Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a bestseller in the US and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2017), a National Book Award (2016), longlisted for the Booker Prize and at least 12 other awards. It has been very widely read. I picked it up at a book sale recently and decided to read it during February for Black History Month (US).

What Was The Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the American South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War and by 1840 it had become part of the American vernacular.

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber

People referred to as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations” “safe houses” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”

Many slaves headed for Canada because it offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.

Review

Fugitive Slave Acts 1793 bounty huntersCora is an African slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia and within the first few pages we learn of her grandmother’s death while working in the fields and not long after this, her mother Mabel’s disappearance, a runaway.

When Mabel vanished Cora became a stray. Eleven years old, ten years, thereabouts – there was no one now to tell for sure.

The only thing Cora inherited was a small garden plot and she had to fight to retain it, as others had ideas. Her lack of protection also resulted in her being sent to live in a hut with fellow outcasts.

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Three weeks later she said yes.

The novel explores the difficult conditions the slaves live under, including the significant difference between slave masters who are brothers. When the running of the plantation changes and life becomes even more unbearable, Cora decides to make her attempt, no matter the consequences.

From the moment of their decision onward, the tension ramps up, as the whole time they are on the run, they are being pursued, in particular by one slave-catcher, who has turned Cora into a personal vendetta, on account of his not being able to find her mother.

No one knows what happens to Mabel and far from inspiring her daughter, Cora is driven by anger at having been left. And so they enter the underground railroad system.

The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built that thing had received their proper reward.

Colson writes of the underground railway, as if it is a physical entity, only this is a means of transporting people who are oppressed, vilified, maltreated and scorned by the mostly white population. While others travel by train above ground and see the beauty of a landscape, this route takes them into a damp, dark, unwelcoming labyrinth with no guarantee of safe passage.

At various stops, they enter new territory, sometimes staying a while, other times going into hiding, always fearful of capture.

“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before your final stop.”

It’s not an easy read and a sense of unease stays with the reader throughout. There are moments of horror, of confusion, flickers of hope, of disappointment, exhaustion, disgust. Perseverance. Belief.

He told her that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.

She didn’t believe what he said about justice, but it was nice to hear him say it.

The she woke up the next morning and she felt better, and had to admit that she did believe it, maybe just a little.

I appreciated the novel and understand its popularity, I think my enjoyment of it was affected by the horror and also because I read a number of other excellent slave narratives in February by women, whose way of storytelling relies less on the horrors and violence and more on the varying perspectives of characters, stories that are thought provoking and have stayed with me like Toni Morrison’s brilliant A Mercy and Tammye Huf’s A More Perfect Union both of which I highly recommend.