The Representation of Tricksters in the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt

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Fraud, con-man, and hustler are all modern day terms to describe the age old character in African American literature known as the trickster. Today’s working definition of a trickster is one who swindles or plays tricks; often a mischievous figure in myth or folklore, who typically makes up for physical weakness through cunning and subversive humor. In African American literature the role of the trickster is a reoccurring theme, especially in the time period spanning from post Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. During slavery and the years that followed the image of a trickster changed from a humorous amoral figure to a cunning and socially conscious icon. Charles W. Chesnutt is a primary example of an author, who faithful employs the trickster motif in many of his published works. Traditionally, the role of trickster often presents itself when there is a powerless group who longs to transcend an oppressive social order (Jefferies, Schramm 20). In African American literature, the trickster is often depicted as someone who has the ability to manipulate situations in his/her favor, despite having little or no power. Rhonda B. Jefferies states that “the primary goal of the trickster in is social nonconformity by redefining the norms of life and existence in mainstream American society (Jefferies, Schramm 20).” Since its origin in West African culture, the trickster figure has evolved from a folklore icon, mainly in the form or various animals, to an archetype whose behavior is both contradictory and complex. The tricksters reoccurring appearance in African American folklore, narratives, poems, novels and pop culture is no coincidence. It is the trickster’s pursuit of wisdom, cunning or power in an attempt to redefine social order that makes him/her such an attractive icon. The trickster character serves as an inspirational figure for the socially oppressed and has takes on many forms when expressed in past and present literature. Many African American folk tales, especially those from southern United States, include the appearance of a trickster. In “Brer Rabbit Tricks Brer Fox Again,” the trickster takes on a classic form of a clever but lazy rabbit. In this tale the rabbit becomes stuck in a well and finagle his way out by convincing the suspicious fox to help him escape. He manipulates the fox to get into the well under false pretenses. By convincing Brer Fox that there is an abundance of fish he needs help catching and transporting out of the well, Brer rabbit was able to leverage an escape, consequentially leaving the fox in his place. It is the rabbit’s quick wit that makes him a quintessential trickster figure in many folk tales across a number of cultures. However, Brer Rabbit is just one of many depictions of a trickster rabbit in folk tales and stories throughout history. A more modern depiction of a rabbit trickster is Looney tunes’ Bugs bunny. The ways in which Bugs utilizes his physical endurance and mastery of disguise to deceive his arch enemy Elmer Fudd is a playful interpretation when compared to those in African American literature and folklore. The integration of the trickster in modern culture, whether it be in the form of animal or man, is just one demonstration of the many ways in which this popular character transcends time and culture, to eventually become one of the most reoccurring archetypes in African American literature.

Charles W. Chesnutt’s relationship with the trickster archetype is most evident in his collection of short stories with the characterization of Uncle Julius. Uncle Julius appeared in seven of the thirteen short stories that make up Chesnutt’s The Conjured Women. In the collection of stories, Uncle Julius often “conjures” up his tales from old folklore, in an attempted to persuade or manipulate certain situations to his benefit. The description of Uncle Julius interaction with the John and Annie, the northern white couple interested in buying the grape vineyard Julius...
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