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Sacred LifeCharles W. Chestnutt was the most widely read and influential African American fiction writer of his time and the first ever brought to press by a major publishing house. The Conjure Woman introduced the verbal and philosophical richness of African American folk culture to a white readership largely ignorant of true southern black life. Even today, this collection is thought to be among the best representations of life on a southern plantation to be found in American literature.
The Conjure Woman is a collection of "conjuring tales" written in rich dialect. Each of the stories masterfully portrays both the inhumanity of plantation life and the cunning wisdom used by many to survive post-Civil War neoslavery. The stories are more accurate than those written by contemporary writers like Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus stories fondly portray life on the plantation. Chestnutt's stories more often reflect the true conditions of plantation life, if in slightly muted tones: forced separation of loved ones, the greed of the slave masters, and the ready violence to be found on the plantations.
Chestnutt's later—and more straightforward—explorations into biracialism, miscegenation, and racisim (The Home Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel's Dream) met with so tepid a commercial response that Chestnutt decided to return to his private legal practice in order to support his family. But The Conjure Woman has ensured his reputation as a groundbreaking writer of fiction that truthfully tells the stories of slave life.