This article originally appeared in Imani Perry’ newsletter, Unsettled Territory, free through November 30 and available with an Atlantic subscription after that. Sign up here.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt would hardly qualify as a representative of late-19th-century Black experience. Born in 1858 in Ohio to parents who had been free people of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, his skin was so light that he could easily “pass” for white. But he didn’t. After the Civil War, his family returned South.
Chesnutt, educated and erudite, worked as a court stenographer at a period when most Black men still did agricultural labor. He would become one of the most successful African American writers of the late 19th century. A series of short stories that he published in The Atlantic in the 1880s and ’90s was gathered into a book, The Conjure Woman, in 1899. The stories continue to be taught in universities.
They are consistent with two types of writing popular during Chesnutt’s time: “local color” literature, depicting the idiosyncrasies of a particular regional culture, and “dialect writing,” which used unconventional spelling and punctuation to represent African American Vernacular English.
Unlike many other writers, however, Chesnutt knew the vernacular of Black North Carolinians and depicted it faithfully. This wasn’t some mocking blackface speech; it was evidence of his own multilingualism even as African American Vernacular English was not considered a formal language (and in popular realms still isn’t, the general agreement of linguists that it is indeed a language, given its distinct grammatical structure and rules despite sharing much of the same vocabulary as standard English, notwithstanding).
Chesnutt could render the languages of the elite and of the dispossessed. He could also write from both vantages. While on the surface the tales of The Conjure Woman appear to be quaint depictions of plantation life, they are in truth about the subversive practices African Americans adopted to resist the conditions of slavery.
Perhaps in an effort to appeal to a largely white and northern readership, The Conjure Woman’s stories are told in the first-person voice of a white northern man who has moved down South for his wife’s health. He purchases a plantation and finds a formerly enslaved resident of the plantation living in a cabin on the land. The man is referred to as Uncle Julius (that common form of disrespect given to older Black southerners for generations, called “Uncle” or “Auntie” rather than “Mr.” or “Mrs./Miss”). Julius becomes an interpreter and interlocutor. The narrator treats Julius with gentle condescension, and is amused at how much his naive wife, Annie, is moved by Julius’s storytelling.
Julius tells the transplants tales about “conjuring,” the vernacular spiritual practices that allow the enslaved to one-up the cruelty of the slave society. He shares these stories as a form of persuasion. They usually lead to a material gain for Julius.
For example, in “Dave’s Neckliss,” first published in the October 1889 issue of The Atlantic, Julius is invited into the narrator’s home to eat ham. Julius sits at the table with Annie. At the time, this would have been a dramatic event in the South—a Black man and a white woman at a table together. Julius, eating the ham with relish, suddenly becomes tearful. Annie asks him what’s wrong, and he launches into a story of plantation life: A literate and skilled enslaved man, Dave, is falsely accused of stealing a ham from the smokehouse and, as punishment, is forced to wear a rotting ham chained around his neck. The master, who knows that Dave is literate—which is against the law of slavery—attributes his violation to the sin of Black literacy.
Dave’s punishment alienates his romantic partner and the entire enslaved community, and he slowly has a psychiatric breakdown. First, he believes he is surrounded by “ham trees” growing everywhere. Then he believes he has become a ham. Even after his innocence is proved and the ham is removed from his neck, he still carries it with him, figuratively speaking. Eventually, Dave, believing he is a ham, “smokes” himself and dies by suicide inside the plantation’s smokehouse.
When Julius finishes telling Dave’s story, Annie is so touched that she gives him the remainder of the ham.
The story Chesnutt tells through Julius’s voice is about the horror of slavery. But it is also about the protracted struggle for membership in a white-supremacist society. After slavery, Chesnutt depicts how people like Julius were left entirely dispossessed, despite years of labor. And, like many formerly enslaved people, this character exhibits a belief in John Locke’s theory of “labor desert”—that he deserves some of the bounty of the land he worked. Excluded from that, he uses his cleverness to acquire some of its benefits. Including ham.
I don’t eat ham. But I associate it with Thanksgiving. The scent of honey-baked ham reminds me of home. I am particularly sentimental about the sensoria of holidays now, as this will be my second Thanksgiving away from home because of COVID precautions. Being inside our home, I often reflect upon the incredible labor, beyond what ought to have been necessary, for us Black folks to acquire a bit of land and property in the state of Alabama. My grandmother, may she rest in eternal peace, used to tell me about her own family home in rural Alabama, where sharecroppers, even some who were white, worked. The kitchen and smokehouse were separate from the house. And each morning in the kitchen, her grandmother fed the men who worked in the field at a long table: coffee, grits, biscuits, and ham. The man who acquired all of that property is marked on the 1870 census as having been illiterate. Maybe he was; maybe he wasn’t. Either way, it is remarkable he got it.
I first read Chesnutt as a teenager (I still have my father’s 1984 copy of one of his novels, The Marrow of Tradition) and I kept reading him through adulthood, even basing much of my doctoral dissertation on his work. Part of the appeal of his work to me is, of course, that he was a masterful storyteller. But also, he acted as a ventriloquist for those who left no written record: those generations with intellect but without literacy, those who had spiritual systems beyond Christianity, and also those whose hearts were broken by the conditions of slavery. Moreover, he reminds me, as someone who is more likely to focus on the remarkable resilience of people who were born, were raised, and died in the category of slave, that I must also remember those who buckled under the weight of it. Like Dave.
The obvious metaphor in the story is the proverbial “curse of Ham,” which some interpreters of the Bible have attributed to the children of African descent. Chesnutt reminds us that the proverbial ham was placed about the neck by someone, and that it was profoundly unfair and destructive. If you’ve seen the film Black Panther, you probably remember Killmonger’s memorable line “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors, who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” I hated that line. So many lived through bondage so that I could be here. They bore unfair burdens about their necks, and sometimes ropes. They nevertheless conjured and imagined freedom. I’m grateful for them.
And I’m grateful for Chesnutt, who, rather than choosing to dissolve his genealogy and distance himself from a debased and diminished population, decided to stay Black and fight.
Later, when Chesnutt’s work grew more overtly political and less local-color- and dialect-driven in style (his classic The Marrow of Tradition, for example, fictionalized the 1898 Wilmington massacre), he became less popular. He was considered incendiary.
That history is tricky. It makes clear that what made Chesnutt’s readers delight in The Conjure Woman was not the nuance and care of the argument he was making. They liked the entertainment (perhaps mockingly so) provided by the words of freedpeople. For many readers, I suspect, these were not dignified subjects building themselves into a new condition but rather hapless, childlike, and sometimes shrewd caricatures. I’m not sure that the subversion that is written into Chesnutt’s stories actually was subversive in its effects at all.
Of course, this is the never-ending anxiety of Black artists, I might add: the fear that the power of racial stereotypes leads to the misreading of Black art by a public that doesn’t understand the vagaries and nuances of Black life and expression. That’s true from Kara Walker to hip-hop. There’s another fear too, equally important, from a Black public—that the artist depicting them, no matter how Black or not, might not meet the standards of appropriate care, might trade on stereotype for personal gain, might use their proximity to those in power to sell an insulting image. Representation is a complicated endeavor.
And all of this brings me back to Thanksgiving. Each year, most of us casually dissociate ourselves from the genocidal origins of the holiday and tell a romantic story about who we are. We have agreed, without knowing it, with Sarah Josepha Hale’s lobbying to local and national politicians to make Thanksgiving a depoliticized national holiday. For Hale, the editor of the highly influential Godey’s Lady’s Book, Thanksgiving was a way to reject sectional conflicts and build upon a common understanding as fellow Americans. She wouldn’t even publish a word about the Civil War in its duration: too incendiary, too divisive. But so much truth of our past and present is painful and vexing. So I would ask, as we sit down to eat this year, that, in addition to the beauty of family and the bounty of love, we also consider how much deprivation is in our midst, how many have been pushed out of their homes and other places of belonging, how many people labor so hard and don’t have a penny to their name. They deserve more than charity. We are obliged to listen to them and be thankful for every word they share and every muscle they have exerted.