“Theresa, A Haytien Tale” in Historical Context assigned in AMH 2010: United States History from Settlement to Reconstruction

Michelle Carrigan, Ph.D.
Indian River State College

The tale of Theresa provided students with a glimpse into the way cultural historians investigate and think about the past. What’s more, the existence of such a source highlights an early example of abolitionist literature before William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. Students in my survey level early American history course read “Theresa, A Haytien Tale,” and then were challenged to place the story within its historical context. After completing reading assignments and taking part in class discussion, each student wrote an essay that attempted to explain the author’s or editors’ purpose in publishing a story that featured a female heroine, who aided the Haitian Revolution in an African-American newspaper in 1828 New York. The assignment provided an opportunity for students to become historical investigators and demonstrate their creativity combined with analytical skill.

The first part of the project was to gain background information. We had been discussing the economic changes that took place in the North and South during the nineteenth century before we moved onto the Theresa assignment. In preparation for class discussion, students read PBS’s brief newspaper bio on Freedom’s Journal, along with “Theresa, A Haytien Tale.” On discussion day students worked in groups to answer a series of questions relating to the story, and then we discussed as a class. The group work, although more time consuming, allowed for more voices to be heard, and so for students to see how different people focus on different pieces of the story. For some, the violent elements of the Haitian Revolution stood out to them, while others focused on the personal relationships of the heroine with her mother and sister.[1]

Once we had illuminated possible ways of reading the source from our own perspectives, we moved onto placing the story within its time and place. Such an exercise highlighted the concept of historical memory as it shed light on how someone writing in the late 1820s for an African-American newspaper viewed the Haitian Revolution. The story was not a journalistic or historical account of the Haitian Revolution. It was a fictional account published in 1828 that was set during the Haitian Revolution, a real event that concluded more than twenty years (a generation) before then. Focusing on the time and place in which “Theresa…” was published emphasized that our historical investigation was about 1828 New York and not about the Haitian Revolution.

To help place “Theresa…” in context we examined the legal and social situation of New York in 1828. Students compared excerpts from New York State’s Constitution of 1777 and of 1821 that outlined voting requirements. In addition, they looked at New York’s laws concerning gradual abolition. We discussed the meaning of gradual versus immediate abolition. The documents provided the legal perimeters of life for free (and enslaved) black people in New York from the time of the American Revolution to the time of Freedom’s Journal. Considering the status of free blacks in the North complicated the idea of a free North, yet it also provided a dramatic contrast to the expanding slave system in the South. After our discussion of the state of abolition and voting laws in the United States, with an emphasis on New York, students were then asked how the time and place in which Theresa was published affected the story that was told.[2]

Finally, we complicated matters more by asking why the story starred a girl. Why would the author make the main character, who helps to save the revolution, female? Such a question begs another question, which is who was the author. I relied on Frances Smith Foster’s research on the author to provide a possible answer, yet the conversation underscored the early American practice of publishing newspaper pieces anonymously. Students were able to suggest the accepted roles for women in 1820s New York through a close reading of the text. They then went further by proposing possible reasons why the author made the heroine a heroine. The discussion necessarily raised the topic of sentimentalism, which led to a discussion of how eighteenth-century sensibility shifted to become nineteenth-century sentimentalism.[3]

In the end the discussions provided a number of opportunities for students to come up with their own interpretations. The essays were supposed to be only two to three double-spaced pages in length, so students had to narrow down their focus. Although they all had to consider the context of time and place, they were free to focus on whatever aspect of the story they desired. The use of “Theresa…” offered students a chance to show their own intellectual creativity without the constraints of a well-known, scholarly interpretation. The assignment worked well for an entry-level college course.

[1] “Freedom’s Journal: a Newspaper Bio,” PBS.org, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/newbios/nwsppr/freedom/freedom.html

[2] New York State’s gradual abolition laws and excerpts from New York’s 1777 and 1821 Constitutions are available on New York State Archives’ website. “Documents Showcase: African American Voting Rights,” NYSED.gov, accessed May 20, 2015, http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/showcase/201011afamvoting/

[3] Foster, Frances Smith. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Theresa?” African American Review. Vol. 40, no.4 (Winter, 2006): 631-645.

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