Elevate Difference

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

This fascinating novel, which won France's Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme, offers readers a vivid re-imagining of the life of a historical figure mentioned only briefly in the transcripts of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials: a slave woman of Caribbean origins, accused of practicing voodoo. Angela Davis, in her foreword to the current edition, asserts the importance of “the retelling of a history that is as much mine as it is hers,” a story of great significance to Black women who are “Tituba's cultural kin.” The first person narrative gives Tituba an opportunity to recount her life as she sees it, to overcome the silence imposed on her by official histories of the period. Maryse Condé, herself born in Guadeloupe, begins by evoking the beauties and horrors of the West Indies—of Barbados in particular—where Tituba is born to an Ashanti woman “as lithe and purple as the sugarcane flower,” who had been raped by a British sailor. Little Tituba flourishes at first in her island home, but her mother comes into conflict with their master and is hanged for striking a white man. At the age of seven, Tituba is taken in by old Mama Yaya and raised in the traditional healing ways inherited from African ancestors. The growing girl learns to respect everything in nature, to make the proper prayers and sacrifices, to devise “potions whose powers I strengthened with incantations,” and to communicate with the spirits, including her deceased mother.

The idyll in the wilderness ends abruptly when the adolescent Tituba falls in love with a merry rascal, a slave named John Indian. She soon moves to the capital, Bridgetown to be with him. John Indian jokingly calls her a witch, because of her special magical gifts, but others suspect her of commerce with the devil even though, as she protests, “Before setting foot inside this house I didn't know who Satan was!” In an interview published in the afterword to the present edition, Maryse Condé describes Tituba as “doing only good to her community” through her relations with “the invisible forces,” and therefore not a witch in the bad connotations of the term, but the bigoted people with whom she comes in contact—especially after she is sold along with John Indian to a Puritan minister, Samuel Parris—do not see her in a positive light.

One of the themes of the book is the unlikely (and, unfortunately, often temporary) alliances that can form between persons divided by race, class, or religion. When Parris moves with his household to Boston, a strong friendship develops between Tituba and Elizabeth Parris, the minister's wife, as well as with her child Betsey, It is one of the ironies of the novel that Tituba's efforts to amuse and aid the girls in her charge at Salem Village arouse the villagers' fears and turn them against her. The Caribbean folktales she tells about sorcerers and vampires titillate everyone and feed their fears of damnation and demonic possession. When Betsey tells her cousin Abigail about the secret magic rites Tituba has used to protect the frail little girl, the situation gets out of control. Condé locates the ultimate source of the hysteria that sweeps through the village as a combination of the repression of healthy sensual pleasures along with the accumulation of small-town jealousies and resentments among the populace, together with unacknowledged guilt at the mistreatment of Blacks and American Indians by the white settlers. The village girls accuse many local figures of magically tormenting them.

Arrested and interrogated in 1692, Tituba at first protests her innocence: she has done no wrong, has not hurt any of the afflicted children. Her husband John Indian advises her to play along with her accusers, to tell them what they want to hear. He even pretends to be possessed, himself. In a controversial sequence criticized by many reviewers, the novel's heroine encounters a character called Hester in prison, clearly based on the wholly fictional heroine of The Scarlet Letter. Certain historians have condemned this intrusion of Romantic literature into a historical novel, yet Condé in her interview defends it on two different grounds: a) that her work “is the opposite of a historical novel,” that her Tituba is an invented “female hero, ... a mock-epic character,” and b) that as a novelist, she felt “there was a link between Tituba and Nathaniel Hawthorne,” persons inhabiting the same region at times not too far apart for comparison. The conversation between the two prisoners gives Condé a chance to explore the social constraints on women and the difficult relations between men and women. Ann Armstrong Scarboro's afterword asserts that here Condé “parodies modern feminist discourse,” but it seems to me that Condé gets to play both sides against the middle in these passages by intermixing humorous and serious notes and leaving it up to the reader to decide how to interpret them.

While Tituba's testimony at trial is quoted from actual transcripts, the additional context Condé provides suggests that the accused woman is merely mouthing words that others are saying, going along with other people's superstitions. As a confessed witch she is sentenced to jail but escapes the death penalty. Thus she survives, while many of the people condemned for witchcraft are executed. The historical note to this edition of the novel states that in 1693 the slave Tituba was sold to pay her prison fees and the price of her chains. It is unclear what happened thereafter to the historical woman, but Condé chooses to have her Tituba purchased by Benjamin Cohen d'Azevedo, a Portuguese Jewish merchant whose wife had died. Benjamin and Tituba slowly become friends and eventually lovers. After a terrible house fire set by Puritan persecutors in which Benjamin's children are killed, he frees her and buys a ship passage back to Barbados for her. There she becomes involved with a group of maroons—wild Blacks who seem to be working towards freedom for the plantation slaves—but even there she finds betrayal and a revolt that fails. She is finally hanged by the British authorities. The epilogue finds the spirit of Tituba still active in the island, heroine of a popular song going about encouraging the slaves to fight for liberty.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is a work I highly recommend to people interested in African-American and Caribbean literature, colonialism and post-colonialism, post-modernism and feminism, as well as to any reader interested in a colorful adventure tale. The additional scholarly materials provided in this edition make this book helpful even to readers familiar with the original French text.

Written by: Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring, June 20th 2010

I would like to respectfully note that Tituba, though a slave, was not black, but indigenous.