- In Search of Sunken Graves:Between Postslavery and Postplantation in Charles Chesnutt’s Fiction
In his 1906 essay “Age of Problems,” the African American writer Charles Chesnutt offered his view on the equality outlined in the Declaration of Independence: “the right to share fairly and equally in the use of the earth, which is our common mother, our common inheritance, our common grave” (240). Chesnutt’s linking of inheritance and maternity, earth and grave, is crucial to his conception of place and identity in postbellum America. Here, Chesnutt consolidates, and condenses into a single phrase, many of the concerns which he had written into his fiction of the past two decades. In particular, the seemingly casual concluding reference to death takes on considerable significance when read alongside the persistent interest in gravesites and burial practices discernible in Chesnutt’s writing.
More than dying or funeral practices, it is the physical site of burial—amid structured landscape, or within unstructured wilderness—which preoccupies Chesnutt. The grave in his writing constitutes a profound focus of communal identity, past and present. In the short story “The Bouquet” (1899) and the novel The Colonel’s Dream (1905), Chesnutt explores formal gravesites as fields of conflict, points at which the color line becomes most forcefully affirmed, even violently reasserted. In contrast, burial sites in his plantation stories assert greater possibilities for black empowerment and affirmation, in spite of—or perhaps because of—their proximity to the plantation landscape. The gravesites in “Aunt Mimy’s Son” (1900), “Lonesome Ben” (1900), and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” from The Conjure Woman (1899) articulate powerful senses of cultural roots and memory, and offer a potentially subversive engagement with both natural and plantation environments. This is particularly the case in the latter two stories, where the sites of burial are [End Page 87] unmarked, their locations only approximate. Yet, these sites too are centers of conflict: the fragile racial empowerment they offer is couched within a larger struggle for physical, cultural, and narrative possession of landscape and history in the postbellum South.
Gravesites are, in a sense, portals. “As tangible objects linking the past and present,” Andrew Denson argues, “graves work on the living, compelling them to try to make sense of the dead” (251). More than the aura of death, it is the physical presence of the dead which provokes response; as Denson writes, “landscape visibly marked by the dead demands interpretation from the living” (272). Denson’s reading of the layered significance of Cherokee memorials across the Southern landscape of the Trail of Tears focuses on the narrative capacity of gravesites and memorials, in particular their capacity to “contain collected memories, rather than express a single collective memory” (263), and to “hold those memories in tension” (273). The same tensions—of displacement and rootedness, of remembrance and ambivalence—are present within African American gravesites too, with the added painfulness that they are often located within a specific site of oppression: the plantation. In Chesnutt’s stories, black Southerners such as Julius McAdoo and Jemima Belfontaine must negotiate the dual heritage of the plantation as both the site of enslavement and the place of community and buried ancestors: the roots that bind intermingling with the roots that sustain. However, their negotiation is complicated by the ephemeral nature of much of that heritage: specifically, by the absences and loss of traces which trouble the remembrance of slavery and the black Southern past.
Desirée Henderson argues that, precisely because so many slave cemeteries are “lost spaces,” they offer all the more eloquent memorials to the loss, marginalization, and denial of humanity and subjectivity suffered by the enslaved (70). The absence of markers makes such graves less contained within the ordered landscape of the plantation, and also less subject to the material transformation of those landscapes which followed the end of slavery. However, although they are invulnerable to physical erasure, such sites are nonetheless vulnerable to passing from memory. In this, they poignantly articulate—and attempt to resolve—a dilemma which George Handley has termed “the New World poetics of oblivion”: the expression of “not what is remembered but what is forgotten and therefore unsayable” (“Poetics...