This scholarly readers guide is meant to provide context on the historical fiction novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by the French-Guadaloupean author Maryse Conde. The novel follows Tituba, a woman born into Slavery in the Barbados, and the journey that brought her to becoming the first confessor of the Salem Witch Trials in Salem Massachusetts in 1692. What is interesting about her novel is her representation of Tituba as the black witch of Salem, despite evidence of her being of indigenous American origin. In this guide I will offer background on Tituba’s actual history as it is believed to have happened through the little documentation available. Then, I will trace a picture of her representation through literature and media throughout the last few hundred years, and what these texts may have been aiming toward in their portrayal of her. Finally I will offer insight as to why Conde may have decided to represent Tituba as a black woman in her novel, and why this matters in light of Tituba’s history. This site should serve the standard who/what/why/when/where questions that may arise when contemplating Tituba’s role in the Salem Witch Hunt and her lasting impact on our culture.
Stacey Schiff writing for the Smithsonian describes Tituba as “propelling America’s infamous witch hunt forward, supplying its imagery and determining its shape”. If it weren’t for Tituba’s colorful testimony, the witch hunt would have no basis. Tituba supplied fuel for the fear fire the puritans of Salem lived in. It is interesting that she was a slave woman doing so. Schiff understands her racial representation throughout history to be due to the American post civil war understanding of slaves as black. And this imagery was perpetuated by white writers with racial bias.
In his 1974 article published in The New England Quarterly, “The Metamorphosis of Tituba, or Why American Intellectuals Can’t Tell an Indian Witch From a Negro”, Chadwick Hansen maps the timeline of Tituba’s media representation and the racist connotations these representations held for their authors, and their author’s audiences. Hansen understands the so called metamorphosis of Tituba’s racial identity through history to be concurrent with the political climate of the author’s time. He shows how American historians tend to “pay more attention to each other, and even to dramatists than they do to their primary sources” (Hansen 11). He then shows how it is important to understand how Tituba’s concocted identity as a black woman did not arise until the American Civil War, when Henry Woodsworth Longfellow (as detailed in my timeline) decided to write Tituba as having an Indian mother and an African father who taught her Obi, or African magic. Hansen discusses how this representation of Tituba as black in his play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms published in 1868, just so happens to coincide with the end of the Civil War in 1865. This is a time where racial prejudices in America were higher than ever toward black people. And while Longfellow’s play wasn’t particularly popular at the time, his concoction of Tituba as a black woman stuck in the minds of American Intellectuals, and her racial identity became increasingly stereotypical and racist, until the most problematic and racist portrayal of Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Chadwick Hansen is writing about Tituba’s legacy a decade before Maryse Conde writes I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. But what he has to say about Tituba’s problematic racial metamorphosis is interesting when considering why Conde wrote Tituba as a specifically black witch of Salem. It seems as though she’s reclaiming a contrived narrative rather than a historical narrative.
Jane Moss is writing in response to Conde’s novel in her article, “Post Modernizing the Salem Witch Craze: Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem”. Moss theorizes that Conde “wants Tituba to be a witch, but a witch in the Caribbean sense of the word- a woman with knowledge of the natural world and spiritual links to the invisible world. She wants her to be guilty of doing harm to her evil enemies and challenging the authority of those who abuse her. And finally she wants Tituba to subject historical perspectives and cultural codes radically in order to reinvent herself in her own words” (15). Moss believes the evidence that Tituba was an Arawak woman historically as I detailed in my timeline, but that Conde took a post modernist approach to her narrative. Post modernism holds that there is no objective truth or reality because the nature of value systems and knowledge claims seems to be socially conditioned throughout history and in political hierarchies. Moss believes Conde is pointing out that we can not know an objective authoritative representation of the past, and that is why she depicts Tituba as black. By portraying Tituba’s racial identity as black she is reclaiming the contrived racist narrative of Tituba that developed throughout history. She also finds it important that Conde embraces the narrative of Tituba being a witch, but in a way the Puritans couldn’t understand. By doing this Conde rejects the values of the colonizers.
Moss does have some concerns about Conde’s portrayal of Tituba, questioning “How truthful does a creative writer need to be when dealing with real people and events?” (15). She worries Conde may be substituting one erasure for another by writing Tituba as a black woman when so many native women’s stories were forgotten as well.
Tituba’s racial identity is an interesting topic because it is representative of the ways we think about race in our society. Tituba’s depiction throughout history as detailed in my timeline could be evidence of the ways culture distorts our conceptions.