African-American Conjure Tales - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

African-American Conjure Tales
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

Conjure tales first emerged among the African-American population of the pre-Civil War United States. Conjure tales, as their name suggests, focus on conjurers. (See DICTIONARY: Conjure, Conjurer, Hoodoo.)

What is fascinating about this genre from a witchcraft perspective is its lack of sensationalism and moralizing: conjurers are presented as a fact of life.

Image Both conjure women and men appear.

Image Conjurers are heroes and villains of this genre. Some behave malevolently and selfishly and abuse their power; others however are heroic, righteous, and valiant and serve justice.

Image Some conjurers are enslaved; others are explicitly identified as free black people.

Image Conjurers serve both an African-American clientele and a white one.

Magical practices are described matter-of-factly with little hocus-pocus. Conjurers are paid professionals: stories tell exactly what was bartered or how much the conjurer earned. (Important information for those seeking these services.) If a job is strenuous, the conjurer may reject the first offer of payment to request more. Conjurers are skilled practitioners with a sense of their own worth. Significantly, conjurers are shown serving their community, often providing the only venue for justice or safety.

Conjure tales were originally part of an oral tradition. In their written form, they are now most associated with lawyer and educator, Charles W. Chesnutt (1858—November 15, 1932), who collected and embellished them and, like Hans Christian Andersen, also created original stories within the genre. His first published story, The Goophered Grapevine, appeared in Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1887.

Goopher, now most frequently spelled goofer, derives from a Kikongo word indicating “killing curse.”

A collection of conjure stories, The Conjure Woman, followed in 1899. Chesnutt retells the stories via the interplay of two narrators, Uncle Julius, a former slave on the McAdoo plantation and John, the Northern man who purchases the old estate, ultimately employing Julius as his coachman. (See MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Coachmen.) Julius relates his conjure tales to John and John’s ailing wife; his speech is rendered in the African-American dialect of North Carolina.

Chesnutt treats conjurers and their clients with respect, not mockery or condescension. Conjurers are mentioned by name, especially Aunt Peggy, described as a “witch” as well as a conjure woman. His stories are set on the pre-Civil War plantations of North Carolina. Unlike other writers of his time or later, he does not gloss over the bitter realities of slavery.

In The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt (Haunt), Dan, a slave, loves his wife profoundly. Another man makes unwelcome advances toward her; she complains to her husband. Dan approaches the other man and a fight ensues. Without warning, the other man draws a knife; Dan, a large, strong man, hits him before the knife can be used but he hits him too hard, inadvertently killing him. There are no witnesses and, as the narrative points out, because the victim is a free black man, the local white authorities—the only legal authority—have no interest in prosecuting his murder or discovering his murderer. (The point of prosecution wouldn’t have been justice but economic compensation for a slave-owner, the equivalent of loss of property-value. Since the victim is free, this isn’t an issue. No one in a position to provide legal justice cares.)

It would seem that Dan could safely and secretly walk away from this crime, except for one thing: the dead man is the son of a local conjurer whose only course of justice for his son is magical. The stories make clear that when conjurers work their roots, all is revealed and so Dan, well aware of his victim’s identity, has no doubt that he will be the target of vengeance.

Terrified, Dan goes to a competing conjurer, Aunt Peggy, and begs for help. Unable to directly counteract the other more experienced conjurer she offers Dan a “life charm” for protection, crafting it from Dan’s hair, roots, herbs, and red flannel and receiving a piglet as payment for her efforts.

The victim’s father does uncover Dan’s identity but, realizing a counter-charm has been worked, he sends his animal allies to uncover it. In this epic tragedy, the conjure man gets his revenge by tricking Dan into killing his own beloved wife, the innocent woman whose beauty sparked the initial quarrel. Dan in turn kills the conjure man: both have avenged the respective deaths of their loved ones. Aunt Peggy alone survives to appear in other tales.

Conjuring is depicted as pre-Christian or as something forbidden by Christianity. However in Chesnutt’s renditions, conjuring is not intrinsically bad or evil. In Poor Sandy, Tenie is a conjure woman who hasn’t practiced in 15 years since she became Christian. When she reveals her identity and skills to her new husband, he is impressed, not horrified.

Charles W. Chesnutt’s stories are reprinted in their original form in The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (Duke University Press, 1993). Conjure Tales (E.P. Dutton, 1973) features the stories revised as thrillers for children. Narrators and the sub-plots attached to them are deleted, as are the dialect and loop-holes allowing readers the option of not believing the tales. However, the harsh realities of slavery (forced separation of families is a major theme) are retained.

In Chesnutt’s tales, conjuring is not reserved for slaves, the uneducated or African-Americans. You don’t have to “believe” in it for it to work. Although white people are depicted professing not to believe in conjure, Chesnutt makes clear that many of them do and that their slaves are well aware of this. White people, including plantation owners, hire conjurers too. Sometimes conjurers cast spells for these owners that do not benefit their own community. In The Goophered Grapevine, Aunt Peggy is hired (and paid ten dollars cash, a significant sum) by a slavemaster to goopher or fatally curse his scuppernong grapevines so that his slaves can’t nibble on the harvest.

See ANIMALS: Allies; BOTANICALS: Roots; DICTIONARY: Root Doctor.