After Treemonisha criticizes the conjuror Zodzetrick for preying on others' superstitions rather than doing honest labor and again after her friend Remus explains how her education will “break the spell of superstition in the neighborhood,” Zodzetrick threatens and attempts to intimidate:
You accuse me wrong for injury I’s not done,
We have already seen how luck bags are believed to bring good luck or bad depending on the contents and the intended purpose. For example, the customer may have paid the conjuror for a bag ensuring prosperity, love, or general good luck, or the customer may have paid for a bag capable of driving away or killing an enemy. Zodzetrick’s “So take care, gal, I’ll send bad luck to you” would make many a person fear for the future.
But what about Zodzetrick’s last three lines above? Does he mean only that he will return in less than a month? His closing question indicates differently; he wants to make certain Treemonisha and Remus not only hear, but also fully understand. Joplin is carefully timing Zodzetrick's return.
The Dark of the Moon
By announcing that he will return “long before another new moon,” the conjuror is warning his young adversaries to expect him during the period known in folklore as “the dark of the moon ”—the period of the waning moon. In Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork (HCWR), one of Harry Middleton Hyatt’s hoodoo informants describes this period between the full moon and the new moon as the time “when de moon wus goin’ off ” (HCWR, I,188). Hyatt’s study contains many explanations of this superstition:
A growin’ moon is fo’ projects an’ when de moon’s ‘bout on de waste away, dat’s de time den da’ yo’ do fo’ not a good success, yo’ understan’. (I, 357)
References to the waning moon’s power also appear in other folklore studies as well as in popular poetry and fiction. “Graveyard dirt must be got off the coffin of the dead person, on the waste of the moon at midnight,” the Journal of American Folklore (JAFL) tells us, thus associating the destructive power of goofer dust with the waning moon (14:54, July-Sept. 1901). Mary Alicia Owen’s popular Voodoo Tales, As Told Among the Negroes of the South-West explains why harmful spells work best during this lunar phase. Aunt Mymee, the local conjure woman on the Owen’s family property, states that "de Debbil an' he folkses" reach their peak "in de wanin' ob de moon.” Drawing on this connection with the devil and other evil spirits, Sterling Brown’s poem “Dark of the Moon” portrays the lunar cycle’s effect on what a person does and what a person is. If you plant a fence post on the dark of the moon, Brown writes, "You plant it fo' nuffin',/You plant it fo' rottin." He continues by dramatizing the analogous wasting of a young man's life on wandering, poolrooms, “hussies,” and alcohol. "Ole folks dey noticed" and "dey knew why":
Shook dey heads solemn,
When Zodzetrick asks if Treemonisha and Remus have heard his threats, they respond, "Yes, and we are glad you are going.” Joplin breaks the plot tension with the arriving corn huskers’ ring play.
However, before the joyous ring play, Joplin introduces several seemingly unnecessary comments on the weather.
While comments on the fine, clear day initially appear irrelevant to the plot and, therefore, a weakness in the libretto, Joplin may have intended a subtle, but clever, reference to the folkloric association of bad weather and bad luck, good weather and safety.
Outside sources again enhance our understanding of Treemonisha. A biography of former slave/Union soldier Allen Allensworth lists common fears among the superstitious, including "conjuration, magic working . . . lightning, thunder, sudden changes in the weather, heavy, black storm clouds, . . . and other phenomenon that they did not understand." Ignorant of scientific explanations, the uneducated relied on supernatural explanations of such natural phenomena as lunar phases and meteorology and believed conjurors could use these events to lay down (perform) their tricks. For example, in Charles Chesnutt’s “Marse Jeem’s Nightmare,” Aunt Peggy, a conjuror, explains the proper use of a powdered "roots en yarbs" concoction designed to inflict nightmares on a master who won’t allow his slaves to sing, dance, or play the banjo: "'You take dis home, en gin it ter de cook, ef you kin trus' her, en tell her fer ter put it in yo' marster's soup de fus' cloudy day he hab okra soup fer dinnah. Min' you follers de d'rections." While Aunt Peggy’s black magic wouldn’t work on a sunny day, it would work in more conducive weather. With “sto’ms a-mumblin’ in de hot a’r” in “Luck –Balls,” Mary Alicia Owen proclaims it a “mighty good night foh cunjerin’ an’ a-callin’ up de goses and de booggers an’ de laks ob dem.”
Some of Henry Hyatt’s informants reinforce this notion of a conjuror’s use of bad weather and other similarly frightening natural events to strengthen his or her work. By contrast, these hoodoo believers also reveal how the absence of mysterious events keeps people safe from harm.
A rainy night is de best because the evil spirits walks mo’. When it’s lightning’ an’ thunder de spirits travel mo’ dan dey do on any othah night.” (HCWR, II, 1759)
Bruce Jackson’s essay “The Other Kind of Doctor,” included in Down by the Riverside: Readings in African American Religion, helps us understand why large numbers of people could believe in the illogical superstitions empowering conjurors. In an effort to explain why Henry Bibb, author of a well-known autobiographical slave narrative, repeatedly followed a conjuror’s advice even when that advice always failed, Jackson writes:
We must change the logic a bit, shift the basic premises. What if we assume that events in the world are causally rather than randomly linked? What if we assume the world has a sense to it greater than accident and less than total divine plan? The only real problem is to find out how to influence the various operations. The donnée would be that the world can be influenced for good or ill, that both events and persons can be directed in significant ways. The various failures Bibb reports could then be viewed as resulting from incompetence on the part of the practitioners or some mistake on Bibb’s part, but they do not themselves invalidate the theory, the process, the art.
By having Zodzetrick threaten to use the power of the waning moon against Treemonisha, Joplin carefully characterizes Zodzetrick in a manner befitting the hoodoo profession. Conjurors manipulated by fear. Speaking of those who might seek out hoodoo magic and those who might run from it, George Washington Cable wrote, "its charms are resorted to by the malicious, the jealous, the revengeful, or the avaricious, or held in terror, not by the timorous only, but by the strong, the courageous, the desperate" (Century Magazine, Apr. 1886) The Hampton Institute’s Southern Workman noted that conjurors commanded respect by threatening to hoodoo anyone failing to kowtow to them. "With the credulity of ignorance, the plantation Negro accepted as a wonder worker the most bare-faced imposter, the vilest scoundrel; and when once a man had secured for himself a reputation as a conjurer, he held the whole neighborhood in terror, " the monthly later elaborated (24:7, July 1895; 26:2, Feb. 1897). Because the superstitious regarded hoodoo practitioners with “the profoundest awe and dread” and willingly paid them as a safeguard, conjurors, such as Joplin’s Zodzetrick, could “generally live without working.” (JAFL 10: 38, July-Sept. 1897).
Less gullible than the average locals, Treemonisha and Remus not only refuse to bow down to Zodzetrick, but also dare to stand up to him, thus endangering his traditional dominance and livelihood. As non-believers in conjuration, they should be immune to his spells, for many sources indicate that hoodoo worked only on believers.
When Zodzetrick announces his return during the dark of the moon and insistently asks if they have heard him, Remus and Treemonisha's joint reply (“Yes, and we are glad you are going”) seems to reinforce the audience's view of their confidence. Yet, as the conjuror walks away, they appear to say only to each other, “Hope he’ll stay away from here always”—words full of desire, but not assurance.
Although many people might regard the weather allusions as irrelevant and a weakness in the libretto, might Joplin be addressing Remus and Treemonisha's brief ambivalent feelings toward Zodzetrick as the corn huskers approach from offstage singing (in the distance), “Very fine day”? Their words prompt Treemonisha's response:
The folks are coming to husk our corn,
Echoing her sentiment, Andy sings, "I know we'll have a jolly good time, Because the weather's very fine."
If Treemonisha and Remus experience a fleeting moment of vulnerability in which they might have succumbed to fear, Joplin provides a reason to remain strong. During a moment of doubt, the corn huskers' words would seem all the more "sweet." As long as Zodzetrick has left the plantation and the weather is fine, Treemonisha and Remus are safe and have cause for celebration.
I am a retired community college professor and the great-granddaughter of composer, orchestrator, arranger, organist, and teacher William Christopher O'Hare.
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2018 copyright on research content, Sue Attalla