Skip to main content

"The Conjure Woman"

"The Conjure Woman"

In all primitive stages women are the physicians who have acknowledged skill in gathering herbs and preparing salves and decoctions for the treatment of illness and wounds, and are looked upon as mysterious beings who even have power over invisible forces, and who can suspend or control the workings of nature; for by means of their incantations they pretend to work miracles. It is a long step from such enchantresses as Medea and Circe to the African and Creole voodoo women, yet the connection is obvious.

On reading this book which we have before us, it is more interesting and instructive if we put aside all questions regarding slavery, as once existed in the United States, and look upon the seven short tales united under this attractive title as a contribution to the folklore of the country.

Mr. Chesnutt, who shows an intimate knowledge of the superstitions, weaknesses and character of the negro, gives us in a delightfully natural dialect a number of curious and whimsical stories, supposedly told to a man and his wife, who have recently moved to North Carolina, by an old negro Julius, who knows all the gossip of the county. The conjure woman appears in every story, and neither are her performances nor her capacities nor the belief in her powers exaggerated. "Aunt" Peggy appears in several of the tales, moving about mysteriously to "goopher" i.e., bewitch or conjure or throw a spell upon--grape vines, animals or people. Some idea of her performances may be gathered from the following:

"She sa'ntered 'roun' 'mongs' de vines en tuk a leaf fum dis one, en a grape hull fum dat one, en a grape seed fum anudder one; en den a little twig fum here, en a little pinch er dirt fum dere--en put it all in a big black bottle, wid a snake's toof en a speckle hen's gall, en some ha'rs fum a black cat's tail, en den fill de bottle wid scuppernon' wine. W'en she got de goopher all ready en' fix, she tuk'n went out in de woods en buried it under the root uv a red oak tree, en den came back en tole one er der niggers she done goopher de grapevines, en a'er a nigger w'at eat de grapes 'ud be sho' ter die inside'n twel' mont's. Atter dat de niggers let de scuppernon's 'lone."

As "Aunt" Peggy was capable of making "goopher" mixtures, like powders, to put into people's food, of conjuring sweet potatoes and other things that would work charms, of divination by means of roots and herbs and bottles containing various infallible decoctions, it is not to be wondered at that she was greatly feared and admired by the entire dark-skinned community.

Of all the stories we prefer "The Goophered Grapevine," and "The Conjurer's Revenge": for they exhibit more particularly the peculiar African imagination, which is capricious, unique and fantastic without being, in any sense, poetic. Take for example, the story of the club-footed nigger, who was once a mule, in the last mentioned story. It is entirely African in its conception and treatment, especially in its conclusion where the dying conjurer invites the mule into his shanty, and, by means of the bottles, gourds and roots, turns the animal back into his natural state, but dies before he finishes his last hoof.

In no sense can these stories be compared to the Uncle Remus tales, for those marvelous creations belong to the beast lore of all nations, and the natural instincts of men are reflected in the "creatures." This book, on the contrary, is very limited, and not, like Mr. Harris's work, artistic. It does, however, contribute something from a field as yet untitled.