The Goophered Grapvine by Charles W. Chesnutt | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

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.” (That essay is now hosted here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn. The original essay and became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis. I began with Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988) because of the special place it holds in my heart. Next I look even deeper into the past to talk about ‘The Goophered Grapvine‘ by Charles W. Chesnutt, a 19th century story that deserves our attention because of its brainy convolutions.

Though itís 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.

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 ìthe 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 in 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 itís 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.”

“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.


 Mama Day by Gloria Naylor | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

       Back in 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.)  In what seemed at the time an obvious homage to Charles W. Eliot’s 51-foot shelf of Harvard Classics, I listed 42 short stories and novels that I deemed essential reads for students of Black science fiction and fantasy.  At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the titles on that list in turn.

       The original essay and became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available.  The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis. 

       My original list is chronological.  But this series of columns didn’t start with that list’s beginning; nor did it simply reverse it.  I gave Mama Day (1988) primacy of place in this series because it means some very personal things to me.  So that’s where we’ll start, and we’ll follow the same order in which the Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction first ran.


      Mama Day is the third novel by recently deceased African American author Gloria Naylor.  Though never categorized as fantastic literature by its publisher or critics, it depicts myriad magical events–hexes, hauntings, concerts of singing flowers–as well as focusing on the magical aspects of events we typically regard as mundane, like weather, birth, death, and love.  The title character, Mama Day, lives on the peculiar coastal island of Willow Springs, which lies off the Georgia/South Carolina border.  Admired and respected for her legendary healing powers by the island’s inhabitants, Black descendants of antebellum freedmen, Mama Day knows secrets she often wishes she didn’t.  Her great-niece Ophelia grows up protected from being caught up in the family’s recurring tragedies by not one but two nicknames: Cocoa and Baby Girl.  As an adult Ophelia leaves the island for New York, where she finds, loves, and marries the pragmatic engineer George.  When George accompanies his wife on an ill-fated visit to Willow Springs, he’s soon forced to watch her rotting slowly away before his eyes.  Mama Day tries to educate George and recruit him as her helper in the battle for Ophelia’s soul, but even her wisdom fails to reconcile him with the mystic forces she has harmonized with for 80-plus years.


       My younger sister is nicknamed Cocoa.  On my birth certificate I’m listed as Baby Girl.  And though I’ve never put moss in my shoes prior to entering a graveyard, though I’ve never celebrated Candle Walk on December 22 with ginger tea and kerosene lanterns, these and other elements of the island’s mythic atmosphere resonate with my world.  For Mama Day’s jealous neighbor Ruby and Ruby’s sloppy drunk husband Junior, substitute my sweetly spiteful Aunt Pearl and handsome, dissolute Uncle Carl.  For the slanting floor of Grandmother Abigail’s spare bedroom substitute the soft, creaking boards beneath my Gransie’s parlor carpet.  For the baskets of peaches, grocery bags of pawpaws; for hurricanes, blizzards.  Many times no substitution’s needed, as with the body language of hands on hips, or the default assumption that any of your hair left in a brush or comb after a styling session will be gathered and burnt “so that the birds won’t find it and weave it into their nests.” Because if that happens you go crazy.

       Black culture is full of these near-equivalencies and exact parallels.  Generally, they strengthen connections between its various subgroups, and the connections between my personal experiences and those depicted in this book make it particularly poignant to me.  My interest in and practice of African-derived religious traditions also yield plenty of fruitful connections.  Mama Day doesn’t pray as I do, doesn’t make the offerings to the orisha I make, but she’s rooted in the natural world my deities spring from, and the ancestors I revere whisper in her open ears.


       Apart from the book’s ringingly authentic depiction of the Black fantastic, Mama Day deserves to be deemed essential Black SFF for two more reasons: its ambitious structure, and the permeable boundary it places between science and magic, mirroring the way that for this ethnicity, at least, the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is difficult to draw.

       Near the novel’s end, Mama Day brings down lightning to strike the same spot twice.  First comes a passage showing a ritual in which Mama Day casts silver powder in a circle around an enemy’s house, banging her walking stick against its walls with a sound like thunder.  After the storm hits and fire from heaven burns the place down, George muses that while unlikely, what had happened was at least theoretically possible.  All that was needed was the distribution on the spot in question of materials that could hold both positive and negative electrical charges.  Which rational explanation casts other occurrences in the light of possibly being similarly explicable.  Which then undermines the classification of this story and others like it as either fantasy or science fiction.  

       The back cover of my copy of Mama Day, and of the only copies Iíve ever seen, proclaim it to be “FICTION”–in all caps.  No compromising modifiers included.  SFF is a community, and members of the African diaspora were for a long time left out of this community; but genre is also a marketing tool.  Gloria Naylor did not come up in SFF fandomís ranks.  Perhaps her agent and editor and publicist were fine with that.

       At least part of the reason for Mama Day’s absence from our SFF fold is because of mainstream literature critics’ favorable reactions to the aforementioned ambitious structure.  Reviewers have identified at least three different narrative threads.  There’s the haunting first-person plural voice used to ground readers in Willow Springs’ historical background, evoking ancestral knowledge.  At times it shifts almost imperceptibly to what academics call “free indirect discourse.” This means that the third-person narration includes not just what the text’s subject does, but what they think, and how they feel.

       Most moving to me are the passages narrated by George and Ophelia.  Critics characterize these passages as being written in first person, but because they’re addressed to one another, I call this technique mirror second.  

       “You were sick and I was totally helpless,” George writes about the weeks when a hex threatens Ophelia’s life.  “You’re never free from such a loss,” she later responds.  Though much of what these mirror second passages describe is the story as experienced by their “I’s,” it is aimed at their “you’s.”  We’re reading love letters over their authors’ shoulders: twinned tales of discovery and acclimation and grief, reflections of reflections echoing in ghost-filled halls.

This is a book with many ways of telling itself and being told.  In the end what comes across to us from it depends on us, on Mama Day’s readers.  We are the first plural, the matching halves of the mirror second, the freedom of the indirect third.  “Think about it,” the collective narrator of the foreword advises us; “ain’t nobody really talking to you…the only voice is your own.”