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Literature of the American Negro


The time seems to be at hand when the literature of the American Negro may begin to be criticized on its merits and from the same standpoint as other literature, without preluding an apology. Indeed, reading such stories as Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt has given in "That Conjure Woman" (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), one might feel convinced that this time is already here, were it not for the fact that Mr. Chesnutt is far from being free from white ancestry. Nevertheless, whatever part in his literary ability may be due to his Caucasian forebears, it seems certain that he could never have written these stories had he not possessed a generous strain of negro blood. The style may be the style of a white man, but the atmosphere is unmistakably African. The stories are cleverly told tales of negro superstition, of "gopher" or Ethiopian black-art, blending homely wit and humor with simple pathos, free from any trace of mawkishness, in such just measure that a tear of laughter and one of sympathy may often meet in the reader's eye.

A thread of connection runs through most of the stories in the necromancies of old Aunt Peggy, the "conjure woman." She bewitches grapevines to protect them against the depredations of the owner's slaves; she it is who changes the little pickaninny, pining for the mother sold into distant slavery, into a humming-bird, that he may fly to the far-away plantation and feast his eyes upon her, while she hears in his humming the crooning of her baby, and feels her heart soften and gains strength to endure her labor until the conjure woman brings about her reconveyance to the home plantation and her baby. She even "wuks her roots" to "gopher" the cruel master into a slave, that he may feel the taste of his overseer's lash; and all these wonder stories are told with the plausibility that is the necessary feature of good folk-lore. The relater of all these tales is Julius, an old negro coachman, who in the denouements is apt to permit a suspicion that the tale has not been told without motive. They give a picture of Negro life which is altogether delightful and decidedly original, and which certainly does not fall far short of being real literature.

The author is a resident of Cleveland, where he is said to fill competently an important and quite lucrative position as court stenographer. He has another volume of stories in preparation, which will be issued by the same publishers, and is to contribute this fall the life of Frederick Douglass to Small, Maynard & Co.'s series of Beacon Biographies.