“Theresa, A Haytien Tale” in Historical Context assigned in AMH 2010: United States History from Settlement to Reconstruction

Michelle Carrigan, Ph.D.
Indian River State College

The tale of Theresa provided students with a glimpse into the way cultural historians investigate and think about the past. What’s more, the existence of such a source highlights an early example of abolitionist literature before William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. Students in my survey level early American history course read “Theresa, A Haytien Tale,” and then were challenged to place the story within its historical context. After completing reading assignments and taking part in class discussion, each student wrote an essay that attempted to explain the author’s or editors’ purpose in publishing a story that featured a female heroine, who aided the Haitian Revolution in an African-American newspaper in 1828 New York. The assignment provided an opportunity for students to become historical investigators and demonstrate their creativity combined with analytical skill.

The first part of the project was to gain background information. We had been discussing the economic changes that took place in the North and South during the nineteenth century before we moved onto the Theresa assignment. In preparation for class discussion, students read PBS’s brief newspaper bio on Freedom’s Journal, along with “Theresa, A Haytien Tale.” On discussion day students worked in groups to answer a series of questions relating to the story, and then we discussed as a class. The group work, although more time consuming, allowed for more voices to be heard, and so for students to see how different people focus on different pieces of the story. For some, the violent elements of the Haitian Revolution stood out to them, while others focused on the personal relationships of the heroine with her mother and sister.[1]

Once we had illuminated possible ways of reading the source from our own perspectives, we moved onto placing the story within its time and place. Such an exercise highlighted the concept of historical memory as it shed light on how someone writing in the late 1820s for an African-American newspaper viewed the Haitian Revolution. The story was not a journalistic or historical account of the Haitian Revolution. It was a fictional account published in 1828 that was set during the Haitian Revolution, a real event that concluded more than twenty years (a generation) before then. Focusing on the time and place in which “Theresa…” was published emphasized that our historical investigation was about 1828 New York and not about the Haitian Revolution.

To help place “Theresa…” in context we examined the legal and social situation of New York in 1828. Students compared excerpts from New York State’s Constitution of 1777 and of 1821 that outlined voting requirements. In addition, they looked at New York’s laws concerning gradual abolition. We discussed the meaning of gradual versus immediate abolition. The documents provided the legal perimeters of life for free (and enslaved) black people in New York from the time of the American Revolution to the time of Freedom’s Journal. Considering the status of free blacks in the North complicated the idea of a free North, yet it also provided a dramatic contrast to the expanding slave system in the South. After our discussion of the state of abolition and voting laws in the United States, with an emphasis on New York, students were then asked how the time and place in which Theresa was published affected the story that was told.[2]

Finally, we complicated matters more by asking why the story starred a girl. Why would the author make the main character, who helps to save the revolution, female? Such a question begs another question, which is who was the author. I relied on Frances Smith Foster’s research on the author to provide a possible answer, yet the conversation underscored the early American practice of publishing newspaper pieces anonymously. Students were able to suggest the accepted roles for women in 1820s New York through a close reading of the text. They then went further by proposing possible reasons why the author made the heroine a heroine. The discussion necessarily raised the topic of sentimentalism, which led to a discussion of how eighteenth-century sensibility shifted to become nineteenth-century sentimentalism.[3]

In the end the discussions provided a number of opportunities for students to come up with their own interpretations. The essays were supposed to be only two to three double-spaced pages in length, so students had to narrow down their focus. Although they all had to consider the context of time and place, they were free to focus on whatever aspect of the story they desired. The use of “Theresa…” offered students a chance to show their own intellectual creativity without the constraints of a well-known, scholarly interpretation. The assignment worked well for an entry-level college course.

[1] “Freedom’s Journal: a Newspaper Bio,” PBS.org, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/newbios/nwsppr/freedom/freedom.html

[2] New York State’s gradual abolition laws and excerpts from New York’s 1777 and 1821 Constitutions are available on New York State Archives’ website. “Documents Showcase: African American Voting Rights,” NYSED.gov, accessed May 20, 2015, http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/showcase/201011afamvoting/

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

Teaching “Theresa” in an African American Studies graduate seminar

Britt Rusert
Afro-American Studies, Graduate-level seminar
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

I taught “Theresa: a Haytien Tale” in a graduate seminar on Early African American Print Culture, a course I have taught regularly in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department at UMass Amherst. The course provides a comprehensive introduction to early (pre-1900) African American literature through a materialist and book history perspective, and is usually composed of students from both Afro-American Studies (working in the fields of History and Literature) and English (usually Americanists working on nineteenth-century topics); this year, we also had a brave student from Archaeology join our in-depth discussions of literary history. We had a wide-ranging and engaging discussion about a text that the class found inherently interesting. Their interest was also peaked by the collective undertaking of reading the text in the context of the Just Teach One initiative. One graduate student opened the class discussion by providing some context for the text and raising some initial questions for discussion (a form that I use throughout the semester in this seminar). This student contextualized “Theresa” in terms of its appearance in the “Original Communications” section of the Freedom’s Journal, talked about the origins and political orientation of the newspaper, and raised questions about the function of fictional representations of the Haitian Revolution for an African American readership in the 1820s.

We spent a lot of time thinking about the question: what type of narrative is “Theresa” and what was its function within the Freedom’s Journal itself? Moreover, how do we understand “Theresa” in light of the many accounts and histories of the Haitian Revolution circulating in the black press and in U.S. culture more broadly during this period? Throughout, students wanted to know more about what else appeared in the Freedom’s Journal, and when I teach the text a second time, I will have students look at issues in which “Theresa” appeared. The class was also interested in the idyllic descriptions of Haiti throughout the text, representations of a lush, tropical environment that aligned with colonial visions of the Caribbean (especially as a region of exotic and natural abundance, where nothing needs to be harvested or extracted from the land), but that also worked to revalue Haiti itself in the face of rampant denigration of the notorious “black state” in U.S. popular culture. Students also read the descriptions of a benign and sustaining Haitian environment as part of a travel or “tourism” agenda, and here they drew “Theresa” into the orbit of debates about Haitian emigration in the 1820s.

Ultimately, the class decided that they wanted to think about “Theresa” as a counter-narrative that provided a different historical viewpoint on the Haitian Revolution, especially in its placement of women at the center of revolutionary organization and struggle. They were especially compelled by the narrative’s elevation of Theresa into a heroic figure, and they thought that this might be the earliest representation of a black female hero protagonist in African American print (Paulina, Theresa’s mother, is also described as valiant and courageous in the narrative). Students went on to explore the many connections between Toussaint and Theresa in the tale (including their alliterative names) and Theresa’s figuration at one point as a “prophet” who foresees the fall of the French. The class was interested in the fact that Toussaint himself becomes a character in the serial, but the author actually downplays his role so as to foreground Theresa as the real hero of this story. Despite a passing mention of Toussaint’s “fatherly protection,” this is really Theresa’s tale, as the serial’s title indicates. The decentering of Toussaint is particularly fascinating given the iconographic status of Toussaint in black culture in this period. This conversation also led to important questions about authorship, and the possibility that Theresa’s author, “S,” was a woman. The Theresa-as-hero aspect of the story made students speculate about the possibility of a female author, as did the fact that the story was published anonymously (as were many women’s contributions to newspapers and other forms of publication in the period). We went on to discuss a textual moment that might be read as a scene of female authorship: having finally decided to leave her mother and sister for Toussaint’s camp, Theresa pulls from her breast, not a sword, but a pen. This was a great “a-ha” moment in the class when students were able to connect the narrative to its production.

To my mind, the most fascinating part of the discussion centered around a fundamental point of confusion among the discussion participants: one student started talking about the “passing narrative” in the text, and other students chimed in they didn’t see such a narrative in the text. The section in question appears just after the escape of Madame Paulina and her daughters, when Paulina poses as a captain of the French army, “attired in the uniform of a French officer,” while her daughters are disguised as prisoners. While such a disguise certainly necessitated a cross-gender performance, students were split as to whether or not Paulina’s disguise presumed a racial performance as well. In other words, was Paulina, disguised as a French officer, also passing for white? Or was she posing as a mulatto member of the French army? This passage illuminates the complexities of color and caste in Haiti and brought us to a quick discussion of such topics in CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. This part of the discussion ended with students linking Theresa’s temporary act of passing to Ellen Crafts’ escape in drag in Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, while others wondered about the limits of translating U.S.-based passing narratives into transnational contexts.

The second half of our conversation focused on the graduate students in the class thinking about how they might incorporate “Theresa” into their own courses, and what possibilities and challenges such a text might present in the undergraduate classroom. Students were in agreement that this might be a difficult text to teach in a general education course to students with little to no knowledge of black literature or history. However, they thought it could work well in an upper-level course, especially in a course that might place early black writing in a hemispheric or more global context. We concluded this final part of the session with a fascinating conversation about how instructors might enable students to think about the politics of serialization and the forms of reading it has enabled historically. Members of the class wondered if it would be possible to teach “Theresa” in installments, having students read one installment per week and then discussing each week’s reading in class (followed by a final conversation about the entire narrative). Following up on earlier weeks’ conversations about rethinking and expanding our concept of literacy through the work of Elizabeth McHenry and Gene Andrew Jarrett, one student wondered if it would be possible to do an experiment in oral literacy by having students read installments aloud to one another. We concluded by discussing the political valences of such an exercise and the potential dangers of attempting to occupy or approximate the reading experiences and subject positions of African Americans in the nineteenth century (especially for white and other non-black students in our classrooms).