Author Information

Ethan Child


In his “conjure stories,” which were published in various periodicals in the late nineteenth century, Charles Chesnutt paints a Southern American landscape that is permanently marked by the legacy of slavery. He captures the Reconstruction-era tensions that existed between the white opportunists who sought to transform that landscape by erasing the legacy of slavery and the formerly enslaved people who had a deep connection with both land and legacy. The politics of land ownership informed these people’s understandings of their relationship with the land, which ultimately resulted in diverging environmental ethics that extend to the present day. This paper situates analysis of Charles Chesnutt’s “conjure stories” within the contemporary discourse surrounding environmental racism. Specifically, it examines how Black voices have been silenced in the mainstream environmental movement, turning to Chesnutt’s stories to illustrate the valuable perspectives and insights that Black voices offer to environmental discussions. By illustrating a formerly enslaved character’s understanding of the environment and depicting that character’s interactions with white characters, Chesnutt both displays the interconnectedness of race and environmental thinking and offers a critique of the ways in which white supremacy obstructs the environmental dialogue across races. This paper merges two distinct conversations—one that addresses the extent to which racism and environmental degradation intersect and a second that covers a range of literary criticism of Chesnutt’s “conjure tales,” focusing on how Chesnutt embeds the history of slavery within the physical southern landscape. By examining how Chesnutt implies the importance of a racial, historical framework for interacting with the natural landscape, we might recognize the need for similar frameworks in our current ways of thinking about climate change and the environmental crisis.

Note on the Author

Ethan Child is a 2021 graduating senior majoring in English and Secondary Education. His paper was completed under the mentorship of Dr. John Kucich (English) as part of his fall 2020 senior seminar. Ethan is a proud member of the Commonwealth Honors Program and Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Upon graduating, Ethan plans to pursue a career in teaching high school English.

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