Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction: “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt

As I explained in this column’s first installment, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” This new column delves more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list. Deciding not to do that in forward or reverse chronological order, I began with Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988) because of the special place it holds in my heart. Now I’m going to look even deeper into the past and switch things up to talk about “The Goophered Grapevine” by Charles W. Chesnutt, a 19th-century story that deserves our attention because of its brainy convolutions.

WHAT HAPPENS

Though it’s relatively short at 4700 words, “Grapevine” contains twists and turns enough for a much longer work. It begins with the account of a presumably white northerner who meets a “venerable-looking colored man” when he visits a North Carolina vineyard he’s thinking of purchasing, but the tale is quickly wrested away by this old man, who’s known as Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius cautions the would-be buyer that a spell has been laid on the property: the fruit of these vines, he explains, poisons those who steal it. Then follows a long anecdote about a newly acquired slave who unknowingly eats the “goophered” grapes. Hasty intervention transmutes the death curse into a mystical link between this man’s health and the seasonal life of the vines. Ultimately, though, these twin lives culminate in twin deaths due to an unscrupulous Yankee’s rapacious agricultural practices.

And yet there are grapes growing on the property at the time Uncle Julius tells his tale. Moreover, he’s sitting there eating them. When his audience asks for an explanation of these facts he reveals that the current crop springs from a combination of replanting and regeneration, but warns the prospective vintner that only he, Uncle Julius, can reliably avoid its goophered elements. Attributing this caveat to Uncle Julius’s jealousy of the profits to be reaped from the neglected vines, the visitor buys the vineyard anyway. He hires Uncle Julius as his coachman, stating at “Grapevine’s” conclusion that doing this is more than sufficient compensation for the lost revenues.

WHAT’S TO LIKE ABOUT IT

There’s a whole lot of perspective shifting going on here, and to my mind that’s fun. Pick your protagonist: the northern visitor? Uncle Julius? The man with sap for blood? That last one dies, but perhaps is reborn, Golden Bough-like, with the vines which, according to Uncle Julius, only appear to die.

In the eyes of the northern visitor, Uncle Julius functions as a wise trickster who while telling his cautionary tale also educates the immigrant about “the darker side of slavery.” Considered from his own viewpoint, though, he’s a tragic figure. At his first appearance he’s an independent entrepreneur enjoying the fruits of others’ labor; by “Grapevine’s” close he has sunk to the level of a servant, unable to maintain his hold on the source of his livelihood. Only his wits remain to him, and these he employs in the story’s sequels.

I find the northern visitor interesting because of his ambiguity. Certain characters are explicitly marked as African American by the narrator; he doesn’t label himself racially at all. Since Otherness must always be marked, he was most likely assigned the era’s default European American status by readers of The Atlantic when it published “Grapevine.” And yet a look at any of Chesnutt’s portraits shows a man to all appearances white. Born before the “one drop rule” was legislated, Chesnutt identified as “negro” despite his majority European ancestry. I can’t bring myself to believe that whiteness was an uncomplicated concept for Chesnutt; at the very least he would have agreed with South Carolina congressman George D. Tillman, speaking at the state’s 1895 constitutional convention that, “It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention.”

My take on Chesnutt, based on his biography, is that for him race was a performance, more cultural than biological in nature. His characters’ various dictions reflect class and experience, not innate worth, and this evenhandedness is part of the attitude of “Grapevine’s” narrator as well: he overcomes the “shyness” of a “little negro girl” to obtain directions to the vineyard rather than railing at her stupidity, and categorizes Uncle Julius as “venerable” rather than lazy, shiftless, or any of the other perjoratives he could have used. He does, however, credit the man’s shrewdness to his “not altogether African” heritage.

Still, the offensive n-word comes only from Uncle Julius’s lips. Modern readers may be driven to compare its presence under this restriction to its usage by hip hop artists. His passages are, alas, full of “suh” and “dey” and “wukkin,” and other phoneticized representations of the period’s black vernacular. Less difficult to absorb than some written dialect, it’s still work to plough through. I teach classes on how to handle the problem of depicting nonstandard speech patterns; I tell students there’s no one sure way to do it, but many ways to try. Back in 1887 this strategy was common; these days it’s seen far less.

I question to what degree the story Chesnutt has Uncle Julius deliver is mere third-hand minstrelsy, to what extent it’s meant (as its auditor guesses) to frighten away well-meaning but intrusive cultural outsiders, and how much of it is a subversive message about “the darker side of slavery.” And although “Grapevine” contains page upon page of barely readable “eye dialect”–a term I prefer to the cumbersome if technically more correct “pronunciation respelling”–Chesnutt is capable of wonderfully sharp turns of phrase in standard English. “Grapevine’s” opening describes the narrator arriving in “…a quaint old town, which I shall call Patesville, because, for one reason, that is not its name.”

WHY ELSE IT MATTERS

“The Goophered Grapevine” was, as I point out in my original article, the first story by an African American author published in a high-prestige “slick” magazine, making it historically important. Also, it led to a long mentorship between Chesnutt and its publisher, The Atlantic, and it could lead you to read his other works, including his biography of Frederick Douglass and his play, Mrs. Darcy’s Daughter. Several more “Uncle Julius” stories appeared in The Atlantic. They were collected in the 1899 book The Conjure Woman. Another collection of fiction with no fantastic elements, The Wife of His Youth, came out that same year. Chesnutt also wrote novels; the one I’m most impressed by is The Marrow of Tradition, a fictionalized account of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre (aka “race riot”) published just three years later, in 1901. Some of us have dared to read what he dared to write.

Top image: “Dressing for the Carnival” by Winslow Homer (1877), used as the cover to a 2013 edition of The Conjure Woman.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

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