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Doing Roots: The African-American Conjure Tale in the Age of Modernity

Date and Time: 
Thursday, December 1, 2016. 06:00 PM - 08:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
CCSRE Conference Room (Building 360)
Workshop: 
Interdisciplinary Working Group in Critical Theory
Meeting Description: 

For the Africans who were brought across the Middle Passage and several generations of their descendants, the folk magic tradition known as Conjure was an essential tool for survival.  It served not only as a means of enduring slavery, but as a way of maintaining social cohesion within a community whose culture had been systematically destroyed.  However, this tradition comes under threat post-Civil War, as nationwide emancipation confronts blacks with the dual concerns of racial uplift and acclimating to a modernizing society.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the question of how much of one’s native African traditions to hold onto becomes a principle concern for the black community—a tension which is particularly pronounced in the literature of the time period.  In several of these texts, Conjure is evoked not only as a coping mechanism to endure hardship, but as a means of performing a distinctly Afro-Diasporic mode of cultural identity.  This chapter proposes to examine this phenomenon in three texts: Charles Chesnutt’s plantation story cycle The Conjure Woman (1898), set in the Reconstruction-era South, looks at Conjure as an alternative to the estranging aspects of modernity.  Rudolph Fisher’s early detective novel The Conjure Man Dies (1933), looks at Conjure’s persistence amongst the urbanized blacks who traveled north during the Great Migration.  And, finally, Andrea Hairston’s historical fantasy Redwood and Wildfire (2011), a more contemporary text which looks back at the tumultuousness of this transitory period and uses its historical distance to try to make sense of it.

Andrew Shephard is a PhD candidate in Stanford University’s English Department who specializes in genre fiction, with a particular focus on the speculative genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  His dissertation, of which this is the first chapter, challenges the notion that the Afro-speculative tradition is inherently futurist in its orientation.  Instead, it proposes that in order to gain a more complete understanding of this body of work, we must investigate the ways in which black authors use speculative conceits to represent, reinterpret, and reimagine the past.

His respondent, Ramón Saldívar is professor of English and Comparative Literature and the Hoagland Family Professor of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, and he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2012. His teaching and research focus on the areas of literary criticism and literary theory, the history of the novel, 19th and early 20th century literary studies, cultural studies, globalization and issues concerning transnationalism, and Chicano and Chicana studies. In March 2013 President Obama appointed him to a six -year term on the National Council on the Humanities.

Contact cawkward@stanford.edu for the text of the pre-circulated chapter.

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