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.
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.