In Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman, Uncle Julius—a character who might be quite at home as a trickster figure in another story—uses humorous tales which are meant to question the narrator’s notions about race. It is important that these critiques are often couched in humor: not only does this help the narrator receive unpalatable or unflattering information, but it allows racial matters to be turned on their ears for white audiences that may find themselves too busy laughing to be upset. One of the primary texts used to question racial assumptions is the story of “Po’ Sandy.
” This story concentrates on a man who is turned into a tree by a powerful goopher, and the revelation of the information prevents the narrator and his wife from using the lumber in the old school house. Of course, the humorous ending shows that Julius had an intent to use the schoolhouse all along, and strongly implies that the entirety of his tale was bent towards this purpose. To a casual reader enjoying this story for the first time, it may seem that Julius holds the real power over the unsuspecting narrator.
However, the story functions well as a critique of black/white power relations in a post-Civil War South: Julius, ostensibly made equal in the eyes of the law, is still in a severe economic disadvantage compared to the narrator. Since wealth is equivalent to power in the brutal economic realities of the time, the only way for Julius to attain power is to concern himself with the redistribution of the narrator’s wealth. In short: he is still effectively beholden to white culture, despite being emancipated.
As a racial critique, however, the conclusion of “Mars Jeems’ Nightmare” proves much more potent. According to Julius, Mars Jeems is actually turned into a black man, which explains how well he treats slaves. The ostensible moral is simply for white masters to not be overly cruel, but the implications seem much more sinister: that the only way that whites will have true empathy with blacks is to be physically transformed into blacks. Otherwise, blacks are characterized by whites as an unknown and unknowable other, beyond any actual understanding.
However, this text posits that the transformation necessary to understanding is open to any willing person—that the institution of slavery and racism can be undone brick by brick. This message is certainly positive, but the symbolism should not be overlooked—it takes an act of powerful magic to transform Mars Jeems, as opposed to a sentimental change of heart. Magic serves as an intermediary between two diametrically opposed forces, highlighting the impossibility of individual race relations improving of their own accord.
There is also an overt call for political action in the nature and source of the magic: Aunt Peggy. As the titular conjure woman, she provides the magic necessary to transform whites: through her, Chesnutt embeds a call for blacks to be the change they wish to see in the world, and transform the Jeems in their own life through the “magic” of solidarity, persuasion, and rhetoric.The topic of maternity is viewed quite differently by Jacobs, Wilson, and Harper, though there are certainly familiar threads linking all three stories.
Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is arguably the view of maternity most recognizable by contemporary society—all of the suffering that she describes is mere background information to the immediate reality of her attempt to raise a family. This is hammered home when she laments being separated from her grandmother and children, and when she is unable to free her daughter. She also invites the reader to look at how her own maternal identity is threatened by constant sexual abuse, and later, economic abuse at the hands of cruel whites.
In this sense, her text is closer, thematically, to Wilson’s Our Nig: each one points out that legitimate attempts at maternity are actually thwarted by the very structure of institutionalized slavery, which is designed to break up families and highlights the ultimate Catch-22: white critics who decry black families as some kind of unknowable Other due to their differences, when many of those differences were effectively foisted on them by white culture. Jacob’s straightforward story is in striking contrast to Francis Harper’s convoluted Iola Leroy, which places dramatic irony, miscegenation, and the Civil War into a strange soup.
For Harper, maternity is linked more to a discovery of femininity, which in turn is linked to the discovery of the truth; by mending wounded soldiers, Leroy is able to come to terms with her own blackness. It is worth noting that for Harper, maternity is also a political decision: racial solidarity plays a part in Leroy’s choice of a mate, because (consciously or unconsciously) she feels a need to recreate the black family in a traditional dynamic, untainted by any aspects of slavery.
This is important because it emphasizes the need to create and celebrate a unique black culture, not for the nature of its exclusivity, but for its ability to stand proudly apart from the white hands that, not too long ago, were holding shackles. In this sense, “home” is identified in the novel not as a specific place, but a state of mind—an integration with one’s true identity. It serves as a kind of invitation for other blacks to discover who they are, and form bonds for solidarity; to do otherwise is to foster an ongoing cultural Diaspora that never really goes away.
Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig is unique because it seemingly defines maternity through negation—that is, it is easier to see the shape of maternity in its absence through the novel, rather than through its presence. Specifically, Frado being abandoned by Tom illustrates Wilson’s larger point: that blacks were often denied reciprocal maternal identities because the nature of slavery and the nation that condoned it was not conducive to the formation of traditional families, and the bonds that came with them.
The final invocation to purchase her book points to the cyclical nature of everything: it is through a kind of monetary reparations that slavery is not forgiven, but that black society can be set up in a way that supports the nuclear family. She desires a world in which she can make a living as an author, and have a safe relationship with people she can trust. However, Wilson has realized that she, herself, will have to create this world; it will not come about on its own.