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'Conjure Women' Brings Forth Racism and Reproductive Rights

Photo by Clarence Alford from Pixabay

It is Afia Atakora's reiteration of the current calls for racial justice that positions Conjure Women as an unadulterated masterpiece.

Conjure Women
Afia Atakora

Penguin / Random House

April 2020


Afia Atakora's debut, Conjure Women, is a vivid exploration of the bondage and power of women. A work of historical fiction, the novel is set in the interbellum rural South. Building a town on the ruined plantation of Marse Charles, the black inhabitants are his former slaves. Since the culmination of the Civil War they live in freedom, rarely interacting with white society. They struggle to survive, especially as an incurable disease ravages the town's children.

The narrative focuses on Rue, a midwife and healer, who learned her skills from her mother, Miss May Belle. Their ability to heal is so powerful that their skills are often misidentified as magic. Indeed, Miss May Belle shows a proclivity for the supernatural and crafting curses.

Rue's talents, in contrast, result from an affinity with naturalism and herbalism. When a baby is born in a caul and with black eyes, the townspeople accuse Rue of witchcraft. The accusations are both exasperated and alleviated by the arrival of Bruh Abel, an itinerant preacher.

From the start, Conjure Women adroitly unpacks the nuances of interbellum society, the influence of spirituality, and the power of superstition. Yet it is Atakora's reiteration of the current calls for racial justice that positions Conjure Women as an unadulterated masterpiece.

Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

To draw parallels between the past and present, Conjure Women rejects time as linear. This is explicitly communicated as the narrative shifts between "Slavery time", capturing the antebellum era, and "Freedom time", centralizing the interbellum. The Civil War does not represent a singular stage for pre- and post-war society. Rather, Atakora uses the Civil War to exhibit time's fluidity between a historical and contemporary moment.

For example, when characters consider the encroaching Civil War, they frame the northerners as motivated by blood, focused on dissolving southern culture in order to enforce desolation rather than emancipation. The threat of cultural loss is akin to the present-day refusal to abandon symbols of racism such as the confederate flag, statues of slave owners, and military generals. Certainly, the Civil War era saw the United States as a divided nation. Through Atakora's lens, said division remains and is as evident as ever.

Similarly, the discourses constructing women's control of their bodies and sexualities are another accurate reflection of modern discourses. As healers, Miss May Belle and Rue both assist women, black and white, in conception, abortion, and sexual health. The mother and daughter provide medical treatments to enable women to take control of their reproductive systems, especially after surviving sexual violence. Their ability to heal and control is not magic, it is agency.

As women's bodies are held in dominion by white ownership, Miss May Belle and Rue are conductors of power. Without question, abortion has always existed despite its deregulation and illegality. Conjure Women demonstrates the prevalence of these services and the resulting urgency for women's corporeal control across time and space.

As the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent uprisings have exposed the ubiquity of police brutality, it is impossible to ignore the lastingness of using violence to control black bodies. Conjure Women's depiction of slavery's atrocities is painfully authentic. More so, Atakora intentionally emphasizes the daily acts of violence to reveal the fullest extent of the abuse.

For Atakora, there are two primary branches of corporeal violence: the first is sexual. Miss May Belle and Rue are constantly curing women of venereal disease or supporting them as they recover from rape — both instances delivered by their white master. But they also create the tinctures that act as birth control, allowing women to decide when and if they become pregnant.

Yet the ability to take control of their bodies was furtive. More frequently, the commodification of women's reproduction, specifically the belief that slaves were akin to livestock, prevailed. Marse Charles deliberately purchased slaves whose reproductive capacity would increase his finances. Slave owners enforced reproduction as an economy, and in doing so severed families while positioning a person as nothing more than capital.

Here Atakora extends Marx's theory suggesting the reproduction of goods enabled society to re-create itself. Instead, Conjure Women is more deliberate in its statement that the economics of women's reproduction effectively re-creates racism. Readers will easily transfer Conjure Women's focus on the commodification of birth into the present and see how the trajectory disproportionately affects women of color.

The novel's second branch of systematic violence is experienced by the male characters. When Jonah first arrives at the plantation as a slave, his youth, vitality, and of course, blackness, presents an imaginary threat to Marse Charles. To cull the unease, he ties Jonah down and smears bacon grease over his body. The smell of the lard lures in wild pigs who eat Jonah's genitals and lower body. It was not Marse Charles' intent to kill but to render Jonah sexless.

Likewise, Rue's father is lynched after he is falsely accused of impregnating Varina, Marse Charles' daughter. Much as the murder of Eric Garner and George Floyd, in addition to the countless black citizens murdered in cold-blood, Jonah and Rue's father were killed by a bogus threat founded on systematic racism. The line drawn from Conjure Women to today displays the violence as mostly unchanged other than the mechanics of the killings.

Here Atakora poses a vital question: is lynching the same as the asphyxia related deaths of Garner and Floyd, and by extension, the seemingly endless shootings? When considering the history of violence endured by African Americans, the answer is an unequivocal yes: Eric Garner's and George Floyd's murders are a modern form of lynching.

Conjure Women testifies to the oppressive control prevalent in the past while drawing stunning parallels to the here and now. That injustice is currently facing a struggle and perhaps society has reached its turning point. However, Atakora makes it clear that unless oppression is dismantled now, it will remain in control through the future.


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