Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature
University of Texas at San Antonio
I taught “Theresa” in a graduate seminar titled “Black Feminist Theory: Telling Academic Life” at the University of Texas at San Antonio during the Fall 2014 term. There were eight students; the extraordinary demographics were as follows: all women; five doctoral students and three Masters level; two students represented our university’s College of Education and Human Development while the rest of us were affiliated with the English Department; ethnically, the students identified in turn as African American (1), black and white (1), white (1), Puerto Rican (1), and Chicana (4, all queer-identified, as am I). These demographics richly informed our learning about “Theresa” with significant yet unplanned effects, as we each brought a unique awareness as well as a collective consciousness of multifarious forms of oppression, proceeding from gendered chauvinism and white supremacy and extending through homophobia and other hatreds.
I was excited that my Fall 2014 seminar provided a fortuitous opportunity to teach “Theresa” as one of the earliest print fictions featuring black women’s influential involvement in national, international, and transnational affairs. One of my former doctoral students had examined it in close detail in her dissertation on gendered forms of early Black Nationalisms. From her project I learned a great deal about Freedom’s Journal as well as about early 19th-century black feminisms. My introduction to the novella had come with Frances Smith Foster’s publication of it with her edifying headnote, published as an essay in the “Forgotten Manuscripts” (occasional column) feature in African American Review 40.4 (2007). I served as Editor of AAR back then, and worked with Foster in placing it in a prize-winning special number of the journal that had been devoted almost exclusively to Julia C. Collins, her novel The Curse of Caste (1865), and multiple antebellum black women’s sentimental and military texts, some also serialized and others not. Foster’s essay itself earned Honorable Mention in AAR’s annual essay competition the following year. Such respect for the importance of bringing “Theresa” before contemporary readers continues to be truly exhilarating.
The syllabus situated our learning about S’s novella one-third of the way through the course (after respective units on the politics of naming in such terms as black feminisms and womanisms and on intersectional identities) to theorize together significant social issues emerging in black feminist theory and epistemology as they shifted over the course of US history from 1829 to the twenty-first century. I asked the seminar participants to think with me about intersections that have historically (in)formed, and continue to inform, women’s lives with respect to race, color, caste, class, gender, consciousness, knowledge production, and power. Eventually and by design, we turned each discussion to articulations of black feminist epistemology and social action beyond the academy.
We read and discussed S’s fiction along with “‘What Has Happened Here?’ The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics,” by Elsa Barkley Brown (1992), and with “Some of Us Did Not Die,” by June Jordan (2002). We further considered selected items on suffrage by Sojourner Truth, Shadd Cary, Mary E. Briton, and Anna Julia Cooper, all anthologized in Teresa C. Zackodnik’s reader We Must Be Up and Doing. Also, each week we spent the first 20 minutes or so of the class session thinking through social media spectacles and debacles involving black women’s delimited or express sociopolitical power. During Weeks 5 through 7 of the term, then, we explored the various “Black Feminist Histories” documented in these three texts. (Indeed, we remarked historical trends and continuation in virtually every seminar reading.) Barkley Brown’s essay originated as her keynote address delivered to the American Historical Association in New York in December 1990. In the print version (under an altered title), she urges, “A rethinking of the cultural aesthetics that underlie women’s history and women’s politics [is] essential to … the necessary rethinking of the intellectual and political aesthetics” (Brown 1992, 284). The essay allowed us to consider the cultural contexts involved in Freedom Journal’s, via S’s, specific documentation of roles assigned to and played by women of African descent in history. We contemplated S’s representation of Haitian patriotism and sorted out questions of intersectional identities, even as “all women do not have the same gender” (Brown 1992, 288). Mulling over Barkley Brown’s and other (black) women scholars’ historiographies of women in black nations enabled us to ponder divergent ways race, color, caste, and decorum mandates in particular influence women’s lives everywhere and across time, and ultimately the implications of “Black women[‘s] understand[ing] from an early age that figuring out how to endure, survive, and move forward is an essential responsibility” (Brown 1992, 291).
Just after 9-11, more than 10 years after Barkley Brown’s fierce argument for the power of difference was first published, the Afro-Caribbean born Jordan would use one of her last essays to illuminate women’s need to reject “political and social systems set against differences among us, differences characterized by those most powerful as deviant, or pathological, or blasphemous, or beneath contempt” (Jordan 2002, 374-75). For which difference readers contemplating S’s serialized fiction in Freedom’s Journal might read: the valiant Theresa, her mother Madame Paulina, and her sister Amanda. Jordan confidently calls readers to name, embrace, cultivate, and re-member individual and collective agency in the wake of militaristic terrorism or other exhibitions of racialized patriarchal devastation like the French invasion of late 18th-century Haiti, to say nothing of the numerous imperialist invasions operative at the turn into the twenty first century. Where Jordan un-rhetorically doubts, “Is there an honorable means to pursue and capture the perpetrators of … atrocity without ourselves becoming terrorists?” (Jordan 2002, 380), readers of “Theresa” might well respond that S’s protagonist had embodied an answer in the affirmative a century before 9-11.
Our seminar syllabus listed the following among several of the “Theresa” unit’s more obvious goals (e.g., gaining familiarity with a little known literary fiction): to expose students to various digital research methods; to give graduate students a chance to participate in a specialized online academic community; and as they were all academic instructors, to enhance their skills in constructing course assignments. In addition, after researching solo or in collaborative pairs, participants seminar sought to develop their presentation skills by organizing and presenting their findings during Week 9 (of 15 total weeks). Their provocative and invigorating recommendations for teaching “Theresa” form additional contributions to Common-Place’s inaugural “Just Teach One African American [text]” column.
Brown, Elsa Barkley. 1992. “ ‘What Has Happened Here?’ The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics.” In James, et al., 283-299.
James, Stanlie M., Frances Smith Foster, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. 2009. Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. New York, NY: Feminist Press.
Jordan, June. 2002. “Some of Us Did Not Die.” In James, et al., 372-82.