“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).

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.

“Teresa” and Toussaintiana

Ed White
Tulane University

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.

Theresa Lesson Plan

Nicole N. Aljoe, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of English

Northeastern University,Boston, MA

This assignment was the third formal essay the students had written in an “Introduction to Literary Studies” course. In addition to reading “Theresa” and the Foster essay, they also read three critical essays about early African American print culture. The students then used the class discussions and readings as the basis for an essay assignment that explored one of the four main questions/issues that we had dealt with in class: how the story alters our notions of literary history; how it relates to Black Atlantic culture; the details, strategies, and techniques employed by the writer; and the literariness of the text. Part of my thinking in highlighting these questions, in addition to helping the students focus their writing on making synthetic analyses as opposed to summarizing, was also intended to accommodate the different levels of comfort expressed by some of the students with some of the more speculative aspects of our discussion about the canon.


Although the assignment below is pretty standard, what was striking to me was that the eventual essays were some of the liveliest, most engagingly written essays that some of the students had produced. Certainly, this was facilitated by the obviously op-ed inspired style of the essay prompts, but even in the essays that focused on formal analysis of literary details or tropes the students seemed to have been more comfortable, producing lovely fluid writing, and frequently engaging insights.


English 1400: Introduction to Literary Studies

Fall 2014

Literary Analysis of “Theresa, A Haytien Tale”


Due date: 11.01.14 by 11:59pm on Blackboard

Page length:           3-5 pages typewritten, double-spaced, 12pt font


Choose one of the following topics:

  1. In her essay, “’How do you solve a problem like ‘Theresa’?” Francis Smith Foster discusses the benefits of finding the story for literary historians and archivists. As a student and an English major, what do you think about reading and sharing non-canonical stories like “Theresa” in college and/or high school literature classes?
  2. Discuss the ways in which the story “Theresa” either affirms or challenges the ideas suggested in the articles by Leon Jackson, Saidiya Hartman, or Lois Brown.
  3. Do a formal analysis of the plot, character, setting, point of view/narration, symbolism, or style of “Theresa.”
  4. Make an argument for the utility of reading “Theresa” through one or more of the specific literary theories we have discussed in class.




Theresa Reflection

Nicole N. Aljoe
Northeastern University

I taught Theresa during the Fall semester of 2014 in my Introduction to Literary Studies course. It was a class of 11 students, and the course was intended to provide, as the title suggests, an introduction to some of the components, practices, techniques, strategies, and goals of literary studies. I’d taught the course or one very like it, mostly successfully many times over my career. We turned to “Theresa” during the middle of the semester, after the students had read Gulliver’s Travels and had been introduced to several different schools of literary theory such as feminism, Marxism, Post-Structuralism, and New Criticism among others. I titled the unit “Literary History and the Archive” and my goal was to introduce students to debates about literary history and its relationship to our notions about the archive. In addition to reading “Theresa” and Foster’s essay about the story, the students also read three additional essays by scholars offering varying perspectives on early African American literary history and notions of the archive: Jackson “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian”; Brown “Death-Defying Testimony: Women’s Private Lives and the Politics of Public Documents;” Hartman “Venus in Two Acts.”

We spent two class periods, the first focused on the story and Foster’s essay, the second exploring the ramifications of the arguments by Brown, Jackson, and Hartman on our readings of the text. In initial reading responses students, as usual, expressed chagrin at their relative lack of exposure to African American literature. What was surprising was the number of students who focused on, for lack of a better word, the “Haitian-ness” of the narrative and how it exposed them to a more diverse representation of 19th century Black culture. As one student noted, “I was also pretty disappointed in realizing that in every discussion of African American literature I’d ever participated in, whether it be at home or in a classroom setting, I’d only really ever been given examples of African American literature. I’d never even really considered the highly nuanced versions of literature that would’ve been produced by any of the several other populations of African descent scattered around the globe.” And another asked, “What kind of literature did the world miss out on?”

Our initial conversation was wide ranging, moving from “noticing” the details of the story (building on our early semester introduction to Rabinowitz’s Before Reading), such as its vivid, often anthropomorphized descriptions of the landscape to considering the language of sentiment and its representations of republican femininity. We also talked about the various lenses/theories through which we could read the story and engaged in fun and interactive group exercise where the groups chose a particular theory and offered readings from that school/perspective. Although our discussions on the first day were wide-ranging, we did touch on some of the focused aspects of literary history, notions of the canon, and archives when we considered questions such as “how does this text help us reconsider African American literature? American literature, more generally? Black Atlantic literature?” On the second day, we focused our discussion much more closely on these questions. Because students tend to have difficulty “applying” or culling useful insights from essays not specifically written about the chosen primary text, I took the focused points they had made in their reading posts about the secondary essays and used them to craft the questions that formed the catalysts for the day’s class discussion. For example, drawing on the students’ notation of Hartman’s analysis of critical romanticism, I asked them “ what elements might a non-romantic recuperative reading of the story focus on?” Which elicited responses that focused on the nuanced characterization of Madame Pauline and her daughters as simultaneously passive and assertive, as well as the ways in which the writer explicitly embraces multiple rather than singular perspectives throughout the text.

Our discussions focused on literary history and the canon and the archive as a series of processes rather than an inert and stable object. The students were able to shift their thinking about the archive and the canon towards a more dynamic and “realistic” understanding of the archive/canon. This also led to an engaging discussion about print culture and how texts become part of the canon/literary archive. As another student noted, “I’ve never thought about the process and research needed in order to solve the mystery of historical text, before they even reach the reader. I often forget that what I’m holding in my hand is a finished product, and as I read I don’t think about the steps taken between an author completing the book and it landing on my desk.” This discussion also brought us back to Rabinowitz’s argument that in essence all reading is political in some way.

The students then used the class discussions and readings as the basis for an essay assignment that explored one of the four main questions/issues that we had dealt with in class: how the story alters our notions of literary history; how it relates to Black Atlantic culture; the details, strategies, and techniques employed by the writer; and the literariness of the text. Part of my thinking in highlighting these particular questions, in addition to helping the students focus their writing on making synthetic analyses as opposed to summarizing, was also intended to accommodate the different levels of comfort expressed by some of the students with the more speculative aspects of our discussion about the canon.

The story worked incredibly well in this environment. Because the students were new students to college and the major, they were not so jaded about literary studies and were willing to consider the text on its own terms. Unfortunately, in my experience working with more advanced classes with this text they are often more suspicious of the fact that the text is unsigned and doesn’t come pre-associated (at least to them) with some recognizeable framework. Indeed, hearing that scholars are currently engaged in debates about this and other texts, made them realism the dynamism of literary studies and held out the possibility that they could contribute to that discussion. All in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience working with this text with this level class. Generally speaking, the students agreed that, “Overall I was really intrigued by ‘Theresa’ and the discussion it can inspire.”

Teaching “Theresa—A Haytien Tale” and Literatures of Enslavement

Brigitte Fielder
University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Theresa—A Haytien Tale” brought to my course an opportunity for a combined discussion of perspectives on gender, revolution, and violence, showing the importance of this particular piece of literary storytelling for our broader discussion of slavery in the Atlantic world. I taught “Theresa” in my fall 2014 undergraduate seminar, “Literatures of Black Atlantic Enslavement.” This course incorporated a variety of transatlantic genres; most readings were primary texts in which slavery figures centrally, including Barbary captivity and African American slave narratives, abolitionist poetry and fiction, antislavery and proslavery political writing, stories of slave insurrection, plantation nostalgia and anti-nostalgia fiction, and contemporary discussions of slavery’s legacy. Although this was an intermediate-level undergraduate course, my students were not literature majors, but students with an interest in the course topic from a variety of departments inside and outside the humanities. The majority of our students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are white, and all my students in this class happened to be white this semester. Most students in my courses do not have much background in American literature or history before 1900, and most have not previously read any African American writers from this period.

Before reading “Teresa” toward the end of the semester, students had progressed through sections of the syllabus focusing on Barbary captivity, “classic” slave narratives by Douglass, Jacobs, and Northup, and had read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They had also read antislavery writing by David Walker, Francis Trollope, Alexis de Toqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Theodore Weld, an array of antislavery poetry, a selection of antislavery writing for children, and a small smattering of proslavery writing. I situated “Theresa” in a unit that focused on slave rebellion and revolution, grouped with Martin Delany’s novel Blake, or the Huts of America, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Herman Melville’s novella, “Benito Cereno,” I placed our reading of “Teresa” in a week alongside Victor Hugo’s 1820 short story about the Haitian Revolution, “Bug-Jargal” and William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture.”

I’d eagerly approached “Teresa” with the intention of upsetting an overly-masculine segment of my syllabus, and the text did prove useful for this endeavor. Rather than talking only about men’s revolutionary action in the other texts I’d chosen, “Teresa” allowed us to consider women’s experiences of and participation in rebellion and revolution and to make important connections between our discussions of rebellion and that of women’s experiences of and participation in enslavement. This text also presented an opportunity for an alternative representation of the Haitian Revolution to Hugo’s. My students had previously learned very little, if anything, about the Haitian Revolution, and this was no surprise. As we entered into this discussion, I gave them a very basic historical introduction, also asking them to consider how we tell stories about revolutions and from what perspectives of power we usually hear such stories. Our discussion of “Bug-Jargal” attended to the French perspective of Hugo’s story, the stakes of revolution, and how revolutionary violence was and was not described there.

We approached “Teresa” following a long series of conversations about violence. The violent content of antislavery literature was generally unfamiliar to students, and they were struck by the various kinds of violence depicted in our texts throughout the semester, from the graphic ending of Aphra Behn’s Oronooko to the threats of sexual violence recounted by Harriet Jacobs to the injured bodies documented by Theodore Weld to scenes of violence recounted by Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup or imagined in the fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe or the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Our conversations about the violent content of literatures depicting enslavement also overlapped with the broader questions that framed our course: How do we tell stories about slavery? Why does this matter for us in the present? We had been discussing this question with relation to a variety of topics, ranging from how students might have learned about slavery in their pre-college educations, what texts were/were not commonly-assigned readings on literature syllabi, the effects of our readings on their original audiences and on us as modern readers, slavery’s aftermath in American history, and how writing about slavery can help us to better understand modern forms of oppression.

Most students were particularly keen to make these last connections, talking about their own educational histories and responses to the texts, connecting themes still relevant for the present such as the violence against enslaved women and modern-day “rape culture,” and, of course, making connections between state-sanctioned violence under slavery and recent police killings of unarmed African American people – especially Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that past summer. Students had been following the protests against police violence in Ferguson throughout the semester, and we had discussed this a bit in class. We were in the midst of our discussion of rebellion and revolution when the National Guard was deployed in anticipation of the grand jury decision on whether to prosecute Wilson in this case. A few days after we discussed “Teresa,” the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, and we took some time (before getting to Melville’s “Benito Cereno”) to discuss the significance of these events.

The context of this course and the national landscape collectively influenced our reading of “Teresa,” but what emerged from our discussion was a useful re-framing of my own perception of the text’s potential uses. My students’ discussion of “Teresa” turned to the question of how we tell stories about violence on a larger political and historical scale, turning from these women characters’ participation in revolution back to questions of genre: how do we tell such stories? Students compared Hugo’s lack of attention to the individuality of black revolutionaries (save his exceptional titular character) and the near absolute absence of women in this story to the contrasting representation and overlap of revolutionaries and women in “Teresa.” Having no real frame of reference for stories about Haiti, we turned instead to the American Revolution. Students gave a basic idea of the kinds of histories of our own national revolution with which they were familiar, and compared these to the two perspectives on the Haitian Revolution we’d read. They also noted this representation of “the cause of freedom” in “Teresa” with a sense not only of the two opposing sides but also to their imbalance of power (642).

In addition to this attention to “Teresa’s” historical and national context and relations to the various genres in which we’d been reading all semester, we also discussed “Teresa” with relation to the recovery of African American texts. As my students read “Teresa,” they were in the midst of an archival research project. We had visited the Wisconsin Historical Society to look at nineteenth-century newspapers – including some scans of Freedom’s Journal – and students worked in pairs to find a text to research and present to the rest of the class. Learning what they could about historical context, perspective, and audience from “Teresa,” my students were better able, I think, to deal with other anonymous texts they found. What they gleaned from researching newspapers and their editors and our discussions about political leanings and power relations transferred, in a small but noticeable way, into their discussions of slavery’s import for the present. Researching the hashtag #EconomistBookReviews, in reference to Ed Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and watching a video depicting a white man’s denial of slavery’s impact on the present in Whitney Dow’s Whiteness Project website, my students made connections between these contemporary conversations about slavery and the antislavery and proslavery arguments they’d read all semester. With “Teresa,” they were able to add an important historical frame to their understanding of structural oppression and through their reading also came to recognize the importance of the recovery and inclusion of a story like “Teresa” in our literary collection.