Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

One of the most significant and obvious themes addressed in The Conjure-Man Dies is the importance of characters living life fully. Each major character involved in the mystery, whether as suspect or investigator, is preoccupied with living a whole and rewarding life, given the particular circumstances of his or her environment.

Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins represent the common black man struggling to survive during the Depression years in Harlem. Both are intelligent men who happen to be down on their luck. In Brown’s attempts first to start his own private investigation business and then later to help Dart and Archer solve the murder, he demonstrates his capacity to persevere even when he does not have access to the sort of employment opportunities that might provide him with a secure lifestyle. He always has a wonderful sense of humor and makes the best of any situation. When Jenkins is imprisoned and for a while feels despondent, it is Brown who acquires evidence that can be used to free him.

Frimbo’s entire existence, whether in Africa or in America, has been one of seeking authentic meaning. He does this by learning as much as he can about human nature and also by helping to provide peace of mind to his clients.

Even Dart and Archer, who have rewarding careers, are positioned as struggling to stay above the waters in their obsession to solve the murder case. Each comes a little more to life as he gets more involved in the case.

Harlem of the 1930’s is revealed as a place where it is easy to give up or to stay in a despondent state. Several of the other characters are presented as being in various stages of despondency. Doty Hicks, for example, has turned to drugs. Several characters believe that their spouses are having affairs and therefore must not really love them. The state of the economy and rampant racism mean sometimes unbearable conditions, which some characters seek to escape through drinking, dancing, and gambling.

Throughout the novel, characters discover ways to reaffirm themselves. Much of this reaffirmation comes about because characters help one another. In this sense, the novel takes time to explore the notion of kinship in the African American experience, and it does so while keeping readers involved in a murder mystery.