My students read “Theresa, a Haytien Tale” in a senior seminar on “Literature in Slavery.” The course was designed to give students a sense of the range of discourses emergent from or profoundly linked to antebellum US slavery. We began with colonial slave codes and runaway advertisements, moved through Caribbean ethnographic writing and Algerine captivity tales to insurrection texts, minstrelsy materials, humor of the Old Southwest, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and anti-Tom novels, essays from the Reopeners, and a range of abolitionist materials including colonization tracts, slave narratives, newspaper editorials, poetry and hymns. A few weeks of the semester were devoted to looking at discursive clusters around particular events or controversies, including the purchase of Louisiana, the Murrel hysteria, and John Brown’s execution. While the chronological range of materials ran from the 17th century (the Barbados Slave Code) to 1860 (excerpts from the secessionist delegates), we gave particular attention to the 1830s. We read “Theresa” at about the semester’s midpoint as we were thinking about the 1830s: for the week we were focusing specifically on the special impact of the Caribbean with emancipation—Mary Prince’s narrative was our main text, though we briefly discussed James Williams’s 1837 narrative from Jamaica—but also with an eye to the revival, in African-American and/or abolitionist publishing networks, of accounts of the Haitian Revolution. We had read, several weeks earlier, some of the sketches of Toussaint L’Ouverture in circulation at the moment of “Toussaint’s Constitution,” and were now looking at a three-part sketch of Toussaint published in The Freedom’s Journal in 1827 (right alongside “Theresa”), journalist James McCune Smith’s 1841 sketch of Toussaint, and C. W. Elliott’s St. Domingo, Its Revolution and Its Hero, Toussaint Louverture (1855). With the materials about the Haitian Revolution, we were trying to think about how the struggle against slavery reimagined the revolution with different emphases.
In that context, “Theresa” was not only a wonderful classroom text but became central to our discussion. The first portion of the class was devoted to Mary Prince’s narrative, and we quickly focused on the kinds of questions raised by the narrative: the question of regional differentiation as she experiences different modes of enslavement in different locations; the question of the motivation of masters raised by the clashing testimonies appended to Prince’s narrative proper; the gendering of the descriptions of servitude, and so on. We talked about the portability of these problems into the U.S. context, where the slave narrative would see a revival in the 1830s. We then turned to the hagiographical writings about Toussaint, with students noting recurrent tropes (Toussaint’s moment of fear) but also how the sketches struggled repeatedly with explaining the complex racial and class divisions within Saint-Domingue. We discussed why such details might have been important for abolitionist strategizers and publishers in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
With that fortuitous context, “Theresa” was the focus of the end of our meeting. Its truncated narrative made more sense, particularly thinking of The Freedom’s Journal’s content, as a tale to be inserted into what amounted to a history lesson. There was some confusion about the context of the battle and the race of the various characters, which made for some interesting reflections, and we then turned to the question of style, which many students found, if not an obstacle, at least jarring given the other materials for the week. This musing about style and the historical background assumed for readers turned into what may have been the synthetic moment for the class meeting, in which we talked about the translation or transcoding of similar scenes or contexts into different idioms with slight variations. This translation seemed important to the cohesion of The Freedom’s Journal but also seemed a useful way to return to Mary Prince and consider the abolitionist imperative to cohesively assess slavery’s different manifestations in life accounts that might otherwise seem fragmented. On a more basic level, reading a story with such obviously familiar scenarios and tropes, modified for political orientation, gave my students a great sense of the larger community enterprise of the newspaper, and when, the following week, we read anti-slavery poems and some anti-slavery children’s literature, these works were more accessible generically thanks to “Theresa.” In many ways, the story became the linchpin for the class meeting.