The treatment and portrayal of blacks in America has been a long-term discussion in society. The discussion goes back nearly two centuries, and is still seen as the elephant in the room in which everyone pretends is not there. While it is important to realize that we will never know all of the true accounts of slavery, it is still vital that present day society is able to understand the people and events that took place during this time. Slavery was a very impactful time for blacks and whites, however, things would have an even larger impact after the civil war. It was during this time in America that blacks were transitioning from slavery to freedom. Although they were trying to find their place in society, racism and stereotypes always remained an underlying factor in the friction that made transitioning so difficult. The accounts and history of blacks during the post-Civil war era that is taught in the school systems, along with the photos in museums, and the passed down stories and secrets only show a part of this horrific time in history (Foner, 2010).
One way that society has worked to better understand this troubling time in history is through literature. Many English writers and poets have used several techniques to describe the lives of black Americans during the post-civil war era. Post-bellum American culture often found ways to hide the terrible past of slavery. Often times, slavery was spoken of and written about in a positive light as if the slaves had chosen to stay in these harsh conditions. Authors such as Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt provide an example of how blacks were portrayed and perceived during the post-Civil war era. The short stories “The Goopered Grapevine” and “A True Story: Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” are just two examples of literature written during this time that encompasses how black Americans were depicted during their time of transition. There are similarities and differences of the portrayal of former slaves in subjects such as: how are African American slaves were portrayed through writing of the past, the importance of portraying the “perfect plantation”, and how slaves portray the forgiving spirit of the slave past that caused them so much hurt.
In Twain’s “A True Story” he writes about the narrative of a 60-year-old colored servant who recalls the hardships of being an enslaved black woman. “Misto C—-” is the other character in the story whom Aunt Rachel is explaining the series of event to. Initially, Misto C—-, who is the narrator, believed that Aunt Rachel lived an easy and plentiful life being that she was older and always cheerful. However, his prejudice was quite wrong. In explaining her story, Aunt Rachel discussed the time that all seven of her children and her husband were sold in a slave auction. Every time that one of her children or her husband were taken away to be sold, she would cry out in agony. Her pain and sorrow were followed by no remorse, as she was beaten and told to be quiet.
Despite experiencing this life altering event, Aunt Rachel was still required to fulfill her duties as a slave. The other whites that she was surrounded by showed no remorse as she grieved. Years later, Aunt Rachel was working at a Union Army post during the civil war. It was during this time that she was reunited with her youngest child, Henry, who was a soldier fighting in the war. Earlier in the story when Aunt Rachel was discussing the heart wrenching story that changed her outlook on life forever, she described the moment that she told her youngest child, Henry, that he would escape, and they would be together again. The reuniting of aunt Rachel and her son are believed to be a joyous one, being that Henry would bring Aunt Rachel a joy that she had not felt it years. However, Aunt Rachel seemed indifferent to meeting Henry, as if she had built some sort of wall up to hide her emotions. At the end of the short story, Aunt Rachael says, “Oh, no, Misto C—-, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!”. By making herself numb over the years to deal with her loss, Aunt Rachel figured out a way to live through a society that only saw her as a human or a person when she was needed or useful (Aftunion, 2014).
This short story written by Twain gives a more in depth outlook on how the women whom were slaves were expected to continue on with their lives even after being separated from their children. Aunt Rachel had no choice but to remain uplifted as she never expected to see her children again once they were ripped from her arms. Twain provides the audience with evidence of the mistreatment of black Americans as he describes in detail the auction that took place for the purchase of Aunt Rachel’s family. Often times, the details surrounding slave auctions are left out when authors write about slavery times to ensure that the “perfect plantation” idea and theory is not taunted. Instead of skipping over this life changing moment for Aunt Rachel, Twain provides us with detail of the dark agony she experienced. These explicit details allow for the audience to understand and visualize the covered-up pain Aunt Rachel is trying to describe to “Misto C—–“.
Charles Chesnutt, the author of “The Goophered Grapevine” was a black author and political activist best known for his novels and short stories that explore the complexity of racial issues and social identity during the post-Civil War era in the South. In his short story “The Goophered Grapevine” Chesnutt encompasses the effects that ruined plantations had on slaves during the transition from slavery to post-Civil War. Taking place in North Carolina, the story
begins with the narrator buying land from a former slave. The plantation was once used for the intent of growing grape vineyards so the owner of the land could make profits from selling wine. However, the land was ruined overtime as there were not enough workers to tend to the land.
The former slave, Julius McAdoo, is the first to encounter John, the purchaser, as they viewed the land to consider buying it. McAdoo was eating some of the grapes from the land when he was approached by the couple. In questioning the condition and history of the land, McAdoo gave the story of Aunt Peggy, a “goopher,” and Henry the slave. McAdoo begin the story by explaining that the land was once used to grow grape vineyards to make into wine. The plantation slaves and the slaves from surrounding plantations would eat the grapes, lowering the amount of profit that could be made from wine. In an effort to “save the plantation,” the owner paid $10 to Aunt Peggy, a free black woman who was known as a witch. Aunt Peggy prepared a concoction that would leave a spell on the grape plantation. If any of the slaves ate the grapes, Aunt Peggy promised that they would be dead in within a year. Realizing that the goopher worked as expected, Mars Dugal’ McAdoo, the land owner, went on to grow grapevines and sell wine in great profits.
Henry, the slave that Chesnutt introduces, plays an important role in the short story as he provides the audience with another look at the mistreatment of black Americans post-Civil War. As Henry wondered onto McAdoo’s land from a nearby plantation, none of the current slaves told him about the goophered grapes in the frenzy of having an escaped slave on their plantation. It was not until Henry had ate the grapes that he was told about the goopher. After Aunt Peggy lifted the goopher, Henry was able to eat the grapes.
Henry was fine up until the next spring when the grapes began to form. Henry grew stronger and faster. He became more youthful and grew a head full of hair that was long and curly. However, when the harvest was over, and the grapevines began to wither, so did Henry. He would become weak and all of his hair would fall out, not being able to come with the same energy that he had in the spring and summer. When the spring came back around, Henry would get strong again and would thrive throughout the summer with his downfall beginning at the end of harvest.
Mars Dugal’ decided to profit off of Henry by selling him in different counties at the beginning of spring for $1,500 and buying him back for $500 when he was withered in the winter. For five years, Mars Dugal was able to make profit from Henry and wine. Eventually, once the last of the grapevines died, so did Henry. It took three years for the vineyards to produce again, but by the time Mars Dugal’ was able to reap a decent crop, the Civil War broke out and he went off to fight. Julius McAdoo stayed on the land for years after the death, being the one to tell John and his wife the story. Once ending the tale, Julius warned John that the land may still have the “goopher” on it in an attempt to get him not to buy the plantation. Despite the warning, John and Annie bought the land, and it was found that Julius was living on the plantation and was making a small profit from the vineyards that were still usable on the field.
Chesnutt provides his audience with various themes surrounding money and finances throughout this short story. It is evident that the only importance that the slaves had was to make money for the plantation. No one was concerned with their well-being as shown in the selling and buying back of the slave, Henry. Henry was only needed during his prime time, or when he was strong and thriving. This short story also points to the idea of the slaves being stuck in the situation in which they were born, brought, or bought into. This is evident as Julius still lives and thrives off the plantation which caused most slaves so much pain. Julius is deciding to stick to what he knows instead of moving away from the pain of the past. Most slaves were in this same situation after the war. They did not have enough knowledge to understand what it truly meant to be free, and just as Julius did, they would protect what they had, even if they had to make up a tale to keep what they considered to be their own.
It is understandable if one believes that Aunt Rachel could have been holding back more details from Misto C—- of her horrific past, or that Uncle Julius was lying about the goopher due to the distrust of whites during this time. The post-Civil War era was a tough time for black Americans, especially when it came to trusting whites. When Julius was approached by John, it is likely that he made up a believable tall-tale that would save his home and money. Even more, Aunt Rachel continued to use humor throughout her story to help ease the terrible descriptions of her past. It is vital to realize that both of these short stories show us the similarities and differences in the portrayal of black Americans after the war. Both Aunt Rachel and Uncle Julius attempted to protect what little they did have.
In the short stories “A True Story” and “The Goophered Grapevine,” the main characters were given the title of “aunt” or “uncle”. Twain portrayed the resilient image of Aunt Rachel, while Chesnutt gave rise to the complex character of Uncle Julius. Although each character is a former slave, they are given these titles as a means to separate them from their white counterparts. Some readers have stated that the “aunt” and “uncle” terms were “white invention[s] [created] to alleviate the guilt associated with slavery by linguistically elevating some slaves to the status of “family” (Manring, 1995). This sense of family allowed for the slaves to separate the hurt of the past and bring light to the dark shadows of slavery. The image of the “aunt” and “uncle” is described and portrayed as old, black, worn, and uneducated shown through their dialect (“Can Anyone Speak To The Origins Of Using The Familial “Uncle” And “Aunt” For African Americans On Food Products Like “Uncle Ben’s” And “Aunt Jemima”, 2019).
Twain and Chesnutt display the former slaves in a vulnerable and comfortable setting, embracing the “perfect plantation” feeling most white Americans tried to place onto slavery. This was shown through the added humor from Aunt Rachel and “story telling” ideas from Uncle Julius that was added to both short stories. According to Ed Piacentino, Twain states that Aunt Rachel acts as if “she’s never had any trouble”, and while explaining some of the misfortunes in her life, Twain “employs Aunt Rachel at several key points in the sketch in a performative role by interjecting some entertaining comic moments” such as the notorious comment from her dear mother “I wa’nt bawn in the mash to be fool’ by trash! I’s one o’ de ole Blue Hen’s Chickens, I is.” Chesnutt uses the carpetbagger’s description of a “venerable-looking colored man” to describe Uncle Julius who is timid, but willing to tell the story of how the grapevine “is goophered,-cunju’d, bewitch,” (Lauter, 2014). At first glance, one would think that both characters were content with their lives as they took the time to tell stories of the past. This was all shown as a way to cover up or bring positivity to the “plantation past”.
Various differences do arise in the comparison of the writers and how they portray the forgiving spirit of the former slave’s past that caused them so much hurt. Mark Twain searches to show his audience the horrors of the slave past as Aunt Rachel tells the story of her husband and family being sold into slavery. Twain writes “dey put chains on us an’ put us on a stan’ as high as dis po’ch-twnety foot high…an’ dey sole my ole man, an’ took him away, an’ dey begin to sell my chil’en an’ take dem away, an’ I began to cry”. Aunt Rachel describes the raw emotion she felt when faced with losing all of her family. Charles Chesnutt decides to use more subtle statements to describe the horrors of the slave past as he mentions much about finances and food scarcity. Chesnutt uses Uncle Julius to explicitly state that “befo’ de wah, in slab’ry times, a nigger didn’ mine goin’ fi’ er ten mile in a night, w’en dey wuz sump’n good ter eat at de yuther een’.”
It is evident in this statement that there was mistreatment amongst the slaves as they had to travel miles by foot just to eat grapes. Although it seems that Uncle Julius remains respectful when speaking on Mars Dugal’ McAdoo, it is shown that McAdoo was a “cunning, ruthless, avaricious man who [was] always on the lookout for ways to make money.” (Render, 1989). McAdoo’s cunning attitude is attributed to his pawning of Henry back and forth, only needing him to work when he seemed to be at his best. In further contrast, Twain grants his main character with a positive outcome of slavery as Aunt Rachel recognizes her son as a solider in the kitchen. Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius is not as lucky, as the carpet bagger decides to go against Uncle Julius’s recommendations and purchases the cursed vineyard anyway (Lauter, 2014).
The before mentioned theme of forgiveness in former slaves is something that is commonly seen in all types of writing that depict blacks during the post-Civil War era. The images and stories of slavery that are circulating through society today are horrendous. Babies were ripped from their mother, men and women were sexually and physically abused, people were killed and hung from trees, and culture was taken away. However, it is far more often than not that society is presented with the forgiving slave, such as Julius and especially Aunt Rachel. Although it is not directly stated that either character, Aunt Rachel or Uncle Julius, were forgiving of what they went through, their willingness to stay around, tell stories, and be of help to the people around them proves that they have somewhat moved forward from their terrible past. Out of all of the hardships and hurt that they experienced from slavery, it is shocking that there are not more accounts of angry black Americans.
Additionally, when analyzing Julius and Aunt Rachel and comparing them to what we know about the treatment of blacks during the post-Civil War era, it can be seen that both characters are not very intellectual Their grammar and dialect show that they have been mostly successful at life by using their skills rather than books and learning. This is understandable as most slave owners did not allow their slaves to know how to read and write. This type of portrayal of slaves in both writings is interesting. Twain not only portrays all of the slave characters in his writing as such, but also comes from a state that was one of the last to abolish slavery. With a history of growing up in Missouri and being surrounded by slaves for majority of his life, his portrayal seems accurate from his experiences (Piacentino, 2011). However, Chesnutt depicted Julius as with a lower intellect as well through his dialect. Although Chesnutt was black himself, his depiction of black American’s during the post-Civil War era is similar to Twain’s and many other writers, maybe in an attempt to be accepted by his white counterparts or to show that he has the ability to withdraw himself from the text although he is of the same race of the ones being mistreated in his writings.
The post-bellum culture is still battling with the direct horrors of the past while trying to portray the lives of former slaves. Much of this is done with explaining how African American slaves are were portrayed through writings of the past, the importance of portraying the “perfect plantation”, and the forgiving spirit of the slave past that caused them so much hurt. These issues are still prevalent today as many former enslaved people have passed down traditions of distrust and discomfort of white Americans. Black Americans learned to supplement diets, hide their feelings and adapt to their masters or overseers to escape specific punishment that could be brought onto them by white Americans.
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