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  • Black Objects:Animation and Objectification in Charles Chesnutt's Conjure Tales
  • Joshua Lam (bio)

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 [End Page 369] 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, 256n1), 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 [End Page 370] 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...


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