Julia (Mood) Peterkin

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Irene Yates

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[Conjure lore] is interesting, and in Mrs. Peterkin's novels it becomes important in the characterization of the Negro as well. Mrs. Peterkin's Negroes are unreasoning and inconsistent. They may go to church and shout with fine frenzy, and leave to procure a conjure that will cast a spell….

This conjure lore is important, too, in Mrs. Peterkin's plots. An episode in Bright Skin centers about the use of a conjure and its evil effects. In this instance the conjure is sought as a help in time of trouble in the love affairs of the married. Wes, Aun Missie's husband, had taken to staying away from home at night. Aun Missie, who obviously was a believer in conjure, betook herself to Big Pa, who obligingly made a charm that would measure up to Missie's specifications….

The conjure worked, but not as Big Pa or Missie hoped it would. Wes did stop his night-roaming, but he stopped roaming altogether, for not long after the conjure was used on him, Wes got into a fight and was stuck with an ice-pick. His condition became serious. When he discovered the bags under his pillow, he attributed his condition to them and complained resentfully, showing real fear of the magic that was operating in his fate…. (p. 140)

Throughout … Mrs. Peterkin makes the Negro's faith in conjures useful to her plot. It is natural for people to seek causes, and it is easy for the Negro to point out false reasons as he, in his ignorance, attempts to reconcile cause and effect. He seeks no proof by testing. An occurrence or two, such as the preceding, establishes a law. Big Pa is confident that his conjure was indeed a powerful one; the other Negroes regard the whole episode with fear and with an increased faith in conjures. Mrs. Peterkin uses the belief just as it would exist in the life of the Negro. The razor or ice-pick fight is common; the use of the conjure is common; and the belief that the result, death, is brought about by the cause, conjure, is perfectly natural. The conjuring as a background for the incident heightens interest and colors the entire episode. (p. 141)

Probably in Black April more than in any other story does the black magic of the conjure become one with a tragic fate. The ultimate catastrophe is brought about by two curses and two conjures. From the uttering of the first curse to the denouement, the reader feels that bitter tragedy is the only possibility. (pp. 142-43)

In Bright Skin, Scarlet Sister Mary, and Black April, not only does the use of conjuring serve in making a true representation of the Negro character, but it becomes important to the artistry of plot development. Wes could have died from the ice-pick fight without Missie's charm, but the charm increases the effectiveness of the episode. Mary could have been the same Mary without the love conjure, but the situation would have lost interest thereby. Black April's fate could have been the same without the curses, but with them the entire situation becomes more powerful, more humanly interesting, more dramatic. The conjure provides the element of fear, suspense, impending danger, and the reader shares the character's emotion, which is rooted in belief in the conjure.

From the conjure to the folk cure is but a step. In fact, some of the cures are nothing more than a kind of black magic involving hocus-pocus that anyone might practice without the help of the conjure doctor. (p. 144)

The Negro knows and uses a multitude of...

(This entire section contains 745 words.)

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such cures, some of them revolting, some amusing, and most of them pathetically useless….

Much of this matter is more or less incidental; however, it serves to show the Negro with his everyday problems and his solutions for them. Such cures are part of the daily life of the Negro, and they are introduced into the story just as they would occur any day or every day. (p. 145)

It is clear from this brief examination of Julia Peterkin's novels that she has skilfully woven into her stories a mass of folklore dealing with conjures and cures. This lore is interesting in itself. And … in Mrs. Peterkin's hands it becomes a means of enriching her art especially in the characterization of the Negro and in the development of the plot. (p. 149)

Irene Yates, "Conjures and Cures in the Novels of Julia Peterkin," in Southern Folklore Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, June, 1946, pp. 137-49.

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