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.

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