Teaching “Theresa” in an African American Studies graduate seminar

Britt Rusert
Afro-American Studies, Graduate-level seminar
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

I taught “Theresa: a Haytien Tale” in a graduate seminar on Early African American Print Culture, a course I have taught regularly in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department at UMass Amherst. The course provides a comprehensive introduction to early (pre-1900) African American literature through a materialist and book history perspective, and is usually composed of students from both Afro-American Studies (working in the fields of History and Literature) and English (usually Americanists working on nineteenth-century topics); this year, we also had a brave student from Archaeology join our in-depth discussions of literary history. We had a wide-ranging and engaging discussion about a text that the class found inherently interesting. Their interest was also peaked by the collective undertaking of reading the text in the context of the Just Teach One initiative. One graduate student opened the class discussion by providing some context for the text and raising some initial questions for discussion (a form that I use throughout the semester in this seminar). This student contextualized “Theresa” in terms of its appearance in the “Original Communications” section of the Freedom’s Journal, talked about the origins and political orientation of the newspaper, and raised questions about the function of fictional representations of the Haitian Revolution for an African American readership in the 1820s.

We spent a lot of time thinking about the question: what type of narrative is “Theresa” and what was its function within the Freedom’s Journal itself? Moreover, how do we understand “Theresa” in light of the many accounts and histories of the Haitian Revolution circulating in the black press and in U.S. culture more broadly during this period? Throughout, students wanted to know more about what else appeared in the Freedom’s Journal, and when I teach the text a second time, I will have students look at issues in which “Theresa” appeared. The class was also interested in the idyllic descriptions of Haiti throughout the text, representations of a lush, tropical environment that aligned with colonial visions of the Caribbean (especially as a region of exotic and natural abundance, where nothing needs to be harvested or extracted from the land), but that also worked to revalue Haiti itself in the face of rampant denigration of the notorious “black state” in U.S. popular culture. Students also read the descriptions of a benign and sustaining Haitian environment as part of a travel or “tourism” agenda, and here they drew “Theresa” into the orbit of debates about Haitian emigration in the 1820s.

Ultimately, the class decided that they wanted to think about “Theresa” as a counter-narrative that provided a different historical viewpoint on the Haitian Revolution, especially in its placement of women at the center of revolutionary organization and struggle. They were especially compelled by the narrative’s elevation of Theresa into a heroic figure, and they thought that this might be the earliest representation of a black female hero protagonist in African American print (Paulina, Theresa’s mother, is also described as valiant and courageous in the narrative). Students went on to explore the many connections between Toussaint and Theresa in the tale (including their alliterative names) and Theresa’s figuration at one point as a “prophet” who foresees the fall of the French. The class was interested in the fact that Toussaint himself becomes a character in the serial, but the author actually downplays his role so as to foreground Theresa as the real hero of this story. Despite a passing mention of Toussaint’s “fatherly protection,” this is really Theresa’s tale, as the serial’s title indicates. The decentering of Toussaint is particularly fascinating given the iconographic status of Toussaint in black culture in this period. This conversation also led to important questions about authorship, and the possibility that Theresa’s author, “S,” was a woman. The Theresa-as-hero aspect of the story made students speculate about the possibility of a female author, as did the fact that the story was published anonymously (as were many women’s contributions to newspapers and other forms of publication in the period). We went on to discuss a textual moment that might be read as a scene of female authorship: having finally decided to leave her mother and sister for Toussaint’s camp, Theresa pulls from her breast, not a sword, but a pen. This was a great “a-ha” moment in the class when students were able to connect the narrative to its production.

To my mind, the most fascinating part of the discussion centered around a fundamental point of confusion among the discussion participants: one student started talking about the “passing narrative” in the text, and other students chimed in they didn’t see such a narrative in the text. The section in question appears just after the escape of Madame Paulina and her daughters, when Paulina poses as a captain of the French army, “attired in the uniform of a French officer,” while her daughters are disguised as prisoners. While such a disguise certainly necessitated a cross-gender performance, students were split as to whether or not Paulina’s disguise presumed a racial performance as well. In other words, was Paulina, disguised as a French officer, also passing for white? Or was she posing as a mulatto member of the French army? This passage illuminates the complexities of color and caste in Haiti and brought us to a quick discussion of such topics in CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. This part of the discussion ended with students linking Theresa’s temporary act of passing to Ellen Crafts’ escape in drag in Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, while others wondered about the limits of translating U.S.-based passing narratives into transnational contexts.

The second half of our conversation focused on the graduate students in the class thinking about how they might incorporate “Theresa” into their own courses, and what possibilities and challenges such a text might present in the undergraduate classroom. Students were in agreement that this might be a difficult text to teach in a general education course to students with little to no knowledge of black literature or history. However, they thought it could work well in an upper-level course, especially in a course that might place early black writing in a hemispheric or more global context. We concluded this final part of the session with a fascinating conversation about how instructors might enable students to think about the politics of serialization and the forms of reading it has enabled historically. Members of the class wondered if it would be possible to teach “Theresa” in installments, having students read one installment per week and then discussing each week’s reading in class (followed by a final conversation about the entire narrative). Following up on earlier weeks’ conversations about rethinking and expanding our concept of literacy through the work of Elizabeth McHenry and Gene Andrew Jarrett, one student wondered if it would be possible to do an experiment in oral literacy by having students read installments aloud to one another. We concluded by discussing the political valences of such an exercise and the potential dangers of attempting to occupy or approximate the reading experiences and subject positions of African Americans in the nineteenth century (especially for white and other non-black students in our classrooms).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *