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.

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