I have written about the ways that texts illuminate the psychological effects of slavery and Jim Crow segregation on both the minds of white and blacks alike. Today, I want to take a moment and look at one of Charles W. Chesnutt’s conjure tales that foregrounds the psychological effects of slavery and Jim Crow from the outset. “Dave’s Neckliss” originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1889. As with the other tales. Chesnutt uses the frame story of Uncle Julius, a former slave, telling John and Annie, Northerners transplanted to the South, a tale about the region.
Julius tells the couple about Dave, a slave framed for stealing bacon from the smoke house. As punishment, Dave’s master whips him and makes him wear a ham around his neck as a symbol to the other slaves of Dave’s apparent insubordination. Dave wears the ham so long that it becomes a part of him; Julius tells John and Annie, “But de ham had be’n on his neck so long dat Dave had sorter got use’ ter it. He look des lack he’d los’ sump’n fer a day or so after de ham wuz tuk off, en didn’ ‘pear ter know w’at ter do wid hisse’f.” Dave would place a piece of string with the ham on it around his neck at night when he returned to his cabin and no one was looking. Julius and others thought “Dave done gone clarn out’n his mine.”
At the end of the story, the slave who framed Dave, Wiley, gets caught stealing chickens from a neighboring plantations. Fearing death after being shot while stealing the chickens, Wiley confesses to setting Dave up. Walker, the overseer, brings the other slaves together to proclaim Dave’s innocence and drink cider; however, Dave is nowhere to be found. Julius goes to look for him and finds him hanging from the rafters, attempting to cure himself like a ham, because he felt like he was turning into ham.
The frame story sets up the exploration of the psychological effects of slavery on Dave. While John and Annie eat ham for dinner, Julius walks up to the house. Julius asks if he can have a piece of ham, and Annie tells him to sit down and eat as much as he wants. As he eats, John notices that Julius starts to cry. John asks him about this, and Julius tells him he was thinking about Dave. John’s thoughts immediately before Julius tells the story of Dave are worth looking in detail.
John begins by painting an image of the Sunday afternoon scene as idyllic and languid, a setting of pleasant recollection and relaxation. Presenting the scene in this manner would correlate to stories that glamorized or idealized the Old South such as those by Joel Chandler Harris. John ruminates,
The conditions were all favorable to story-telling. There was an autumnal languor in the air, and a dreamy haze softened the dark green of the distant pines and the deep blue of the Southern sky. The generous meal he had made had put the old man in a very good humor. He was not always so, for his curiously undeveloped nature was subject to moods which were almost childish in their variableness.
Here, John paints an image of tranquility, and he espouses that Julius somehow has “undeveloped” faculties when compared to his and Annie’s. Again, this statement would play into the preconceived notions about Julius that many white readers of the period would have. However, these thoughts get undercut as the paragraph continues.
John points out that Julius’ stories allow him and Annie to see “the simple but intensely inner human life of slavery.” Unlike the superficial stereotypes of happy slaves working the fields, Julius present the inner-lives of himself, Dave, and others, allowing John and Annie to see the psychological impact of slavery. John continues by noting that Julius’ point of view differs from his own, looking at the past from a different perspective. With this move, Chesnutt calls upon the reader to look beyond the outward actions of his characters. He invites them into the inner turmoil and suffering that Dave endures during his life in slavery. This differs, again, from authors like Harris and Thomas Nelson Page who present nothing more that stereotypes.
John also shows how Julius’ recollections challenge the mythological Old South because “[h]e never indulged in any regrets for the Arcadian joyousness and irresponsibility which was a somewhat popular conception of slavery.” Rather than indulging in the construction of myth, Chesnutt, and Julius, expose the contradictions found within these constructions. Slavery dehumanized individuals, and instead of presenting it as a time that we need to look back on with nostalgia, Chesnutt shows it for what it really was, an institution that denied Dave and Julius humanity.
Julius would mention appreciation for acts of kindness his masters bestowed upon him, but he would also “speak of a cruel deed” in a manner that showed his “furtive disapproval which suggested to [John and Annie] a doubt in his own mind as to whether he had a right to think or to feel.” The continued degradation causes Julius to even wonder if he can “think” or “feel.” This mental abuse comes through when reading Twelve Years a Slave and other texts as well. Patsey, Solomon, Abram, and others become psychologically damaged by the institution of slavery, even to the point where they may think about attempting escape they don’t. Julius’ “furtive disapproval” highlighted for John and Annie the “psychological spectacle of a mind enslaved long after the shackles had been struck off from the limbs of its possessor.” Even though Julius is no longer enslaved, his mind remains shackled by the “peculiar institution.”
John thinks about whether or not Julius actually feels anything, if he ever thought about freedom, and if he had even “the most elementary ideas of love, friendship, patriotism, religion.” He continues by wondering if Julius had a sense of “his own degradation.” If Julius does not, or had not, felt these feelings, “then centuries of repression had borne their legitimate fruit.” Even as these thoughts flow through John’s mind, he concludes by stating that he sees “human feeling” in Julius’ stories, and that flame of feeling will one day flow to “his children’s children [as] a glowing flame of sensibility, alive to every thrill of human happiness or human woe.”
All of the quotes above come from one paragraph in “Dave’s Neckliss.” In the paragraph, Chesnutt confronts the popular ideas of the period surrounding a mythic, Lost Cause South where everyone and everything existed in an ideal manner and everyone, including slaves, lived happily. Chesnutt begins the paragraph by playing into this view, but he subverts it when he starts mentions the psychological effects of slavery and segregation on Julius. Chesnutt deconstructs popular views of the South before Julius even begins his tale, and in this way, he subverts the plantation tradition that arose during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
At the end of Julius’ other tales John and Annie respond in some way to the tale that Julius delivers. However, at the end of “Dave’s Neckliss,” they do not provide a response. They talk about the weather some, and then Julius leaves. The next morning, John wants some ham, and Annie tells him, “you shouldn’t eat anything so heavy for breakfast.” John insists on eating some ham, to which Annie responds that she gave the ham to Julius. This exchange, only about seven lines in the story, has some significance. The ham acts as a reminder of Dave, and by extension, slavery. John wants ham, but his wife says he does not need any. This move signals that while some may want to return, we will not go back to a system that seeks to subjugate others through bondage and oppression. Julius takes the ham, carrying with him reminder of the past and the detrimental effects of slavery on not just his physical body but also on his mentality as well. (These thoughts occurred to me as I was finishing up this post, so they are not totally fleshed out.)
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.