backfires in many ways; and Hannibal eventually regains his competency and then successfully outwits Chloe, so that Jeff is, ironically, sent away from the plantation, and then dies on the trip to a lot. Chloe, who is indirectly responsible for Jeff=s death, eventually dies from grief, just as Tenie loses her mind in the kitchen that was supposedly built with her husband=s limbs, that she indirectly caused to happen. These women=s only crimes were trying to have some control over whom they could love, and in the pre-Civil War period of the South, this was simply not meant to be.
The only way the Negro slaves of Chesnutt=s Conjure Tales could stave off the powerlessness of their situation was to seek the powers of the Conjure Woman. But even she was no match for the powers of the white man who refused to acknowledge the black man=s entitlement to freedom. So the Negroes had to content themselves with their imagination, and faith that some day they might be free.