The Goophered Grapevine by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1899

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by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, 1899

Charles Waddell Chesnutt's story "The Goophered Grapevine" is a complex response to the difficult situation of African American writers at the beginning of the twentieth century. It adapts the folk practice of "masking" to counteract the racial stereotypes held by its predominantly white audience. Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly (1887), "The Goophered Grapevine" was reprinted as the first story in Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, a collection that both resembles and questions the so-called plantation tales popularized by Joel Chandler Harris.

Like Harris, Chesnutt structures his story around a tale told to white listeners by an old black man. Seemingly childlike and devoted to his white employers, Chesnutt's Uncle Julius McAdoo shares numerous characteristics with Harris's Uncle Remus. He fulfills the visual stereotype of the "happy darky"; he first appears "smacking his lips with great gusto" over a pile of grapes and later smacks his lips and rolls his eyes. Meanwhile, his supernaturally tinged dialect stories delight an audience conditioned by the racial images popularized in minstrel shows. Echoing the stereotypical association of blacks with nature rather than culture, Chesnutt pictures the haunted ("goophered") slave Henry as an extension of the grapevine. Chesnutt remains highly conscious of the preconceptions of his white audience, represented in the story of John and Annie, white Northerners who eventually decide to purchase the old plantation where Julius lives.

Chesnutt's contemporary readers seem to have accepted the story at face value, reading it as support for the belief that, despite occasional abuses, Southern paternalism and the institution of slavery were beneficial to both whites and blacks. Chesnutt's decision to abandon the Uncle Julius stories in favor of more direct political commentary during the 1890s, and to stop writing fiction at all between 1905 and his death in 1932, suggests a tormented awareness that, like Julius, he was being perceived almost entirely in stereotypical terms.

Nonetheless, a careful reading of "The Goophered Grapevine" reveals numerous ambiguities and complexities in Uncle Julius and his creator. Both structurally and rhetorically, the story subverts many of the conventions and beliefs it was originally understood to support. Writing during the period when segregation was beginning to dominate racial relations in the United States, Chesnutt challenges the system in several ways. Assuming the authority of the white voice, Chesnutt presents the frame story from the perspective of the hardheaded white businessman John, who views all art as inferior to commerce. In addition, Chesnutt explicitly alerts readers to the story's ironic dimensions. The setting is "a quaint old town, which I shall call Patesville, because, for one reason, that is not its name." Although John accepts the racist belief attributing intelligence solely to "white blood," his description of Julius warns that the story is not as simple as it appears, "There was a shrewdness in his eyes, too, which was not altogether African."

Julius's shrewdness operates on several levels. William Andrews's book The Literary Career of Charles Chesnutt alerted readers to the complexity of Julius's economic motivation. Early readers seem to have believed that Julius tells the story of the haunted vineyard to "scare off" John and Annie, thereby maintaining control of the grape harvest for himself. It seems more realistic, however, to credit Julius, a black man living in the post-Reconstruction era, with an awareness that his economic control cannot continue indefinitely. Rather than the simplistic greed John sees as its motive, the tale advertises the desirability of the vineyard, which is presented as a source of high profits, and of black workers such as Julius. In fact, for John the images of the white master, whose profits accrue almost entirely from the black man Henry, and the Yankee owner, whose ignorance of local conditions nearly destroys the plantation's profitability, make buying the plantation more appealing, thereby keeping it out of the hands of Southern whites, who are associated in the story with violence against blacks.

On another level Julius educates Annie, the relatively sympathetic white woman, about the evils of slavery. Repeatedly invoking the phrase "befo' de wah"—a standard element of traditional defenses of slavery—Julius embeds a subversive image of slavery in the midst of his tale. Although Julius avoids direct political commentary, he counteracts the stereotype of benevolent white masters and lavish feasts with matter-of-fact observations concerning the reality of black suffering, "Befo' de wah, in slab'ry times, a nigger did n' mine goin' fi' er ten mile in a night, w'en dey wuz sump'n good ter eat at de yuther enn."' He subsequently provides an understated warning concerning the possibility of black violence. Although he claims ignorance—"I dunner how it happen"—his description of the shooting of slave master Douglas McAdoo contradicts the stereotypical image of passive, happy slaves.

On its most complex level "The Goophered Grapevine" can be read as Chesnutt's meditation on the role of the African American artist. Both Chesnutt and Julius attract audiences by playing off stereotypes they know to be destructive. Both understand that the same story can transmit different messages to different listeners. Purely entertainment for John, Julius's story educates Annie in order to enlist her as an ally. Like the Northern white women who formed a core audience for abolitionist literature, Annie understands Julius's basic points concerning the human destructiveness of slavery. In other stories in The Conjure Woman she uses her influence to temper John's purely economic responses. Yet Julius's success, like Chesnutt's, is limited. He finds work, and he corrects some fundamental, and relatively obvious, misconceptions in some of his white listeners. But Annie neither alters the oppressive system nor accepts blacks as equals. Nonetheless, "The Goophered Grapevine" has played a major role in African American literary history by providing a model of the dilemma of the black artist writing in a world that has consistently underestimated black writers and the richness of the African American cultural tradition.

—Craig Hansen Werner