Printer Friendly


The "conjure tales" of Charles W. Chesnutt, written primarily between 1887 and 1899, abound with black characters--mostly slaves--that are magically transformed into inhuman objects and animals. (1) In "Po' Sandy," a man is turned into a tree, then cut into lumber which is used to build a new kitchen for his master. In "Lonesome Ben," the titular character ingests clay to prevent starvation until he is hardened into clay himself and is subsequently smashed to pieces by a falling tree. "Dave's Neckliss" features a man gone mad from public humiliation, who comes to believe he is a giant ham. Other tales feature characters transformed into animals, including frogs, wolves, birds, and mules. Taken together, the tales dramatize the dehumanizing process of objectification that turns human beings into commodities or non-human "things." Orlando Patterson (1982) has called this process the "social death" of slavery. Given the prevalence of this trope in Chesnutt's early fiction, and recent critical interest in the materiality of the black body in literary and cultural studies, it is surprising that there has been no sustained engagement with racial objectification in the conjure tales. (2) Perhaps this domain of Chesnutt's work has gone without comment because literary scholars have tended to focus instead upon the transformative power of conjuration in African American folklore, aligning his work with a "trickster" tradition that validates the agency and intellect of African Americans against derogatory stereotypes of black passivity or stupidity. (3) Yet the objectified black bodies that populate Chesnutt's conjure tales are crucial not only to his depiction of dehumanization, but also to his unique interrogation of the limited agency of the enslaved. As Fred Moten has argued, "The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist" (2003,1). This resistance, Moten suggests, must be thought through in terms of objecthood. Indeed, locating agency solely within the volitional subject--rather than the objectified body--would neglect crucial insights (by Judith Butler, Saidiya V. Hartman, and others) into the ways in which subjectivity and subjection are imbricated with forms of domination. (4)

While Moten's philosophical endeavor could be described, in the words of Asha Varadharajan, as an attempt to shift critical attention "from the decentered subject to the resistant object" (quoted in Moten 2003, 256m), my more modest aim is to construct a literary history of ideas that brings objecthood to bear upon discussions of agency and uplift in the postbellum era. Chesnutt's frequently overlooked investigation of human objectification in the conjure tales is an ideal site from which to pursue such a project. Indeed, the "African fetichism" and folklore from which Chesnutt drew inspiration was concerned not only with physical objects--the roots, charms, and dolls used for conjure--but also with what we might call human objects: individuals who are transformed, via conjuration, into inhuman forms (2012c, 199). The idea of conjure itself is predicated on the interchangeability of humans and non-human objects; charms, trinkets, and images "intended to represent the person to be affected" can stand in for the person herself (200). For many critics, Chesnutt's interest in conjure lies in what he calls the "literary value" of folklore, which he attempts to rescue from stereotypes of African Americans as primitive, backward, or gullible fools (199-200). (5) Robert Hemenway, for example, has argued that Chesnutt's use of the black folk tradition aims "to dignify conjure as an agency of life in a death-dealing environment" (1976, 303). Yet Chesnutt's treatment of conjure cannot be said to validate the agency of the enslaved in any straightforward way, for his characters are rendered inhuman in their uncanny and often tragic transformations, redoubling their commodity status as slaves. Objectification thus functions for Chesnutt as a literary trope through which to view the ontological ambiguities of slavery and the rhetorical complexities involved in recasting persons as property and things. (6)

In what follows, I will demonstrate that through his literary depictions of objectification, Chesnutt develops a concept of agency--as embodied, ambivalent, and frequently non-verbal--that differs from much late nineteenth-century uplift literature. Agency in this sense is distinct from freedom. In contrast with an imagined sense of individual autonomy proffered in the wake of Emancipation, the status of agency is contingent, precarious, and embedded within distinct power relations--what Butler calls "a radically conditioned form of agency" (1997, 15). Indeed, a better term for this kind of agency might be "resistance," in its full Foucauldian resonance. As Hartman argues in the context of antebellum slavery, "acts of resistance exist within the context of relations of domination and are not external to them, [thus] they acquire their character from these relations, and vice versa" (1997, 8). Resistance occurs within the slave's status as an object or commodity. It is not contingent upon the recognition of the slave's personhood or humanity, nor does it necessarily imply the slave's liberation. Examining resistance within the embodied ambivalence of thinghood thus offers a useful alternative to conventional depictions of agency as the autonomy of a free subject.

Rather than privileging vocal and heroic acts of protest, a focus on objecthood allows us to highlight modes of resistance that might otherwise remain obscure or unintelligible. Indeed, as Hartman has shown, historical appeals to the subjectivity and humanity of the slave did not function to redress its object-status under chattel slavery, but instead intensified and internalized forms of domination. In this light, Emancipation "appears less the grand event of liberation than a point of transition between modes of servitude and racial subjection" (Hartman 1997, 6). Written in the wake of Reconstruction's failures and responsive to the limitations of African American uplift endeavors, Chesnutt's tales of transformation dispel the mythical "metamorphosis of chattel into man," critically exposing the continuities between slavery and the post-bellum era (6). Chesnutt's tales do not reveal how slaves are made men, but rather how black men and women, made slaves, live their lives as "things." Rather than using conjure to confer autonomy upon his characters, Chesnutt sought to dramatize the drastic limitations placed on their agency. In doing so, he endeavored not only to critique slavery's historical and violent restrictions of freedom, but also to make legible frequently unacknowledged forms of resistance--in Hartman's terms, to "illuminate inchoate and Utopian expressions of freedom that are not and perhaps cannot be actualized elsewhere" (13). At the same time, his postbellum depictions of slavery emphasized in particular how stereotypes of black addiction and excess continued to constrict the social and political freedoms of black subjects in the wake of Reconstruction. As I'll demonstrate below, objectification and the discourse of stereotype proved crucial to Chesnutt's early interventions into contemporary uplift movements.

In the post-Reconstruction era, African American writers struggled to counteract the continued popularity of stereotypes widely disseminated by the minstrel stage and embodied in so-called "negro memorabilia." As many scholars have noted, this period saw an unprecedented proliferation of black "collectibles," including toys, dolls, cookie jars, mechanical banks, and other household items depicting Uncle Toms, Aunt Jemimas, "mammies," and other "plantation darky" types. According to Bill Brown, these commodities sought to "deanimate" stereotype, to "fix a demeaning and/or romanticizing racism with the fortitude of solid form" (2006, 185). (7) For Patricia Turner, these collectibles show us how "even after the institution of slavery was over, American consumers found acceptable ways of buying and selling the souls of black folk" (quoted in Brown 2006, 186). Such commodities are thus cognate with the popular minstrel stage as well as romantic plantation literature popularized by Joel Chandler Harris and others. As Robin Bernstein has argued, the world of material things provides critical links to our everyday performance of race; things are capable of "scripting" our behavior by providing "a set of invitations that necessarily remain open to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation" (2011, 12). Black dolls in the nineteenth century, for example, frequently invited children to perform sadistic violence against the representational black body, even as the same dolls enabled a resignification of blackness for some families and made possible other resistant everyday uses and meanings (69-91). Thinking about black objects and racial objectification, therefore, indispensably complements recent scholarship on African American literature, performance, "thing theory," and the black body in the late-nineteenth century.

Yet it is a complement that is also critical. Scholars of black performance studies often privilege a rhetoric of mobility and animation, associating these terms with freedom and agency. Though this language usefully highlights a history of resistance to objectification, it also obscures modes of resistance (and modes of subjection) that occur outside these terms. While the language of animation, for example, connotes life and vitality--in contrast to death and thinghood--scholars have also shown how being "animated" is a condition of compulsory performance under slavery and a stereotype of black affective excess (Hartman 1997; Ngai 2005; Lam 2016). To take one prominent example of performance theory's vitalistic tendency, D. Soyini Madison's "Foreword" to Black Performance Theory uses the language of vitality to evoke progressive history and black agency. Black performance theory, she claims, excavates "the enlivening enactments that sustain blackness"; it focuses on the "generative forces of performance"; it insists that "life is change and the world keeps turning"; it analyzes "how subjects and subjectivities animate blackness"; it uses "fluid rubrics of performance, performativity, and the performative" to make such claims (2014, vii-viii). These phrasings culminate in a trans-historical claim about "black agency and subjectivity": "Black performance theory is high stakes because it excavates the coded nuances as well as the complex spectacles within everyday acts of resistance by once known a/objects that are now and have always been agents of their own humanity" (viii). Though Madison usefully locates performance as a site of resistance, the terms of her argument also obscure less spectacular forms of historical struggle that would be better understood in terms that connote thinghood, such as stillness, rigidity, immobility, and intransigence. (8) By contrast, Harvey Young's powerful analysis of the "performance of stillness" in photography, theatre, and museum culture criticizes "the academic thrall to movement" by arguing that "stillness, like movement and the body, is an integral and defining part of the Black Diaspora" (2010, 6, 44, 42). In the era of Black Lives Matter, one might also consider the cultural work achieved by powerful still images of immobile black bodies in protest--often in chilling contrast with mobile phone and dash-cam footage documenting police brutality and the state-sanctioned murder of black youth. (As just one index of the instability of oppositions like mobility/stillness, it is worth noting how political activism is described both in terms of a progressive "movement" and as "taking a stand.") The point is not that we should invert the terms of Madison's argument by disavowing agency or embracing objectification as "actually" resistant, but instead that we must extend our field of inquiry to include those forms of resistance that occur within objectification, and outside the rhetoric of life, mobility, and change.

In the context of Chesnutt's conjure tales, objecthood is not only a condition of chattel slavery and a medium of stereotype, but also the vehicle through which resistance and embodiment must be thought. Unlike the conjure tales, most racial uplift literature at the turn of the century sought to counter demeaning minstrel stereotypes with representations of black responsibility, intelligence, and black families promoting middle-class values. According to Kevin K. Gaines, uplift literature in the Jim Crow era focused especially on representing the "agency, respectability, and moral authority" of African Americans (1996, 46). Whereas antebellum uplift had focused upon collective endeavors aimed at abolition, in the late nineteenth century it became "an ideology of self-help articulated mainly in racial and middle-class specific, rather than in broader, egalitarian social terms" (20). Much of Chesnutt's writing after the conjure tales can be viewed as part of this endeavor. In his speeches and journalism, he frequently advocated economic responsibility and education, while narratives like The Marrow of Tradition (2012a) and "The Doll" (2002) present "stories of upwardly mobile, civically responsible African Americans [that] revolve around a very stylized model of the respectable, representative African American male" (Taylor 2009, 204). (9) Yet Chesnutt's conjure stories--some of his earliest published fiction, first partially collected in the 1899 volume The Conjure Woman--are rarely discussed in these terms. This is hardly surprising, given the prevalence of racial stereotypes and controversial subject matter in these tales, which feature slaves and rural black characters "addicted" to watermelon, chicken, and sleep, alongside titles such as "A Victim of Heredity: or Why the Darky Loves Chicken." While critics like Eric Sundquist (1993) and Glenda R. Carpio (2008) have rightly noted the critical and satirical ends to which Chesnutt redeploys these stereotypes, such tales of addiction and pathology significantly complicate his later appeals to black agency, a central component of fin de siecle uplift ideology.

Though his later fiction participated in uplift endeavors that would culminate in Alain Locke's "New Negro" movement during the Harlem Renaissance, Chesnutt's early work uses the trope of objectification to critique overly optimistic narratives of racial progress. Take his essay "A Defamer of His Race," published in The Critic in April 1901. The essay is a scathing review of William Hannibal Thomas's The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become, A Critical and Practical Discussion (1901)-an infamous account of the "negro problem" by a black writer that drew critiques from W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Chesnutt for validating views of black inferiority. (10) In this essay, Chesnutt draws an unlikely parallel between his own early conjure tale, "Po' Sandy," and Thomas:
The present reviewer once wrote a story in which a Negro was
transformed into a tree, and the tree sawed up into lumber, and built
into a house, which was ever afterwards haunted by the spirit of the
unfortunate victim of an untoward fate. The parallel between Thomas and
this tree-man is obvious. He has transformed himself into white paper
and black ink--he is a mulatto by blood--and has bound himself into a
book. (Chesnutt 1999a, 152-53)

The equation between the book-as-object and the author is calculated to disparage the work's "untruthfulness and malignity" by associating it with Thomas's reputation, which Chesnutt spent several years discrediting; the "white" paper Thomas has "transformed himself into" perhaps suggests his capitulation to the hegemony of white supremacy (153). Yet the comparison with Chesnutt's protagonist is unusual. Why connect Thomas with a slave who seeks freedom only to be transformed into a different form of property? Perhaps the trope of objectification allows Chesnutt to wryly suggest that Thomas, like his book, has been bought and sold, reducing him to the status of a commodity, "bound" to the dictates of anti-black prejudice. Perhaps, too, Chesnutt enacts symbolic violence against him by linking Thomas--ersatz reformer and enemy of uplift--to the terrible fate of the "tree-man" whose body is rent apart. More broadly, in its capacity to fix and demean, and its rhetorical capacity for reversal, transposition, and transformation, the passage above poses the larger question of how to understand the role of objectification in postbellum uplift ideology--and how Chesnutt's conjure tales participate in this discourse.


The trope of objectification in Chesnutt's conjure tales seems to form an inverse image of metamorphosis. Whereas the former connotes rigidity and stasis, the latter suggests mutability and transformation. Drawing upon the latter, readings of these tales have frequently emphasized conjuration as a force of agency, a means of eluding the domination and cruelties of enslavement--part of a tradition that Houston A. Baker calls "Afro-American transformative resourcefulness" (1987, 46). Donald M. Schaffer Jr., for example, argues that by using conjuration, Chesnutt "posits agency in his black characters--a radical gesture in a genre replete with racial stereotypes" (2012, 328). Werner Sollors suggests the "goopher spells process against reification," dissolving "prematurely hardened boundaries around self, gender and race" (2012, 296). Yet such accounts are too easily charmed by conjure's transformative potential. Though they rightly identify the targets of Chesnutt's critique (stereotype, reification), these claims neglect the tragic outcomes of the stories themselves. For example, in two tales, conjure is used in pursuit of freedom, yet each results in the permanent transformation of the protagonist into inanimate things or inhuman animals (a tree in "Po' Sandy," a frog in "Tobe's Tribulations"). In four other tales, conjure is used for revenge; two of these yield successful gains for the protagonists against slave owners ("Mars Jeems's Nightmare," "The Marked Tree"), yet the other two result in the maiming or death of slaves at the hands of a vengeful conjure man ("The Conjurer's Revenge," "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt"). In still other tales, conjure is used to settle petty jealousies between slaves ("Hot-Foot Hannibal"), and, most insidiously, as a means by which slave owners discipline slave populations ("The Goophered Grapevine," "A Victim of Heredity"). It is therefore difficult to regard conjure as an "agency of life"--rather, it is an extremely ambivalent force, a tool put to disparate ends that often makes visible the limitations that constitute the slave community" This ambivalence is further indicated by the frequency with which protagonists seek to transcend their status as slaves only to be transformed into some other object--plant, animal, "cripple," corpse. (12) In the melancholy dialectic of Chesnutt's conjure tales, transformation tends to end in objectification.

The point is not that the tales are devoid of acts of opposition to the domination of slavery. Rather, Chesnutt's early fiction forgoes what Hartman calls "the romance of resistance," eschewing the celebration of "slave agency" in order to "investigate the forms, dispositions, and constraints of action and the disfigured and liminal status of the agents of such acts" (1997, 54). I want to ask, following Hartman and Moten: what other forms of resistance might be thought in and through objecthood? The first chapter of Moten's In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003) provides an opening to this question. In "Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester's Scream," Moten reads what has become a primal scene for literary and cultural theories of blackness: a passage from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in which Douglass describes the savage beating of his Aunt Hester, whose "heartrending shrieks" initiate him into the brutalities of slavery (2004, 20). (13) For Moten, the scene opens a conceptual terrain in which the object-status of the slave as a commodity is complicated (but not denied) by the aural materiality of Aunt Hester's shrieks, which Moten imbues with the status of an aesthetic performance. Reading Hester's shrieks as an act of refusal, Moten argues for the pervasiveness of "the freedom drive that animates black performances" (2003, 12). Indeed, Moten reveals "the resistance to enslavement" to be, precisely, "the performative essence of blackness" (16). The scream of the speaking commodity thus emerges as a paradigm for resistance to objectification. For Moten, Hester's scream is not so much a sign of the subject's agency as it is the struggle of the body itself--a struggle within objectification, rather than outside of it. The "passionate utterance and response" of the commodified black body questions the assumed "equivalence of personhood and subjectivity" (21,1). Moten's reading highlights the possibility of resistance in aesthetic and vocal (but not necessarily linguistic) terms, opening a terrain of personal and political struggle in which the objectified body is central--even if that body is denied personhood, autonomy, and self-possession. (14)

How, then, might Chesnutt's conjure tales be thought of as acts of dissent? And what do such acts mean in the wake of Emancipation, distinct from abolitionist goals? Chesnutt's tale of the "treeman" provides a compelling answer. "Po' Sandy" tells the story of a slave who becomes so aggravated by repeated separations from his wife, a conjure woman named Tenie, that he asks her to use her powers to prevent him from being loaned out to other plantations. Tenie turns Sandy into a tree, and he remains planted near his home, where he is able to meet her under the cover of night in human form, free from the plantation's surveillance. One might thus be tempted to view this act of conjuration as a covert strategy of resistance to enslavement.

But what manner of resistance is it? In his new form, Sandy is hardly free from the violence endemic to slavery: he is wounded by a woodpecker, stripped of his bark/skin for turpentine, and ultimately chopped down while Tenie is working at another plantation. Each time Tenie transforms him back into his human form, his flesh shows signs of this violence--a gaping hole in his arm, a scar on his leg, "des lack it be'n skunt" (Chesnutt 2012b, 18). The story culminates in a gruesome scene where Tenie, after a prolonged absence from the plantation, returns to Sandy and finds only a stump, "wid de sap runnin' out'n it, en de limbs layin' scattered roun'" (19). She rushes to the sawmill and recognizes Sandy, now a de-limbed tree trunk, being sawed into lumber before her eyes. In the wake of this tragedy, Tenie goes mad and is locked in a smokehouse, while the lumber rendered from Sandy's body is used to construct a new kitchen for his owner, "Mars [Master] Marrabo." Tenie is thus enclosed in a wooden structure meant to "cure" flesh (and, perhaps, her pathology), while her husband's flesh, transmuted into wood, is used to construct a building in which (animal) flesh will be prepared for consumption. (15) In such a tale, the trope of objectification seems to symbolize the terrible and consuming violence enacted upon black bodies under slavery, putting considerable pressure upon claims like Moten's, which seek to rewrite objecthood as part of the black radical tradition. Transformed from private property into a natural resource, Sandy escapes only to be harvested a second time, as he is cut into lumber and turned into yet another potential commodity--an uncanny repetition of what Marx called primitive accumulation.

Yet "Po' Sandy" does contain a possible analogue for Aunt Hester's scream, the paradoxical figure of the speaking commodity and Moten's ur-symbol of the resistant object. Though he does not shriek outright, Sandy, like Hester, endures sustained physical violence while a powerless family member looks on. Inverting the genders of spectator and "terrible spectacle" (Douglass 2004, 21), Chesnutt foregrounds Sandy's resistance as embodied rather than vocal, surreptitious rather than overt. In his tree-form, Sandy's silent, ligneous flesh presents numerous difficulties to the men who unknowingly attempt to chop it/him down: their axes repeatedly glance off of the tree; the cart used to carry it gets stuck in the mud; the chain used to bind it becomes unfastened; and the log continually breaks loose from the cart. The tree acts like a "thing" as the term is used in "thing theory": by resisting orientation toward human intention, the thing "demands that people confront it on its own terms" (Bernstein 2011, 73). Even as an inert object, Sandy strains against constraints, attempting to cause trouble, to break free.

The physical remnants of Sandy's agency are redoubled, as well, by vocalizations that fall below the pitch of Hester's shrieks. As his transformed flesh endures physical violence, it also emits sounds that the narrator of the tale, Uncle Julius, personifies: "fer of all de sweekin', en moanin', en groanin', dat log done it w'iles de saw wuz a-cuttin' thoo it" (Chesnutt 2012b, 20). Even after the log has been turned into lumber and used to construct a new kitchen, the wood, haunted by Sandy's spirit, continues "moanin' en groanin'," "a-hollerin' en sweekin' lack it wuz in great pain en sufferin'" (21). Outlasting his physical mutilation, the quotidian but uncanny sounds emitted by his wooden flesh register the persistent, mundane nature of dehumanizing objectification--as well as Sandy's protest against it. Ultimately, the "ha'nted" kitchen is rendered useless by the groans of Sandy's ghost and is torn down. If Sandy has escaped slavery only to be turned into another form of property, his vocal protestations and haunting animacy render that property worthless.

Tenie, too, occupies a space somewhere between Hester's scream and Douglass's position as "a witness and a participant" (Douglass 2004, 21). Whereas Douglass remains silent while he observes his aunt's beating, Tenie (like Hester) loudly dissents: she "th'owed herse'f on de log, right in front er de saw, a-hollerin' en cryin' ter her Sandy ter fergib her" (Chesnutt 2012b, 20). After Sandy's gruesome death, however, her voice continues to protest at a lower decibel: she "des went 'roun' moanin', en groanin', en shakin' her head" (20). The register of Tenie's vocal protest thus shifts from the dramatic and unsustainable force of the shriek to a continuous, mundane form of objection. One need not read intent or agency into Tenie's vocalizations to recognize their function as resistant. Now considered mad, she talks to herself (or to Sandy's ghost) "wid some kine er foolishness w'at nobody could n' make out." Tolerated precisely because they remain unintelligible, Tenie's "quare soun's" [queer sounds] earn her a small measure of independence. She is relieved of field-work and put in charge of caring for the children, and at night, she begins to frequent the haunted schoolhouse avoided by all others. At the same time, her quiet dissent cannot be mistaken for liberation; never spared from enforced labor altogether, Tenie ultimately dies of grief in the school made from her husband's former flesh, "layin' on de flo', stiff, en col', en dead" (21). As with many of Chesnutt's conjure tales, the final metamorphosis is a grim transition from social death to death itself.

As the narrative arc of "Po' Sandy" suggests, Chesnutt imbues the trope of objectification with a measure of flexibility, allowing it to function toward disparate ends. On one hand, it allows him to estrange the violence of slavery, literalizing the process by which persons are remade into "things." The conjure tales thus critique the historical institution of slavery, but also emerging literary depictions of the romantic plantation legend and its image of the "happy slave," popularized at the fin de Siecle by Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris (Sundquist 1993, 294-346; Andrews 1980, 39-73). On the other hand, Chesnutt never lets his characters exist comfortably, or fully, in their objectified status. (16) Though Sandy, by the end of the tale, has been subjected to extreme bodily violence as the result of his transformation, the animated or haunted status of his new material state shows lingering signs of willfulness. In other words, his status as object has come, paradoxically, to embody physical and even vocal resistance to enslavement.

In narrative terms, "Po' Sandy" adapts a dialectic between objectification and humanization that was typical of antebellum slave narratives. As Leonard Cassuto has shown, racial objectification and efforts by the slave to resist it are two defining features of this genre. Slave or ex-slave narrators first rhetorically objectify themselves, usually via comparisons with animals, in order to reveal the "grotesque implications of slavery," after which they narrate acts of resistance, "a form of work which the slaves humanize themselves by doing" (Cassuto 1997, 109, 107). This dual movement is pithily encapsulated in the well-known line from Douglass's Narrative: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (2004, 73). There follows a scene in which Douglass physically resists and overpowers the "slave-breaker" Covey, where he earns a sense of inner freedom and humanity that precedes his legal emancipation. Yet as Sandy's grim fate suggests, there is considerable distance between these two forms of opposition, as well as their end results. Sandy is not "made a man" by his refusal, nor is he ever liberated; he remains a troubling specter, Chesnutt's lingering reminder of the terrible dehumanization of slavery, and the barest indication of a critical margin by which acts of objectification remain incomplete.

If Sandy is animated by a "freedom drive," in Moten's terms, it is a freedom drive that fails. Instead, it is the act of resistance itself--embodied and vocal, but also obscured by his status as object--that indicates the remnants of Sandy's agency. In stark contrast with the masculine rhetoric of liberation typical of many male-authored slave narratives, in which agency is grounded in the subjectivity and active physical defiance of the slave, "Po' Sandy" depicts the resistance of the flesh--a provocative passivity. (17) This is related to what Elizabeth J. West has called "passive activism": an "unthreatening" form of dissent that avoids "overt and confrontational encounters with whites" while subtly negotiating certain rights, privileges, and material gains through the use of one's wits (2010, 41). For West, this is best exemplified by the folk tradition of the "trickster," of which Uncle Julius, Chesnutt's fictional ex-slave storyteller, is the prime example. As Julius tells stories of slavery to a Northern white couple, John and Annie, who have purchased the plantation where he was formerly enslaved, each tale earns (or attempts to earn) him a small boon, either through trickery or by soliciting their sympathy.

More than these modest material gains, critics have emphasized what Sundquist calls "the black liminal voice of the trickster" (1993, 295). He argues: "The telling of [the conjure tales] is a denial that the destruction of African American culture was complete or that the master's proscriptions were not recognized and resisted. Part of the resistance lies in the telling of the tale, [an] ongoing act of cultural cognition, remembrance, and creation" (383). Yet this critical emphasis on storytelling obscures other, non-verbal--but no less vocal--forms of resistance. In contrast with both the signifying language of Julius's storytelling and the high drama of Aunt Hester's shrieks, the low groans and moans of Sandy and Tenie indicate an unacknowledged (aural) threshold of enfleshed opposition that refuses the "romance of resistance" (Hartman 1997, 54). Circumventing popular nineteenth-century rhetorical strategies that used voice, agency, and dignity to counteract the subjection of the enslaved, Chesnutt's conjure tales suggest that it is sometimes the body itself that fights back--an objection within objectification.


Chesnutt's muted depiction of slave resistance differs not only from antebellum slave narratives like Douglass's, but also from those of the post-Emancipation era. In the latter, slavery was treated as a "crucible in which the resilience, industry, and ingenuity of the slave was tested and ultimately validated." Such narratives coincided with contemporary uplift ideology by arguing for "the readiness of the freedman and freedwoman for full participation in the post-Civil War social and economic order" (Andrews 2004). By contrast, Chesnutt's depictions of extreme objectification do little to forward arguments for the social responsibility of former slaves. While the majority of Chesnutt's fiction after The Conjure Woman features educated, intelligent, and responsible middle-class African Americans striving consciously for the betterment of their race, his conjure stories engage with demeaning stereotypes that most uplift practitioners simply denounced as contemptible counterfeits. Though the tales do narrate acts of ingenuity, intelligence, and empathy by slaves, they also feature characters who mimic minstrel antics that "dehumanized blacks by making them into pathetic buffoons who are addicted to watermelons, hams, chickens, and the like" (Sundquist 1993, 379). For this reason, the conjure tales were long dismissed as pandering to white racism (Andrews 1980,19; Wonham 1997/1998; Fleissner 2010).

While critics now agree that Chesnutt deployed stereotype primarily toward critical ends, the potential ambivalence of his satire continues to mark the conjure tales as unusual in the era of uplift ideology. For this reason, the stereotypes contained in his tales offer a unique perspective on racial objectification and uplift at the turn of the century. This is the case not only because stereotypes dehumanize blackness in ways literalized by narratives of metamorphosis, but also because they are structured upon fixity and rigidity--ideals associated with inanimate objects. Indeed, the tales that deal most explicitly with recognizable stereotypes tend to be linked with specific physical objects--especially stolen property. In "The Goophered Grapevine," for example, a slave named Henry "steals" from his owner by eating from a bewitched grapevine. As a result, his vitality is entwined with the vine, strengthening and weakening with the seasons, "literalizing the common racist notion that the enslaved were closer to nature than were their masters and mistresses" (Carpio 2008, 56). In "A Deep Sleeper," Julius's tale of a narcoleptic slave named Skundus acts as a cover for a watermelon thief, providing two different images of what Donald Bogle calls "the pure coon" stereotype popularized in turn-of-the-century cinema: "those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language" (1973, 8). In "Hot-Foot Hannibal," the titular character is cursed with a "cunjuh doll"--"he'll be des lack it is," the conjurer says (Chesnutt 2012b, 124). An analogue for Hannibal, the doll is given hot peppers for feet and a hollow head, turning the real human into a black buffoon whose slapstick antics make him the laughing stock of his companions. (18) In each of these tales, physical objects (grapevine, watermelon, doll) are linked directly to dehumanizing black stereotypes--especially those that provided entertainment to white audiences on the minstrel stage, or in the form of black collectibles circulating at the turn of the century.

The connection between physical things, comic stereotypes, and violent objectification is not coincidental. As Carpio has noted, Chesnutt's use of stereotype coincides with a contemporaneous theory of laughter that identifies objectification as a key source of the comic (2008, 53-64). (19) Writing in 1900, French philosopher Henri Bergson argues, "We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing" (2005, 28). The impression of thinghood, for Bergson, is produced primarily through momentary acts of stupidity: forms of automatic, involuntary, or mindless behavior (e.g., physical clumsiness, absentmindedness). Bergson calls this "mechanical inelasticity" or the image of something "mechanical encrusted on the living" (5,18). The mechanical, Bergson's figure for all involuntary mental or physical acts, also represents that which is not human--an animal or "primitive" nature dominated by rigid instinct, rather than the flexible autonomy of conscious choice. When humans appear to be governed by instinct, or are mentally rigid and inflexible, they become laughable--precisely to the extent that they resemble inhuman "things."

Bergson's theory of the comic helps to explain how stereotypes objectify and dehumanize human beings. They do so by emphasizing corporeality and rigidity over autonomy and flexibility. Indeed, by the 1820s, the very word stereotype had come to connote unchangeability, regularity, and repeatability (Ewen and Ewen 2006, 4). Chesnutt's conjure tales thus focus on a trope that is, in Carpio's words, "paradoxically both a great source of comedy and a major principle underlying chattel slavery--the inability to control one's body" (2008, 37). His stories appropriate and critique ready-made stereotypes by connecting them to tragic plots that reveal the cruelties of enslavement. Familiar racist stereotypes in Chesnutt's fiction come to dramatize the ways in which the bodies of the enslaved are not their own, and are subject to the external forces of white supremacy and widespread racism.

The tragic force of objectification is especially clear in a story like "Dave's Neckliss," published in 1889 (but not included in The Conjure Woman). In this tale, a slave wrongly accused of stealing bacon is made to wear a chain around his neck to which is attached the stolen ham. As Carpio notes, "Dave's Neckliss" provides insightful commentary on the social dynamics of laughter outlined by Bergson; publicly humiliated, Dave is ridiculed by his fellow slaves. Even his former sweetheart, Dilsey, scorns him: '"I doan wanter talk ter no nigger,' says she, 'w'at be'n whip' fer stealin', en w'at gwine roun' wid sich a lookin' thing ez dat hung roun' his neck. ... W'at yer call dat, Dave? Is dat a cha'm fer ter keep off witches, er is it a noo kine er neckliss yer got?'" (Chesnutt 2012b, 38). The laughter of his companions functions to discipline Dave. The amorphous status of the "thing" around his neck--corpse, commodity, and charm all at once--comes to taint him, making him more and more a "thing" himself. Increasingly alienated, Dave slowly goes mad. He talks to himself, has visions of hams growing in trees (resonant of lynching imagery), and ultimately comes to believe he has been transformed into a giant ham. By the time his master, "Mars Dugal' McAdoo," removes the "neckliss," Dave has grown so accustomed to it that he secretly replaces it with a piece of wood at night to comfort himself--a behavioral rigidity that signals insanity and compounds his abject status. Ultimately, suffering from severe psychological torture and the ubiquitous, dehumanizing threat of violence endemic to slavery, Dave is driven to suicide and hangs himself in the smokehouse, like a ham. Echoing Sandy's grim fate, Dave's object-status as a slave is literalized by his final act, as he is transformed into a corpse, pure physical matter, rendering his own value as "property" worthless for his master.

Beyond the objectifying force of laughter, the story's main symbol--the ham--takes on a significant role that is more directly related to stereotype. Not merely a stereotypical food of nineteenth-century minstrelsy, the ham also functions as a homonym to connect Dave to the exaggerated theatricality of the minstrel stage. As the laughter of the slave community persists, Dave unintentionally becomes a different kind of "ham"--a foolish performer providing amusement at his own expense. Indeed, etymologically, the meaning of "ham" as "an overacting inferior performer" dates from 1882, and may come from a comical minstrel song often performed in blackface, "The Ham-fat Man" (Harper 2016). Dave thus becomes an unwitting validation of the animated stereotype that makes him its victim. (20) Yet the stereotype also eventually transforms Dave, quite literally, into a thing without agency--a rigid corpse--revealing a fundamental ambivalence at the heart of stereotype: it animates and objectifies simultaneously. Historically, black "collectibles" connected to the plantation myth at the turn of the century worked to fix, stabilize, and reify the stereotypes of minstrelsy (Brown 2006, 186-87; Stewart 2005, 23-24; Goings 1994). At the same time, the content of black stereotypes was frequently "animated" in Sianne Ngai's sense of the term (2005, 89-125): connected with wild gesticulation and exaggerated expression on the minstrel stage, and with sexual, affective, and appetitive excess. In "Dave's Neckliss," the ham connects the rigidity of stereotype--the supposed inelasticity of behavior that results in comic objectification--with the animated realm of exaggerated performance, which frequently renders such objectification grotesque or uncanny. Chesnutt's real brilliance is thus not to invert the animate and inanimate, but rather to show how both are made ambiguous by racial stereotype.

In the conjure tales, animation and thingification are only ostensibly at odds with one another. Indeed, Chesnutt reveals deadening rigidity and lively animation to be twin aspects of stereotype. As Homi K. Bhabha has argued, the discourse of stereotype is predicated upon a profound ambivalence that makes this possible: "the stereotype... is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always 'in place', already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated" (2004, Chapter 3). In their ability to condense racial difference into an immediately recognizable identity--to objectify the living complexity of a human being--racial and racist stereotypes anxiously assert that the "other" is knowable and predictable by producing a simplified image of behavior (e.g., the slave as an indolent thief of hams, chickens, etc.). Ironically, the fixed or simplified image often bears a sign of its own disruptive potential; the stereotype of the conniving slave, for example, implies a danger to the very social stability that the stereotype attempts to secure via claims of predictability. The instability of stereotype as a "form of knowledge and identification," masquerading as fixed and definite, is belied by a dominant culture's need to repeat such stereotypes in ever new contexts--hence the popularity of (for example) "negro collectibles" after Emancipation. Stereotype thus comes to connote, in any medium, "rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy, and daemonic repetition" (Chapter 3). Each pole of this ambivalence is visible in "Dave's Neckliss"; as Dave becomes increasingly fixed in his physical and mental habits, clinging to the totem of his alienation, he affirms the (false) reality of his status as a thief. At the same time, his mental "rigidity" drives him into madness, a "disorder" that makes him first replace the ham (a "daemonic repetition" of his punishment) and then even identify with it, intensifying his already abject status. The ambivalence of stereotype is thus productive; it allows the "other" to be represented as both predictable and outrageous--a known danger in need of domestication.

Chesnutt makes this ambivalence especially clear in the frametales of his stories. Julius's tales of slavery are embedded within a narrative framework in which John, his white employer, first sets the scene--usually with a comment or two revealing his own contradictory views of Julius. At the same time, the frame-tales make an historical argument; they draw out continuities between the cruelties of slavery narrated by Uncle Julius, and forms of racism prevalent during Reconstruction. Indeed, the opening paragraphs of "Dave's Neckliss" reveal John's willingness to view Julius in terms of minstrel stereotypes. After Annie invites Julius to help himself to some leftover ham, John covertly watches Julius out of "lazy curiosity," counting the slices of ham that disappear into "the spacious cavity of his mouth" (2012b, 33). Though John presents himself as disinterested, the story Julius tells after dinner (of Dave's theft and punishment by "Mars Dugal," Julius's former "Marster") draws a clear parallel between John and the slave owner, who both perceive black appetite as excessive and in need of regulation. Chesnutt's depiction of John's rigid mental habits thus shows how stereotypes of blackness forged in slavery continue to be anxiously repeated in the postbellum era.

Nestled within this story is a dense interplay of symbols evoking another pervasive image that bridges nineteenth- and twentiethcentury constructions of blackness: what Kyla Wazana Tompkins calls "the trope of the black body as edible object" (2012, 11). Prevalent in literary and dietetic texts as well as visual and material culture, this complex libidinal image "carries the weight of many centuries of forced labor, of coercive and violent sexual desire, and of ongoing political struggle" (8). Chesnutt embodies this history in his comparison between Dave's body and the ham, both hanging in the smokehouse; he carries it into the present by placing the analogic black body, consumable and commodified, at the center of the dining table. In Tompkins's terms, this trope exposes a "domestic unconscious in which white racial desire is forged as an alimentary desire for interracial contact" (100). John's narrative first projects his own white fantasy--and disgust--onto Julius's gaze: Julius's "eyes rested lovingly upon a large sugar-cured ham, from which several slices had been cut, exposing a rich pink expanse that would have appealed strongly to the appetite of any hungry Christian" (Chesnutt 2012b, 32). John's gaze then voyeuristically moves to "the spacious cavity" of Julius's mouth--into which the ham "disappear[s}," and out of which Dave's story emerges (33). More than just a metonym for minstrel stereotypes and a site of white fantasy, Julius's mouth becomes the occasion (and medium) for recalling the tragic and recent history of slavery. It is his act of consumption that occasions the narrative in the first place, and as he finishes his tale, he remarks, "w'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 Dave, en den I has ter stop en leab de res' fer ernudder time" (42). By drawing out what Stepto and Greeson call the "Eucharistic dimensions" of the ham, Julius's tale brings home the cruel living history of slavery, revealing it to be an intimate part of white domesticity (2012, 32n2).

More than memorializing one of slavery's victims, Chesnutt's tale uses Julius's mouth and Dave's grotesquely transmuted flesh to complicate the relations between black embodiment and white fantasy These body parts become resistant objects that interrupt white pleasure. Although the white couple initially responds to Julius's tale only with a "short silence," we soon learn that Annie has given the leftover ham to Julius, much to John's chagrin: "'The fact is,' she said, pensively, 'I couldn't have eaten any more of that ham'" (Chesnutt 2012b, 42). As in many of the conjure tales, Julius's story provokes a sympathetic response in Annie, and mild irritation in John, who suspects the ex-slave's motives. Julius, by contrast, is able to consume and produce the history of the black body even as he remains intimately connected to it, shedding a "tear [that] rolled down his rugged cheek and fell upon the slice of ham before him," seasoning it with the salt of his own body (33). Beyond Julius's modest material gain or his tragic personal loss, Chesnutt's tale is best understood as one in which "black edibility," in Tompkins's terms, "pushes back at its devouring racial other and thus... rejects white desire" in the form of appetite (2012, 91, 92). Through Chesnutt's ability to bridge tragedy and satire in his critique of slavery and stereotype, the story ultimately reveals the objectified black body itself to be a complex site of resistance. (21)

During and after Reconstruction, uplift literature tended to avoid satire, since its potential ambivalence might be read as tacit support for, or neutrality about, the status quo. Most uplift practitioners preferred instead the outright condemnation of stereotype and the positive creation of new middle-class norms for black literature and culture. Chesnutt's decision to deal with some of the most vile and prominent stereotypes of blackness must thus be read as a critique not only of romantic plantation literature, which sought to rewrite the history of slavery in paternalistic terms, but also of uplift endeavors that shied away from fully acknowledging the continuities between modes of subjection during and after slavery. As Zoe Trodd argues, "Chesnutt's metamorphoses rendered absurd the idea that Emancipation brought a sudden transformation in the lives of African Americans, and challenged America's relentlessly progressive historical memory" (2009, 123). On one hand, then, Chesnutt demystifies the myth of the "happy darky" by placing such stock figures at the center of tales about the tragic objectification and destruction of black bodies. On the other hand, the conjure tales present larger questions about the forms of agency and resistance available to black subjects in both the pre- and postbellum eras. In particular, they do so by circumventing prevalent tendencies in African American literature that treated black vocal expression as the privileged vehicle of racial uplift.

Though Chesnutt's ironies and Julius's significations use linguistic play to expose the persistent logic of racial objectification and stereotype, the tales also attend to forms of resistance that fall below the threshold of language as such. Chesnutt's reputation as one of the most prominent writers of dialect fiction has tended to eclipse this dimension of the conjure tales. Yet beneath the critical emphasis on orality, storytelling, and signifying, Chesnutt's tales explore the resistance of those who do not, or cannot, speak up or speak out. Like the obstructions created by Sandy in his tree-form, small non-verbal acts of rebellion underlie many of the tales. Just as the low groans of Tenie and Sandy are a vocal but non-verbal protest against violence, "Tobe's Tribulations" tells the story of a slave tragically turned into a frog in an attempt to escape enslavement. For forty years after his transformation, Tobe "croak' en croak'" in a distant marsh, well past Emancipation; he remains unaware that he is no longer a slave because he is also no longer a man (Chesnutt 2012b, 119). Though Julius declares that those who know Tobe can recognize his voice "callin', callin', callin'" in the chorus of croaking frogs, he tells John that Tobe now often falls silent (119). The story thus plays on a dark pun where "to croak" is "to die"--suggesting that Tobe will soon "croak" for the final time. Significantly, John is unable to hear Tobe's persistent but futile protest; he strains to hear "the vocal expression of a lost soul" but cannot distinguish Tobe from the others (113). The tragic story Julius tells in "Dave's Neckliss" is equally lost on John, whose only response is a "short silence" (42). For Chesnutt, mute and non-verbal forms of protest are powerful techniques because they often remain unheard and unacknowledged by white audiences--highlighting in the same breath the failure of the latter to witness their complicity in the oppression of freedmen and freedwomen.

The power of non-verbal protest is clearest in "The Dumb Witness," a story written for (but not included in) The Conjure Woman and later reworked into an episode in Chesnutt's 1905 novel The Colonel's Dream. In its short-story version, this tale--the only one narrated exclusively in John's voice--tells of a slave, Viney, whose tongue is torn out as a punishment for gossip and impudence. (22) When her master, Malcolm Murchison, later learns that Viney possesses a vital piece of information (the location of a will) and is the only living person who can save the failing estate, Viney's silence is revealed to be a cunning act of revenge. Though the story does not recount a literal act of conjure, it follows the other conjure tales by narrating a violent transformation--from vocal subject to submissive slave--made possible by Viney's legal status as a "thing." As Kalpana Rahita Seshadri points out, Viney has "no recourse to a law that does not recognize her as a subject and treats her as property" (2012, 67). Viney is not so much transformed into an object, then, as she is treated like one by Murchison and defined as one by the law. At the same time, the loss of language renders her more thing-like by condemning her to social death, "effectively shut up inside herself, unable to communicate to another" (68). Yet this ultimately spells Murchison's doom. He tries desperately to extract the desired information from Viney, and even flouts proscriptions against slave literacy by trying to teach her to write so she can communicate her secret to him--all to no avail. Viney manifests "a remarkable stupidity" in her studies, and is only able to manage "meaningless inarticulate mutterings" when attempting to speak (Chesnutt 2012b, 68, 69). Though she appears "willing enough," she is unable to help; her silence becomes "a mute reproach for his cruelty, a constant reminder of his troubles" (68, 69). After decades of dissolution, the estate becomes impoverished, and Murchison dies in a "demented" state (69).

The end of the tale, however, reveals that although Viney's mutilation is real, her silence has been a tactical charade. After Murchison's death, Viney begins to speak again, and proceeds to show his nephew where the will was hidden all along. "Her articulation was not distinct," John says, "but her words were intelligible" (Chesnutt 2012b, 70). Viney's silence is thus revealed to be an act of will--and a refusal to disclose the will (or legal documents) of her former master and employer. A mute trickster, Viney performs exactly what is expected of her, mimicking--and silently mocking--stereotypes of black stupidity and subservience encapsulated in the dual meaning of the word dumb. The tale thus demonstrates the power of what Seshadri calls "performative silence" (2012, 108) and what Carolyn Denard has called, in a different context, "expressing silence"--an oft-ignored trope in African American literature that resignifies the supposed disempowerment of silence "as a sign of wisdom and resistance" (2013, 77).

Crucially, Viney's silence signifies more than just the instinct for survival, an ethos encapsulated in the maxim of the enslaved, "a still tongue makes a wise head" (Douglass 2004, 32). Her willful obstinacy is calculated to cause harm, to protest her own oppression. Though it provides a clearer depiction of agency than Sandy's resistance in his tree-form, Viney's inarticulate body stands in stark contrast with an uplift tradition that privileges the speaking subject. Nor is this the only tale of Chesnutt's to recast deadly silence as provocative passivity. In "The Marked Tree," a slave community looks on as the slave-owning family of Aleck Spencer dies, one by one, due to a tree the slaves suspect to be cursed. As Julius recounts, even after several family members die, the slaves "didn' say nothin' ter de white folks, leas'ways not jes' den" (Chesnutt 2012b, 142). Instead, the slaves remain impassive and silent; "dey kep' it in min' an' waited tuh see what e'se would happen," suspecting (correctly) that more misery is in store for the Spencer family (142). In contrast with "the political power implied by the spoken expressive voice in African American culture" (Denard 2013, 78), silence thus presents a covert strategy of resistance--one that operates within the presumed framework of passivity so often projected upon objectified black bodies.

Beneath Chesnutt's dark humor and the double-voiced discourse of Julius's trickster dialect, subterranean forms of protest proliferate: croaks, groans, moans, mutterings, silences. Coextensive with Aunt Hester's shrieks, though less audible, Chesnutt imbues his conjure tales with the supposedly inarticulate language of the black body--its "resistance to power and objection to subjection" (Moten 2003,12). Taken together, the tales provide away of conceptualizing a challenge to objectification that does not rest upon the presumed personhood, volition, and agency of the enslaved. This is crucial, for as Alexander G. Weheliye argues, any endeavor that wishes "to take seriously the tradition of the oppressed [must] begin by abandoning volitional agency as the sine qua non of oppositionality" (2014, 121). To not do so--that is, to recognize only acts of opposition that are legible in terms of will, agency, voice, or volition--is to restrict the scope of resistance in ways that paradoxically underwrite and validate stereotypes of black passivity and subservience. Whereas most uplift literature at the turn of the century tended to produce positive narratives that sought to restore agency, dignity, and full humanity to black subjects, Chesnutt's grim tales make audible a wider range of opposition to oppression and objectification. It is precisely within the slave's presumed status "as property, will-less object, and the not-quite-human" that Chesnutt's characters formulate a bodily language of resistance (Hartman 1997, 61).

In his conjure tales, I have argued, Chesnutt shifts between participation in uplift endeavors and an implied critique of those same endeavors for the restricted scope of their resistance. Indeed, the tales adopt racial objectification as a trope--both fantastic and realistic--in order to reveal new forms of political struggle. This trope dramatizes the forms of domination against which black folk struggle, as well as the many forms of opposition to such domination--bodily, enfleshed, vocal, verbal, muted, and oblique. Reading Chesnutt's complex engagement with racial objectification thus demands a reassessment of the privileged position uplift ideology has given to voice and agency in its political struggles. In our contemporary moment, when we face constant and urgent injunctions to "speak up" and "speak out" against racial oppression, and in which silence is often interpreted as political indifference, it is all the more important to broaden our understanding of the modes of resistance available to us. Indeed, it is precisely, and paradoxically, by giving voice to the non-verbal, and by working through (rather than merely against) objectification, that Chesnutt elaborates his particular form of literary resistance to racial oppression at the turn of the century.


I would like to thank Divya Victor and the two anonymous readers for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this essay; Kevin Riordan and Andrew Santana Kaplan for helpful references along the way; and the participants and audience members of a panel organized by the Charles W. Chesnutt Association at the American Literature Association's 2016 meeting, at which a shorter version of this argument was presented.

(1) When I refer to Chesnutt's "conjure tales," I use the phrase to include all fourteen of his stories that feature the character and narrator Uncle Julius, a former slave who tells tales of plantation life to a white Northern couple, John and Annie. Though only ten of these tales feature acts of conjuration--"a specifically African American form of magic that has been practiced by blacks since colonial times" (Anderson 2005, ix)--critics have long considered the remaining four stories to be closely related. All fourteen stories are published in The Conjure Tales (Chesnutt 2012b), to which all further references are directed. Eight of these stories were originally published in magazines or journals during Chesnutt's lifetime, and seven were published in Chesnutt's first book, The Conjure Woman (1899). For a detailed publication history, see Stepto (2012).

(2) By "racial objectification," I mean the rhetorical or perceptual process, motivated by the presumption of racial difference, through which one comes to regard others--individual or en masse--as inhuman "things." See also Cassuto (1997,1-29).

(3) On Chesnutt and the "trickster" tradition, see Sundquist (1993, 271-539), Farwell (1994), and Montgomery (2010).

(4) See Judith Butler's The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997) and Saidiya V. Hartman's Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997).

(5) White Southern writers in the late nineteenth century used the image of the "hoodoo doctor" or conjurer to promulgate a romanticized vision of black dependency in the South, putting this aspect of black folk culture in tension with racial uplift ideology (Anderson 2005, 4-5).

(6) On the ontology of blackness, see Moten (2013) and Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1967).

(7) In this light, Chesnutt's tales of transformation and metamorphosis could be said to oppose the rigidity of stereotype. In his brief gloss on Chesnutt, Brown suggests that the conjure tales are about the ability of "the animate object-world tto} interrupt human action" (2006, 200). Chesnutt scholars frequently echo this sentiment, viewing "conjure" as a site of agency. Yet as I argue below, Chesnutt's tales critically reveal the continued processes of objectification and commodification, rather than using transformation to represent liberation.

(8) Other examples of the tendency to associate mobility with vitality, and stillness with death, can be found in Hortense Spillers's commentary on how the slave is perceived as the "essence of stillness" (1987, 78), and in Daphne Brooks's promise to restore "movement and history to individuals in the cultural margins" in order to contest what she calls "the tyranny of stillness" (2006, 6).

(9) Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, has criticized Chesnutt's more explicitly uplift-oriented fiction, especially The Marrow of Tradition, for the favorable view of racial assimilation implied in its classist overtones (e.g., a bourgeois black doctor's revulsion at a group of black farm workers) (2002, 59). "The black middle class wanted no subculture," he argues, "nothing that could connect them with the poor black man or the slave" (132). Chesnutt's conjure tales, however, focus on the black folk culture his later fiction tended to ignore.

(10) In a different essay, Chesnutt asserts that Thomas's book "denies the Negro intellect, character, and capacity for advancement" (1999b, 143-44).

(11) Hartman, for example, regards the "significance of conjuring as an articulation of envy and contestation within the slave community and not simply as an African 'survival'" (1997, 61).

(12) I use the harmful epithet "cripple" here to underscore the doubly objectified status of the slave's disabled body--the historical sense in which a slave's value was directly related to labor and ability. The personhood implied in contemporary phrasings that render dis/ability adjectival (e.g., a "disabled person," "person with a disability," "differently abled person") would belie the fact that personhood for all slaves was historically contested. See Boster (2013). Anderson notes that conjurers were frequently described as physically dis/abled, "misshapen," or ugly around the turn of the century to underscore their "physical as well as moral perversity" (2005,1).

(13) Well-known theoretical and scholarly engagements with this scene include Hartman (1997, 3-4, 47-48), Moten (2003, 1-24), Weheliye (2014, 91-97ff), and Christina Sharpe (2010, 1-26).

(14) It is worth noting that Moten's poetic phrasings are sometimes prone to the "romance of resistance" (Hartman 1997, 54), steeped as they are in the language of black radicalism. Thus his notion of an innate "freedom drive" in black performance seems to suppress Hartman's insights into the imbrication of everyday performance with disciplinary subjection, even as he elsewhere questions "the valorization of movement and process," seeking to "demythologize the durative, to debunk a certain set of transformational wishes" (Moten 2003, 12, 125-26).

(15) On the racial dynamics of the nineteenth-century kitchen, especially the hearth, see Tompkins (2012).

(16) Leonard Cassuto argues that complete human objectification is impossible: "the attempt to objectify is always fraught with unarticulated ambivalence, and this ambivalence guarantees that it cannot be completed" (1997, 16). "Humans just can't see other people as nonpersons for long," he claims: "the effort goes against our wiring for anthropomorphic perception" (17). While the perceptual dynamics of objectification may well be unstable, ambivalent, or temporary, rhetorical acts of objectification nevertheless retain a great deal of power--not least because they are often recorded, archived, transmitted, and remembered by history.

(17) For a discussion of some of the political ramifications of passivity and enfleshment, see Weheliye (2014, 113-34).

(18) Though Chesnutt does not use the phrase "laughing stock," his tales are alive to the semantic reach of such phrasings, which--like his stories--show how easily the violence of objectification can be rendered comical. To be a laughing stock is of course to be the target of derisive laughter, but the second word in the phrase also refers to sheer physical matter: to "what is lifeless, motionless, or void of sensation. Hence, a senseless or stupid person" (Oxford 2016). Stillness, death, and hyper-physicality--all of which resonate with the banal terror of slavery--are here connected to stupidity, a key component of comic stereotypes of blackness that legitimize slavery and its violence. More conventionally, "stock" can also mean goods or moveable property as well as livestock--including slaves--and a form of punishment to which slaves were subjected (i.e., stockades). The phrase as a whole also bears analogy to "whipping-stock": "a person who is frequently whipped," as well as the post (or "stock") to which he or she might be tied (Oxford 2016).

(19) Carpio also draws upon Bergson's theory of the comic (2008, 56), but while she emphasizes the social dynamics of laughter, my own focus is the trope of objectification.

(20) As Carpio notes, "The inanimate object has a strange agency: it haunts without actually doing anything.... literalizing not only the curse of Ham but also the haunting power of stereotypes" (2008, 60-61).

(21) Tompkins's Racial Indigestion (2012) provides a powerful account of the ways in which "the consumable black body will not go down easily but rather pushes back against the body that seeks to consume and thereby obliterate it" (11). Focusing on the "black mouth [as] a site of political intensity," Tompkins demonstrates how "speech, laughter, and eating are conjoined as tropes of black cultural presence and resistance" (9). "Even when compressed into objecthood," she argues, "black subjectivity does not, and will not, give itself up so easily" (92-93). As I demonstrate below, however, the black mouth can also use silence for its own ends, and the black body need not imply agency and subjectivity--at least, in its most recognizable form, as the speaking subject--in order to demonstrate resistance to enslavement.

(22) In its allusion to the idiomatic grapevine, Viney's name refers the act (gossiping) that arouses her master's wrath: she shares a damaging secret with his fiance. Her name also refers, like "The Goophered Grapevine," to the stereotypical view of African Americans as close to nature or "primitive"--a view promulgated in part by their supposedly inferior linguistic capabilities. The phrases John uses to describe Viney's mutilated speech bear out this prejudicial view; he describes the sound as "discordant jargon," "meaningless cacophony," "a flood of sounds that were not words," a language that could not be "of European origin," and so on (Chesnutt 2012b, 61).


Anderson, Jeffrey E. 2005. Conjure in African American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Andrews, William L. 1980. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

--. 2004. "An Introduction to the Slave Narrative." Documenting the American South, University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

Baker, Houston A., Jr. 1987. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bergson, Henri. 2005. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Bernstein, Robin. 2011. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. NYU Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. 2004. The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics Edition. New York: Routledge. EPUB edition.

Bogle, Donald. 1973. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Viking.

Boster, Dea. 2013. African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800-1860. New York: Routledge.

Brooks, Daphne A. 2006. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Brown, Bill. 2006. "Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny." Critical Inquiry 32.2:175-207.

Butler, Judith. 1997. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Carpio, Glenda R. 2008. Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cassuto, Leonard. 1997. The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chesnutt, Charles W. 1999a. "A Defamer of His Race." In Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Robert C. Lietz, III, and Jesse S. Crisler, 152-55. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

--. 1999b. "The White and the Black." In Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, edited by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Robert C. Lietz, III, and Jesse S. Crisler, 139-44. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

--. 2002. "The Doll." In Stories, Novels, and Essays, edited by Werner Sollors, 794-803. New York: Library of America.

--. 2012a. The Marrow of Tradition. Edited by Werner Sollors. New York: Norton.

--. 2012b. The Conjure Stories. Edited by Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson. New York: Norton.

--. 2012c. "Superstitions and Folk-lore of the South." In The Conjure Stories, edited by Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, 199-205. New York: Norton.

Denard, Carolyn. 2013. '"Some to Hold, Some to Tell': Secrets and the Trope of Silence in Love." In Toni Morrison: Paradise, Love, A Mercy, edited by Lucille P. Fultz, 77-91. New York: Bloomsbury

Douglass, Frederick. 2004. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Modern Library.

Ewen, Elizabeth, and Stuart Ewen. 2006. Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality. New York: Seven Stories.

Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press.

Farwell, Julia B. 1994. "Goophering Around: Authority and the Trick of Storytelling in Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman" In Trick-sterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective, edited by Elizabeth Ammons and Annette White Parks, 79-92. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Fleissner, Jennifer L. 2010. "Earth-Eating, Addiction, Nostalgia: Charles Chesnutt's Diasporic Regionalism." Studies in Romanticism 49.2: 313-36.

Gaines, Kevin. 1996. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Goings, Kenneth W. 1994. Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Harper, Douglas. 2016. Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymonline.

Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hemenway, Robert. 1976. "The Functions of Folklore in Charles Chesnutt's 'The Conjure Woman.'" Journal of the Folklore Institute 13.3: 283-309.

Jones, LeRoi. 2002. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Harper.

Lam, Joshua. 2016. "Uncanny Compulsions: Automatism, Trauma, and Memory in Of One Blood" Callaloo 39.2: 473-92.

Madison, D. Soyini. 2014. "Foreword." In Black Performance Theory, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzales, vii-ix. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Montgomery, Georgene Bess. 2010. "Testing and Tricking: Elegba in Charles Chesnutt's 'The Goophered Grapevine' and 'The Passing of Grandison.'" Studies in the Literary Imagination 43.2: 5-14.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

--. 2013. "Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)." South Atlantic Quarterly 112.4: 737-80.

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Oxford University Press, "stock, n.i and adj." OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press.

Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schaffer, Donald M., Jr. 2012. "African American Folklore as Racial Project in Charles W. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman" Western Journal of Black Studies 36.4: 325-36.

Seshadri, Kalpana Rahita. 2012. HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2010. Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sollors, Werner. 2012. "Reason, Property, and Modern Metamorphoses." In The Conjure Stories, edited by Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, 291-96. New York: Norton.

Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics 17.2: 65-81.

Stepto, Robert B. 2012. "Introduction." In The Conjure Stories, edited by Robert B. Stepto and Jennifer Rae Greeson, vii-xxvii. New York: Norton.

Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma. 2005. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sundquist, Eric J. 1993. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Michelle. 2009. "Geographies of Freedom: Race, Mobility, and Uplift in Charles W. Chesnutt's Northern Writing." In Charles Chesnutt Reappraised: Essays on the First Major African American Fiction Writer, edited by David Garrett Izzo and Maria Orban, 202-13. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Thomas, William Hannibal. 1901. The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become, A Critical and Practical Discussion. New York: Macmillan. In Documenting the American South. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. 2012. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. New York: NYU Press.

Trodd, Zoe. 2009. "Vanished Past and Vanishing Point: Charles W Chesnutt's Short Stories and the Problem of American Historical Memory." In Charles Chesnutt Reappraised: Essays on the First Major African American Fiction Writer, edited by David Garrett Izzo and Maria Orban, 120-30. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

West, Elizabeth J. 2010. "Memory, Ancestors, and Activism/Resistance in Charles Chesnutt's Uncle Julius." Studies in the Literary Imagination 43.2: 31-45.

Wonham, Henry B. 1997/1998. '"The Curious Psychological Spectacle of a Mind Enslaved': Charles W. Chesnutt and Dialect Fiction." Mississippi Quarterly 51.1: 55-69.

Young, Harvey. 2010. Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

JOSHUA LAM is Assistant Professor of English and Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. His current book project, "Creatures of Habit," focuses on race, technology, and the human sciences in literary and cultural modernity. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Callaloo, William James Studies, and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lam, Joshua
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2018
Previous Article:BOOKS RECEIVED.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |