“Dave’s Neckliss” (1889) is a short story written by one of the first African-American authors to enjoy success as a writer of fiction: Charles Chesnutt. His reputation was established on the basis of what came to be known as “dialect stories” which was an offshoot of “local color” stories that placed a stronger emphasis on recreating the speaking patterns and patois of characters associated with specific geographic regions and cultures. Dialect stories offered a means for African-American writers like Chesnutt the opportunity to reach a receptive audience with stories intended to counteract the negative consequences of highly successful writers of “plantation stories” like Joel Chander Harris whose “Uncle Remus” stories painted a comprehensively inaccurate romantic vision of slavery for Northern readers. In addition the dialect itself, one of the elements of Chesnutt’s particular contribution to this genre was a supernatural element called “conjuring.”
“Dave’s Neckliss” became the third story of Chesnutt’s published in the Atlantic Monthly and the first not to include conjuring. This was a concerted decision by the author as part of a longer-term plan to break away from what he saw as the constriction of pandering to an audience demand for dialect stories. While the genre had been good to him and brought success and recognition, Chesnutt realized that unless made the attempt to break free, it could become a prison for his creativity.
The titular necklace is not exactly what one might expect. The plot is about a slave accused of stealing a ham and the unusual punishment conferred upon him: being forced to wear a chain around his neck to which the ham has been affixed. The punishment does take a strange twist which might well be considered the residue of “conjuring.” When the punishment finally ends and the ham necklace is removed, the slave breaks down psychologically by first wearing a necklace substitute before believing that he himself is a ham. The story climaxes with the slave committing suicide among hams by hanging himself inside a smokehouse.
Shortly after the publication of “Dave’s Neckliss” Chesnutt turned his back on dialect fiction for the next decade and attained his goal of writing stories and working on a novel in which dialogue was presented in conventional English. After a decade, Chesnutt agreed to a deal to produce enough new conjure stories to collect them into a book (The Conjure Woman) as part of a strategy devised to finally publish his first novel, but “Dave’s Neckliss” remains his last serially published work of dialect fiction.