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.