John’s misreadings of Julius’ tales are not impediments to clear perception on the part of the discerning reader, however, because Chesnutt offers other clues in how to correctly interpret the tales.
The constant, conscious framing device Chesnutt utilizes–that of a white narrator being the only even elementary gateway to the voice of a racial “other”–only underscores the perilousness of trusting wholly in John’s perceptions, and in the plantation-dialect audience’s reliance on white narrators as a genre. Chesnutt’s structuring of the tales in this way immediately poses questions about the reliability of a white narrator in authentically communicating the nuances of the African-American experience. However, perhaps the biggest tool Chesnutt has in enlightening readers to the antiracist essence of The Conjure Woman is the character of John’s wife, Annie, whose primary–in fact, exclusive–role throughout the narrative is to respond to Julius’ stories as an audience member. Annie’s responses to the conjure tales differ remarkably from John’s, with her reactions forming the basis for a new set of possibilities in how to respond to authentic depictions of the African-American experience. Annie’s function in presenting another way of seeing–and reacting to–the instances of injustice in the conjure tales becomes especially apparent in the tale of “Po’ Sandy.” In the frame tale John describes Annie as “a woman with a sympathetic turn of mind,” who “who takes a deep interest in the stories of plantation life which she hears from the lips of the older colored people” (46). The tale of “Po’ Sandy”, like “The Goophered Grapevine,” is deeply concerned with white use of plantation resources–both human and tangible–for profit, again at the expense of the African-American slaves.
The slave Sandy, weary and hoping for a reprieve from his endless hopping from the households of his master’s children, requests that his wife turn him into a pine tree to escape this perpetual cycle of movement. The master thereafter turns Sandy into lumber for a new kitchen outbuilding, leading to his wife to go insane with despair. The tale heartbreakingly illustrates the horrible consequences of the total lack of freedom and home stability inflicted upon people who lack the rights to their own bodies. As a main figure of the plantation fictionist’s verbal audience in The Conjure Woman, Annie demonstrates a much more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the tales than does her husband.
The “Po’ Sandy” story underscores the cyclical nature of the institution of slavery, as John seeks to reappropriate the lumber, or body, of Sandy in order to build–at Annie’s request, a new kitchen building–thus both literally and figuratively extending the original abuse of Sandy. Annie, who listened to Julius “with strained attention” over the course of the tale (53), eventually exclaims: “What a system it was…
under which such things were possible!” (56). While John remains skeptical to Julius over the course of the story, Annie’s moved reaction to his narration indicates the possibility of an expanded range of awareness from the white audience Chesnutt was hoping to reach with The Conjure Woman, in addition to some degree of recognition of the system of white oppression itself. Meanwhile, In “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” for example, Julius’s tale of a baby separated from his slave mother through their master’s trading of horses plays on the full range of culturally ingrained and expected womanly values to insure Annie’s emotional participation in the tale. For the perpetually ill Annie, a tale of restored motherhood would likely resonate with her on multiple levels–not only on the level of broad cultural values, as motherhood would have been expected of her, but also in fulfilling her own personal desires.
The tale, which elicits from John only occasional objections to its elements of the supernatural, leads Annie to acknowledge the humanity and emotional truth within the more “ornamental details” (92) of conjure tales: “The story is true to nature, and might have happened half a hundred times, and no doubt did happen, in those horrid days before the war” (92). Annie’s response demonstrates that once again Julius has attained a victory in utilizing fiction to marshal his listener’s sympathies toward African Americans. The tale underscores, however, the extent to which Annie’s responses depend upon the degree to which her own education and arena of personal experience align with the content of Julius’ tales. The emotional resonance of a story like “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny” for a childless white woman of the era is expected, requiring little to no expansion of her pre-existing sympathies. Given Chesnutt’s intended audience, many of whom would have been Northern, likely Protestant white women like Annie, however, this indicates that The Conjure Woman had a unique capability to align with domestic and womanly mores of the time period, heightening the tale’s effectiveness and engendering empathy in the reader. Julius’ tales prove to be largely effective in spurring his audience (John and Annie) to reflection. His success in reaching his listeners, however, is an elusive victory: while Julius’ tales seem to encourage his audience to recognize themselves in the lives of the African-American protagonists, they don’t do much beyond that to expand their own sense of identity by introducing the reader to lesser known aspects of African-American culture–those aspects which necessitated literature as a bridge to understanding in the first place.
While Julius, as a stand-in for Chesnutt, seems satisfied that his tale should have a positive impact on the lives of John and Annie, his visible listeners, the inner storyline’s success in spurring its listeners to personal transformation could be restrained by deep-seated racist attitudes which the tales, through no fault of their own, lack the scope to alter..