Teaching “Theresa: A Haytien Tale” in a General Education African American Literature Survey

Julie Buckner Armstrong
University of South Florida St. Petersburg

I assigned “Theresa: A Haytien Tale” in an African American Literature survey course. An unexpected surgery prevented me from being present on the day the text was discussed, so my colleague Thomas Hallock filled in instead. His help turned out to be fortuitous. I had distinct goals for assigning “Theresa” in the survey that Tom, an early Americanist (and previous Just Teach One contributor), helped me to realize in unexpected ways.

My plan for the course was to work toward a discussion, in the final weeks, of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? Throughout the term, students would read a range of texts from the eighteenth century to the present and complete two projects. The first asked them to compare our course text, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, to an anthology that focused on a specific point in time, such as Alain Locke’s The New Negro, Toni Cade Bambara’s Black Woman: An Anthology, and Kevin Powell’s Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature. The second project asked students to define for themselves what African American literature is (or was), engaging Warren’s book, critiques from a recent African American Review roundtable edited by Melissa Asher Daniels and Gregory Laski, and at least five to seven works read during the term. Appearing mid-way between these two projects, a short writing assignment on “Theresa: A Haytien Tale” posed a series of questions: “If you were editing an anthology of African American literature (or teaching a class such as this one), would you include “Theresa”? Why or why not? What literary, historical, or other contexts would you find most appropriate for presenting this reading to students?” I had three relatively modest expectations:

  • Students would come away from the course understanding it in dialogue with different literary and social movements;
  • “Theresa” would help to expand their ideas of African American literature beyond national borders;
  • “Theresa” would help prepare them to engage with Warren’s definition of African American literature as a response to Jim Crow.

A note on modest expectations. At our small campus (a unit of the larger University of South Florida system), African American Literature serves general education rather than major requirements. At USF St. Petersburg, students defer nine hours of their core until their junior and senior years. African American Literature is such an “exit course,” designed to provide students with a pre-graduation booster shot of literature and writing. Business, Psychology, Biology, and other majors come into the course with a range of skills. Most tell me that they hate poetry. Some, after the fact, admit that Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is the first book they’ve ever finished. I knew going in that these assignments would be tough for the group, but I also hoped that the independent female heroine of “Theresa” might inspire them, and, in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, Warren’s provocation of an African American Literature that “was” might be sufficient motivation to endure some complex reading.

Students read “Theresa” in the Norton Anthology as an addition to the most recent (third) edition. My intention was to build upon our anthology assignment to contextualize that editorial decision. My early Americanist stand-in quickly dispensed with the plan. The part of my instructions he listened to was, “You’re the expert here, have fun.” And so they did. Tom pulled up original versions of “Theresa” in the digitized Freedom’s Journal to discuss the process of serialization and the authorship of “S,” and he had students compare what they could learn from the resources included in the Norton to how they would read “Theresa” in its original context. The data tells the story. Of the 22 students enrolled in the African American Literature survey, 17 said that they would include “Theresa” in their own anthology or course, and only five replied negatively. Most of those responses cited what they said was “dated” language. Some context: students in literature exit courses routinely balk at reading “older” texts (a fluid term that can mean anything prior to the twentieth or even the twenty-first century) because they perceive the language and conventions as too difficult. Three students dropped this course somewhere between Olaudah Equiano and Sojourner Truth.

Those who stayed found themselves with a new and useful set of resources for approaching earlier texts. And Tom’s “fun” diversion ultimately brought students back around to some of the broader literary questions I wanted them to consider. For one, seeing the text in its original serialized form helped her to “understand its major plot points, and in turn the story as a whole.” Both this writer and others were put off by the text’s uncertain authorship – a reason that some gave for not including “Theresa” in their anthology or course. We had discussed issues of identity and voice early in the term, and these students had serious doubts about a text’s validity when its author’s race and gender could not be established. Another writer saw questionable authorship as a “great springboard for discussion,” giving two questions in particular he would raise with his class: “Is it fair or useful to project interpretations of today onto a piece written so long ago”? and “How could anonymity offer writers the opportunity to communicate ideas they otherwise couldn’t”? For a third student, questionable authorship and “older” language mattered less than a strong character. What made this text valuable for her were its themes of “black nationalism” and “female agency,” especially during a time that today’s readers might not expect to see them.

Some students returned to “Theresa” at the term’s end, as I had hoped, when crafting their own definitions of African American literature in response to Kenneth Warren. A majority of the students (20 of 22) disagreed with Warren. About a quarter of those argued that describing African American literature within the context of Jim Crow segregation did not take into account the variety of early African American texts or those with a more fluid definition of national boundaries (such as Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, Equiano’s narrative, and “Theresa”). For example, one writer described “African American” as an “umbrella that covers a wide range of ethnicities,” and the literature underneath that umbrella including texts by “African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, Biracial, and Multi-racial [individuals].” To support her argument, she grouped a series of early and later writers by ethnicity, such as “Theresa” and Edwidge Danticat, who help us understand the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States across time. Another student made a similar case about early and transnational texts to point out that Warren asked the wrong question. Rather than “What was African American literature?” she stated, we should ask, “Who is African American literature?”

The question is worth considering during a time in which national boundaries are no longer a primary method of organizing syllabi, but identity can still be a primary way of organizing a protest movement. Black lives matter, as does the literature written about those lives. A number of students contextualized “Theresa” within a long history of protest literature that is global in scope, perhaps because their primary instructor – a civil rights scholar, not an early Americanist – emphasized that theme throughout the course. As one writer asked, “why should this work not be presented in the classroom?” It celebrates, she says, the “victory of the fight against human oppression including women and people of color in general.”

To me, that statement is reason enough to keep assigning “Theresa,” even in a general education class that might initially resist such “old” works before realizing how much they speak to “now.” A second reason, of course, is after that unexpected surgery gave me good news rather than my worse fear, I am all about having a little more fun in the classroom.

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade, ed. Black Woman: An Anthology. 1970. New York: Washington Square Press, 2005.

Daniels, Melissa Asher, and Greg Laski, eds. “Assessing What Was African American Literature? or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium.” African American Review 44.4 (Winter 2011): 567-91.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., et. al., ed. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 3rd edition. Vols. 1-2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: An Interpretation. 1925. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Powell, Kevin, ed. Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature. New York: Wiley, 2000.

Warren, Kenneth. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Sample Lesson Plan

Dr. Cassander Smith, professor
Creative Re-Write, EN 249/AAST 249-005 (Undergraduate survey course)

Assignment sheet 

Project Overview: For this major writing project, I am asking you to employ your critical thinking and reading skills to re-write a passage from the short story “Theresa, a Haytien Tale” from the perspective (in the voice) of another writer we have discussed this semester.

Task: This assignment has two parts:

Part I Think back to the Aesop fable about the lion and the man and how the lion is represented in a stone statue as weaker than man. Indeed, the man’s hands are around the lion’s throat. Importantly, the statue is rendered from the perspective of the man. The lion dismisses the statue, saying, “If we lions knew how to erect statues, you would see the man placed under the paw of the lion.” Here, I am asking you to comb back through the many authors we’ve read this semester. Think about the writing strategies those writers used to help build a body of African American literature. Consider, for example, Langston Hughes’s use of blues and jazz rhythms to write poetry. Recall Wheatley’s use of a neoclassical style in her poetry. Recall Frederick Douglass’s use of imagery or Harriet Jacobs’s reliance on sentimentality and hyperbole. What about Charles Chesnutt and Zora Neale Hurston’s use of dialect? Your job is to pick a writer whose style of writing you think you can imitate. Then, you should retell “Theresa, A Haytien Tale,” as written in the style of your chosen writer.

Do not attempt to re-write the entire short story. You can pick a scene, a central moment of action where there is a beginning, middle, and end. For example, you could re-write the beginning of the story when Paulina initially decides to run away. Or you can reimagine the final scene, and expand it, where Theresa is reunited with her family. Basically, you want to think about how the story might change if written from the perspective of an author we can more readily identify as “African American.” When deciding how to re-write your scene, you want to think about questions such as: How does word choice change if I retell this story from the perspective of a writer during the Black Arts Movement? What themes do I emphasize/de-emphasize if telling this story from the perspective of a former enslaved person, like Douglass or Jacobs? How does the significance of the Haitian Revolution and Theresa’s heroism look different depending on the time period of the writer? In class, we have debated the significance of the author’s identity in determining what is/isn’t African American literature. This project is your chance to think more about that. Your re-write need not be long, anywhere from 2,000 to 5000 words, but it should be complete with a beginning, middle, and end.

Of course, this is a project of speculation. So, you will have to make-up details/facts, which is why this is a creative writing exercise. You are to use your imagination; however, that imagination should be guided by the historical information. The details, while imaginative, must also be plausible based on information found in the original text. For example, if a character in the text is a vegetarian, then you cannot say in your re-write that the character eats bacon and grits for breakfast. OR if you do contradict the original text, you should have a good explanation for doing so, which you can explain in the self-reflective essay that will accompany the re-write.

Part II The re-write should be accompanied by a 1000-word self-reflective essay in which you explain and justify the imaginative choices you made in your re-write. The self-reflective essay should make

some kind of effort to walk me through the analytical process you went through in making particular choices when crafting your re-write. The essay should address questions such as: Why/how does perspective matter? That is, how do the contours of the story change when told from the perspective of a different author? What might this new perspective tell us about the original story? What new information/perspective does your re-write provide about the nature of African American literature? How does the re-write rely on information from the original text? What kinds of difficulties did you encounter in doing the re-write and what might be the limitations of engaging in this kind of speculative work? Is it useful or useless? The most important question of all is this: How does your re-write of ‘Theresa, A Haytien Tale’ challenge or confirm common definitions of African American literature? Keep in mind that this is a formal essay, which means it should include an intro/thesis, a body, and a conclusion. Essentially, it is your opportunity to sell me on the value of your re-write.

Goal: You primary goal in this exercise is to offer us a new way of reading and thinking about the body of literature we have labeled African American literature.

Paper Guidelines: The re-write should be 2,000 to 5,000 words – more or less. I am not concerned about the length so much as the quality of analysis. The re-write can be done in any genre – journal/diary, poem, short story, travel narrative. In other words, you need not follow the generic form of the original text. One caveat: Don’t go the route of writing a poem because you think it will be easier. It takes more time to produce a well-crafted three-stanza poem than it does to write a 20 page short story. If you submit poetry, I will grade it based on common poetic aesthetics, i.e. tone, diction, imagery, rhythm, structure, content. The self-reflective essay should be at least 1000 words and should be structured like a formal essay. Please type using Times 12-point, with one-inch margins. Make sure you title your re-write.

Evaluation: I will grade your assignment based on the rubric below. Basically, I’m looking for thorough and involved analysis in your re-writes. How well does the re-write illustrate that you thought about the original text beyond the surface? How well does the re-write offer useful and plausible possibilities for new approaches to African American literature? How well does the self-reflective essay talk us through your creative choices? I will take into account your level of creativity and analysis, as well as the more mechanical elements (grammar, punctuation, style). Creative Craft Self-Reflection Originality/Plausibility Mechanics
A Creative piece masterfully utilizes specific techniques of the craft of creative writing, i.e. imagery, characterization, point of view, setting, etc. appropriate to the chosen genre, i.e., poetry, fiction, drama, letter, autobiography. The self-reflective essay offers a thorough, specific discussion of the piece’s conception from beginning to end. It addresses most of the questions from the assignment sheet and displays clear evidence of the student’s analysis and synthesis. Creative piece offers a unique take on the original text. It makes use of details from the original text and is written in a style/voice that mirrors that of the student’s chosen African-American author. While adhering to details of the original text, the rewrite clearly illustrates the ways in which a story’s content can differ Grammar, spelling, punctuation are very clean. Paragraph structures in the self-reflective essay are solid. Overall structure of the entire project is logical and clear.


Cassander L. Smith
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

I taught “Theresa; a Haytien Tale” in Fall 2014 in my undergraduate Survey of African American Literature course. I had 35 students. Most of them were freshmen and sophomores taking the course to fulfill general education requirements, and they had no prior experience with African American literature. In fact, on the first day of class when I asked them to name five African American writers from any period of American history, none could name five. I say all of this to contextualize my approach to the course and my teaching of “Theresa; a Haytien Tale.” I started at square one by asking students to define terms that they might have thought self-evident – “literature” “African American” and “authorship.” Throughout the semester, I introduced them to a range of texts, most from the Norton anthology. By mid-November, students had gained a basic understanding of the African American literary canon as texts written by and/or about African American experiences in the United States throughout the course of American history. To complicate their burgeoning understanding of this canon, I had them read “Theresa; a Haytien Tale” just before the Thanksgiving break, the last text of the term.

During the two class periods we worked with this text, students overwhelmingly viewed the text with suspicion, questioning whether it could be classified as African American literature given that we could not determine the racial identity of the author and given that the text was about events in Haiti, not the U.S. “For all we know,” one of my students challenged, “this story could have been written by a white guy from France who had no understanding of what it was like to be black or a woman living through the Haitian Revolution.” Another student commented that the author’s identity and the story’s setting didn’t matter as much because the experiences of the characters mirrored the struggles of those African Americans living in the United States, which meant, then, that the story fit into the category of African American literature. These students’ observations generated a fruitful discussion about authorial subjectivity and intention. We grappled with the question of whether it is possible to view a text as a lone entity divorced from a writer. If it is possible to approach text this way, why does the author’s identity matter? And how would it affect what we classify as African American literature if authorial identity was not part of the canonization process? I introduced them to Roland Barthes’s essay “Death of the Author,” in which he argues that a text derives its meaning from an intimate relationship between language and reader, not from authorial intention or identity. To my surprise, only a handful of students accepted Barthes’s argument. The rest rejected it, insisting that authorial identity is essential to how we read and classify African American literature. To continue our discussion about authorship and subjectivity, I had students compare “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” to several other texts we had read earlier in the semester – Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, Briton Hammon’s “Surprizing Deliverance,” and “The Account” of Spain’s Fray Marcos de Niza, which chronicles the 16th century exploits of Esteban the Moor traveling through what is now the southwest United States. These three texts are about people of African descent, and the plots unfold largely outside of the United States and/or are not written by people who would identify themselves as “African American.” Yet, when we read those texts in class initially, we did not question their categorization as African American literature. After reading “Theresa,” students approached those earlier texts from a new perspective that made them ask questions about black subjectivity and what that might have looked like during different periods of African American history. Ultimately, I found that adding “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” to the syllabus at the end of the term was a nice way to engage students more deeply in discussions about authorship, racial subjectivity, and canon formation.

The discussion was accompanied by a final assignment, a creative writing exercise in which I asked students to re-write a passage from “Theresa, a Haytien Tale” from the perspective (in the voice) of another writer we discussed during the semester. I designed the assignment as an opportunity for students to exercise their critical creative thinking skills to consider more fully the role of authorial identity/intention in the forming of African American literature.

Discovering “Theresa”

Katy L. Chiles
University of Tennessee

I taught “Theresa; a Haytien Tale” in Fall 2014 in ENG/AFST 333, a course that draws English majors, Africana Studies majors, and a cross-section of Arts and Sciences majors. The catalogue title is “African American Literature and Aesthetics,” and I subtitle the course “Feeling, Haunting: African-American Sentimental and Gothic Literature.” The course description states that the class “will survey the way that African-American authors have engaged with and contributed to the literary genres of sentimental and gothic literature. We will investigate how writers approached the historical reality of slavery and depicted it in their work. How did writers communicate what it might feel like to be enslaved or descended from slaves? How did writers portray the many ways that slavery haunted and continues to haunt texts, people, and cultural imaginaries?” “Theresa; a Haytien Tale” would have fit much better historically, topically, and geographically in my ENG/AFST 443: “The Antebellum Black Atlantic” course (one that reads scores of shorter pieces in Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Writers in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth-Century, along with Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Delany). I will teach “Theresa” in “The Antebellum Black Atlantic” in Fall 2015, but of the courses I taught this academic year, “Feeling, Haunting” made the most sense as the place where I could introduce “Theresa” to my students. Although the course is mostly a novel and narrative course, the placement of “Theresa” on my syllabus ended up foregrounding two aspects of the text: its printed, material form as an anonymous text in a nineteenth-century black newspaper; and a somewhat familiar but yet refreshing kind of female protagonist.

We began our course with William Wells Brown’s Clotel, before going into Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Students got a sense of the genre of sentimental fiction and how it could be used, revised, or avoided in terms of national debates about slavery. With Jacobs and our subsequent text, Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the students saw the shift to the gothic mode and how it could become the perfect literary technique to represent the social death of slavery. With The Bondwoman’s Narrative, of course, we got the chance to talk more about textual production, as it was a manuscript initially catalogued by Dorothy B. Porter, published by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and researched for the history of its composition by Gregg Hecimovich. I brought my copy of the manuscript facsimile to show them, and we talked about manuscript culture and posthumous publication, putting Hannah Crafts’s work in conversation with that of Emily Dickinson. The students were especially interested in the archival research necessary to put a “found” text into publication.

Thus, when we got to “Theresa,” I decided to try an activity to give my class something of its own moment of “discovering” an early African American text. I asked them to read the story and imagine that they had discovered this piece of writing in Freedom’s Journal for the first time in the twenty-first century. I asked them to imagine themselves as potential, twenty-first century editors who wanted to reprint this text for the first time and what kinds of questions they would need to research in order to present the historical work to a contemporary audience of readers like themselves. I must say I was impressed with the range and perspicuity of their questions. Some were curious about Freedom’s Journal, and said that if they were going to reprint “Theresa,” they would have to decide how to indicate it had been serialized in a newspaper. They would want their readers to know what other kinds of articles were published in the paper, the newspaper’s history, its circulation numbers, and its readers. Some were drawn to the question of authorship, saying either that they would want to find out who wrote it (as Gregg Hecimovich is doing with The Bondwoman’s Narrative) or that they would try to situate “Theresa” contextually, much as the Gates’s introduction to The Bondwoman’s Narrative does. And, of course, many of them said that they would want to present more historical information on the Haitian Revolution and what a U.S.-based newspaper was doing publishing in 1827 a story set in the 1790s. I was pleased to see that so many of their concerns resonated with the topics of Frances Smith Foster’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Theresa?” essay; the students were relieved to see that some of the initial research had already been started. I think that before the students even got into the “content” of the story, they got a very real sense of the archival work involved in recovering early African-American texts and all of the interpretive, material, and pedagogical labor involved in getting texts into scholars’ hands and onto their syllabi—of which JTO: EAAP is a fantastic example.

Perhaps in large part because our course focused on women’s writing, writing about women, and the use of sentimental fiction to write about enslaved women in order to appeal to free women, the students were very drawn to—and at times confused by—the female characters of Madame Paulina, Amanda, and Theresa. They were attuned to the trope of the family (and its breakup under the regime of slavery), the subtle and somewhat veiled allusions to the danger of rape, the melodramatic writing style, women cross-dressing to escape racial persecution, and the use of tears to signal important emotional and political moments in a text. They were somewhat more surprised by Theresa’s nationalistic turn and how the story reimagines women directly involved in military action and political victory. Although she had much in common with the pluck and perseverance like some of our other female protagonists in our course, she took an active role in espionage and warfare and turned from her family in order to save her country. In addition to “Theresa” the tale, Theresa the character seemed like another kind of discovery to them.

Foster, Frances Smith. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Theresa?” African American Review. Vol. 40, no.4 (Winter, 2006): 631-645.