During class last Friday, my group (Amina, Joohee, Sarah-Anne, Sarah, and Amina’s sister), as well as TA Sabrina, had a great discussion about modern feminism and the struggles it has with intersectionality. The gist of the conversation was that, and this is something that should be clear but often isn’t, true feminism includes and has a space for everyone, regardless of background. However, this ideal of inclusivity is often overwritten by white feminism- the kind that leaves behind minorities (of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and more) and the unique struggles they face in favor of the struggles of straight, white, middle to upper-class women. This disconnect is toxic and has tangible consequences– 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, as did 68% of Latinx women and 78% of Asian-American women. Compare these statistics with the fact 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, which is a disgrace.
This conversation then turned to the ways that black women specifically experience a unique type of prejudice. DuBois, a black man, talks about double consciousness in Souls of Black Folk, saying “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… One ever feels his twoness,- an American, a Negro… ” (9). But then, one of my classmates pointed me towards the idea of triple-consciousness. “It’s there where we discover a kind of “three-ness” or triple-consciousness, an existence that informs how we as Black women navigate this world and our lives,” writes Sara Lomax-Reese in an article about the ways that black women, though underrepresented in media, use public platforms as a way to express and empower themselves and each other. Essentially, black women navigate the world in a way different than even black men; they also have to be aware of the fact that they are women, which is another level of disadvantage in a patriarchal world. This combination of prejudices is why some women have looked for labels other than feminist that express the desire for equality without the connotations of white feminist ideas, including egalitarianism, but I don’t plan on getting into the debate over whether this is necessary.
This reminded of me of a discussion in another class, Dr. Adabra’s African and Caribbean Francophone Literature course, where we read a novel that engages with the difficulty of being a black woman in a way that I thought was very interesting. The French title is Moi, Tituba sorcière… noire de Salem (I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem) by the Guadeloupéen author Maryse Condé. We, as a class, were arguing over whether it is a work of feminist literature or not. All of us agreed that it is a “roman engagé” – a term that refers to a work where the author engages with and takes a stance on a social issue, but whether this particular work is specifically feminist or not is up to debate.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I only have a French copy of the work, so my plan for dealing with quotes is to include the French and then put my own English translation next to it. I apologize in advance in for this, as I feel that my own ability to translate is not what I would like it to be- if you choose to eventually read the novel, I promise any professional English translation will be better than mine! Also, this is a dark and heavy book, so consider this a trigger warning for violence of many kinds- take care of yourselves, please.
Anyway, Moi, Tituba sorcière is a very interesting work because it creates a story for a real person that was forgotten by history. Tituba was a real person, the slave of Samuel Parris, and was convicted during the Salem Witch Trials for being a sorcerer. What we do know about her is that she was born in South America and then enslaved in the Antilles where she was bought by Parris. She was one of the first to be accused of witchcraft in Salem, and it is possible that she was a voodoo practitioner. Her testimony is what sparked the massive witch hunt, as she named many others that hadn’t been convicted and it is theorized that she was forced to do so by Parris. She wasn’t convicted due to lack of evidence but she did spend time in jail. She was bought from that jail by someone unknown and from there, history lost track of her.
Condé imagined a new history for Tituba both before and after the Salem Witch Trials. In Condé’s narrative, Tituba was an experienced healer who practiced voodoo and could speak with the dead, and she learned these skills from her adoptive mother Man Yaya after the death of her own parents. A slave in the Antilles, she eventually finds her freedom only to fall in love with a half-Arawak, half-African slave named John Indien and she marries him, thus becoming the property of his mistress. Susannah Endicott, her new mistress, hates her, and Tituba uses her skill to make her sick. In revenge, Endicott sells Tituba and John Indien to Samuel Parris, who brings them both to Salem. In jail, Tituba meets Hester Prynne (of The Scarlet Letter) and learns about feminism from her. However, in this version, Hester hangs herself, choosing to die rather than live in a world where she will always culpable for a crime that the man will never suffer for. Tituba is bought by a new Jewish master and learns that white people discriminate against other white people. He eventually frees her, she returns to Barbados and tries to help her new lover start a revolt against the white plantation owners. However, they are caught and she is executed, but her spirit continues to inhabit the island she loves and helps new generations to continue the spirit of revolt.
In my notes from the lecture on this book, I have it written that Tituba experiences oppression on four levels: she is black, she is a woman, she is a slave, and she is a witch. This last one may not seem like something to be oppressed based on, but to this point, Condé writes, “Chacun donne à ce mot une signification différente. Chacun croit pouvoir façonner la sorcière a sa manière afin qu’elle satisfasse ses ambitions, ses rêves, ses désirs…” (Each person gives this word a different meaning. Each person believes that they know how to make a sorcerer follow their will so that she can achieve their ambitions, their dreams, their desires…) (225). Thus, this last label makes hers susceptible to manipulation by others because of the power she holds.
However, it is the first two that I’d like to focus on for the sake of this post. The novel is very clear about the ways that Tituba experiences racism, especially during the Salem Witch Trials. One of the children of Samuel Parris says to her, “Vous, faire du bien? Vous êtes une négresse, Tituba! Vous ne pouvez que faire du mal. Vous êtes le Mal !” (You, do something good? You are a black woman, Tituba! You can only do evil. You are the Evil!) (123). This kind of discourse where the so-called Christian residents of Salem link her race to Biblical evil is common- Parris constantly reminds her that “Il est certain que la couleur de votre peau est la signe de votre damnation…” (It is certain that the color of your skin is the sign of your damnation… ) (68).
The ways that Condé shows that Tituba suffers more for being a woman is more varied. Maternity is certainly one of the ways that she shows it: Tituba becomes pregnant and after much deliberation, decides to abort her child rather than have it be born into slavery. In reflection, she says “Pour une esclave, la maternité n’est pas un bonheur. Elle revient à expulser dans un monde de servitude et d’abjection, un petit innocent dont il lui sera impossible de changer la destinée” (For a slave, maternity is not a pleasure. It comes back to expel an innocent child into a world of servitude and misery and it will be impossible to change this destiny) (83). This theme recurs with Hester Prynne, who, as I mentioned before, hanged herself, thus killing her child as well, as she is fiercely independent and wants to live in a world without men and would rather die than suffer because of one. Tituba also wants to help the later revolt so that her children will not have to live in a world with slavery, echoing the words of her own mother: “Ma mère pleura que je ne sois pas un garçon. Il lui semblait que le sort des femmes était encore plus douloureux que celui des hommes” (My mother cried because I wasn’t a boy. It seemed to her that the lives of women were already more miserable than those of men) (17).
Hester is the most typically feminist character in the work, and her advice causes Tituba to realize something that gets to the heart of what it means to be a black women according to Condé: “La couleur de la peau de John Indien ne lui avait pas causé la moitié des déboire que la mienne m’a causée” (John Indien’s skin color hadn’t caused him half the trouble mine had) (159). Thus, the crux of the novel is this: Tituba’s lot is worse than everybody else’s because of the intersections of her identity as a black woman.
The reason we were even having this debate over whether the novel is feminist or not is that Hester herself tells Tituba that she isn’t a feminist, but Hester is very radical: she genuinely wants a woman-only society and rejects the influence of men in her life to the point of death. Plus, Tituba is not just a woman, she is a black woman, and thus, it can be argued that the novel is more about race. However, I believe that the work is feminist because, though it takes place in the past, shows why intersectionality is so important in feminism- black women still experience twice the oppression as compared to white women, like Hester, and their experiences and complaints are valid and important to listen to and support.
I wanted to talk about Moi, Tituba sorcière in context of this course because I believe it is very closely connected with the experiences of the Baby Dolls. As everyone should know, the experience of being a black woman and experiencing more layers of discrimination is not over. I know already talked about this in another post, but I want to go over it again in this new context: the Baby Dolls performances in the streets of New Orleans are a form of empowerment for them, a way of taking back their own sense of femininity and saying that it is for them to experience and enjoy. Something Dr. Vaz-Deville said in her lecture was that she and the Baby Dolls empower each other, and I believe that the Baby Dolls empower each other as well, much as Tituba draws strength from the feminine figures in her own life. It is also a way of reclaiming spaces that are traditionally masculine and white. As Lakisha Michelle Simmons writes in Walking Raddy, “These geographies of pleasure served to create a new space for black femininity- a new way of inhabiting the body in the Jim Crow city. Urban geographies of pleasure, then, countered the trauma of racial and gender violence” (37).
This sense of geography is something I would like to continue exploring. In the chapter from Interdisciplinarity by Joe Moran that we read, he said this: “These interdisciplinary notions of space can also be applied fruitfully to the study of colonial and post-colonial discourse. One of the founding texts of post-colonial theory, Edward Said’s Orientalism, explores the ways in which racial otherness is founded on geographical essentialism, ‘the notion that there are geographical spaces with indigenous, radically “different” inhabitants who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture or racial essence proper to that geographical space’ (Said  1995: 322)” (167). As Dr. Vaz-Deville said in her lecture, the physical space where the Baby Dolls come from was destroyed and devalued because of the building of a highway, creating a sense of racial otherness, since the city didn’t seem to care that this had a negative effect on a minority neighborhood and indeed made it that way. Yet, the Baby Dolls continue to dance and dress up and empower themselves, taking back not only their own space but also traditionally white spaces. This sense of “geographic essentialism” is also key to the story of Tituba, as she is very closely tied to her homeland of Barbados. This makes her exotic and other to white people, but it is home for her- the place where her magic works best and the place where she feels safest and most at home. The only true happiness she ever had was there in the Antilles, just as the Baby Dolls are inherently tied to New Orleans, but both attempt to take on traditionally white masculine spaces in their homes and make it their own, challenging preconceived notions of otherness in their own native cities and countries.
For this reason, I think it is very important that Steve Prince’s work Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan includes a Baby Doll figure. The piece itself is a work of protest against the increasingly hard economic conditions of Detroit and the inclusion of the Baby Doll figure makes it clear that this is a protest with space for everyone, as everyone would benefit from a revival of the economy there. The Baby Doll specifically recalls the fact that black women have it harder and therefore have much more to lose in a failing economy. The ties to taking back white male-dominated spaces are also relevant: the auto industry is owned by white men who could sell their companies and leave, abandoning the workers who relied on them. And of course, inner-city Detroit is mostly black and like New Orleans, has been subject to things like the building of highways in the middle of neighborhoods and racial zoning. In this context, the Baby Dolls transcend their context of location to represent something more.
Thus, like Tituba, the Baby Dolls experience triple-consciousness and the increased amount of discrimination, and like Tituba, they revolt against it in the way they know best: Tituba tries to start a slave rebellion, the Baby Dolls dress up and dance and empower themselves and one another and both are equally important acts in the face of a system that exists to oppress black women on a higher level than others.