After our class discussion on Charles Chesnutt’s short story “Po’ Sandy” about the naturalism used in his stories, I began wondering more about it. I started thinking mostly about how he uses nature, something seen as so calm and serene, to describe slavery, something so vial and mean. I think that it is interesting that he chose to discuss the brutalities of slavery through nature. In “Po’ Sandy”, the main character, Sandy, is a slave that is constantly moved around from plantation to plantation. Sandy doesn’t want to continue leaving Mr. Marrabo’s plantation. This is because his first wife was sold to another owner without Sandy even knowing that this had happened and now he has remarried, a woman named Tenie, and also found out that he is going to be sent to a new plantation. He doesn’t want to leave again and tells Tenie about his dilemma. She then tells Sandy that she used to be a conjure woman many of years ago and that she would change him into whatever he would like to be so that he wouldn’t have to leave. She suggested turning him into a rabbit, a wolf, or a mocking bird. But he didn’t want to be either of those animals because a rabbit and mocking bird could be killed easily and a wolf was feared by people. Tenie then suggested turning him into a tree; so she did. This is what made me start to wonder. Why did he want to be turned into a tree? Is this story a tall tale or the sad truth of a love story?
I believe that Chesnutt makes Sandy turn into a tree mainly because of the roots that a tree has. The roots of the tree are strong and stable. This symbolizes the stability that slaves seek to have; they want to feel like they aren’t just a piece of property. Trees are seen as strong and calm plants and can endure almost anything. However, even though Sandy is a tree he still has human feelings, physically and emotionally. This is seen in the story when “Mars Marrabo sent a nigger out in de woods fer ter chop tuppentime boxes. De man chop a box in dish yer tree, en hack’ de bark up two er th’ee feet, fer ter let de tuppentime run. De nex’ time Sandy wuz turnt back he had a big skyar on his lef’ lef, des lack it be’n skunt” (49). Even though Sandy had escaped his fate of being sent to a new plantation, he now didn’t have the option to defend himself against the things that were hurting him physically. While he was in the tree form, he still felt the pain that he would’ve felt had he been human. I find this very interesting that Chesnutt does this in the story. He does this because it is explaining to the people that weren’t involved in slavery that even though the slaves may have had stability, the pain that they faced was never ending. This foreshadows to the post-war period when slavery was abolished; the slaves were still indebted servants to the property that they worked on because they didn’t know any other way of life. It just shows that slavery is a never ending institution even if a slave finds stability.
As far as whether this is a tall tale or the sad truth of a love story, I think that there is truth in the falsehood of this story. This is just a way to portray the horrid institution of slavery in a friendlier way by using naturalism. I believe that this story was a made up version of the truth behind it. Tenie was defending her husband so that he wouldn’t get caught by the slave catchers by making up a tall tale about her turning him into a tree. She did this so that none of the other slaves or overseers would find out to make sure that Sandy was safe. In the beginning of the story, when they are trying to decide what to change Sandy into, he is given the option of three other animals to choose from; he doesn’t choose any of these because if he is the rabbit or the mocking bird that means that he is going to be caught and killed right away, and if he is the wolf people would fear him, people in the north. I think that Sandy is a runaway slave in hiding so that he can find the stability that he is looking for and Tenie is keeping this secret so that her husband is safe. That is until the tree is chopped down and sent to the saw mill; Sandy is caught is going to a secluded place to receive his punishment for running away. Tenie is caring for a new woman at this point in the story and doesn’t know what has happened to Sandy. However, when she finds out:
she come right inter the mill, en th’owed herse’f on de log, right in front er de saw, a-hollerin’ en cryin’ ter her Sandy ter fergib her, en not ter think hard er her, fer is wa’n’t no fault er hern. Den Tenie ‘membered de tree didn’ hab no years, en she wuz gittin’ ready fer ter wuk her gopher mixtry so ez ter turn Sandy back, w’en de mill-hands kotch holt er her en tied her arms wid a rope, en fasten’ her to one er de posts in de sawmill; en den day starter de saw up ag’in en cut de log up inter bo’ds en scantlin’s right befo’ her eyes (51).
There is a lot of truth in the falsehood of this part of this tragic love story. Tenie was trying to save Sandy from what was about to happen to him, and in turn she was tied up to a post and had to witness her husband be mauled by the overseers and brutally beaten. This was done to put fear in the minds of the slaves so that they wouldn’t try to reenact what the slave being beaten had done.
Chesnutt says that some of these stories told “poured freely into the sympathetic ear of a Northern-bred woman, disclose many a tragic incident of the darker side of slavery” (46). By saying this he was just giving a hint to what he is trying to show the people that weren’t involved in slavery. He was trying to show the darker side of the institution that most people didn’t know about. Chesnutt does an excellent job using nature to portray such a brutal institution and to tell the tragic love story of Sandy and Tenie. Using naturalism to tell the horrors of slavery was easier to relate the brutality of slavery to the Northern population, specifically women, who didn’t have to experience slavery first-hand.