I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

A Maryse Condé FanGirl Moment

I Tituba Black Witch of Salem Maryse Conde

When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there was a quote from the author Maryse Condé that read:

Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, knowing that Condé was doing here, what she did in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, when the grandmother she’d never met, awakened her from her dreams, to chastise her from the corner of the room.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book wasn’t published until 20 years after Condé was listening to Tituba tell her story.

A Caribbean Writer Returns

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that inform, disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that Maryse Condé declared she would never write about Africa again.

Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Who was Tituba?

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, despite the shelves of history books about the Salem witch trials, there is little factual information about her, who she was, who freed her, or her life after release from prison.

I felt this eclipse of Tituba’s life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn’t there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. And so she wrote this novel.

Review

On a ship sailing for Barbados, young Abena was raped by an English sailor, then sold to a planter along with two male slaves. She was employed in the household until the pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of a male slave Yao. Tituba was born.

In a short reprieve, they find comfort in each other’s company and Tituba would adored by a man more father to her than any other. The joy that now lightened Abena’s world was seen by the master and desired for himself. She struck back, died for it, and for his concubine’s crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya; still grieving for two sons, she had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.

People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya taught her everything, in the ways of her people:

Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsAnd so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian.

He belonged to Susanna Endicott who I encountered in the memorable opening scene of Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John had lived most of his life, things deteriorated and in an act of revenge the mistress sold them both to the frightening Reverend Samuel Parris, who sailed for the Bay Colony the very next day.

From Island Life to Boston, Massachusetts

In Boston, with the mistress unwell in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.

I also recognized Abigail and Betsey’s companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody’s attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls given credence, turn into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom.

Freedom At What Price

If the first part is written from compassion, yet seeking revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found it difficult to accept, the reader isn’t given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading past the novel into the essay and interview at the end of the book, I’m confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, in a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

Reading the book and thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was heightened by having read Ann Petry’s sympathetic version first, Condé takes a different approach, reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry’s version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last.

What Is it About Witchcraft?

Magic witchcraft spells Tituba Isobel GowdieLike Condé, who said she knew nothing of witchcraft, I have decided to read a contemporary book next, published in 2020, to see what’s going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.

Further Reading

Paper: Hesitating Between Irony and the Desire to Be Serious in I, Tituba by Sarah Barbour, Wake Forest University

 

Tituba of Salem Village, A Novel Based on the Witch Trials of 1692 by Ann Petry (1956)

I read this for two reasons, one I’ve been wanting to read Ann Petry for a while, The Street and The Narrows were republished in 2020, so I’m looking forward to reading them, but the main reason I chose this title is because I’m an avid reader of Maryse Condé, who wrote I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. One of her inspirations was this book written for young people by Ann Petry, which predates her novel by 30 years, so it made sense for me to read this one first.

For her the story of Tituba was a story of courage in the face of adversity. It was a lesson of hope and dynamism.

Witch Trials of Salem, History

The witch trials of Salem began in March 1692 with the arrests of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and the black slave, Tituba, based on forced confessions. The trials were started after people had been accused of witchcraft, primarily by teenage girls, though traced to adult concerns and adult grievances. Quarrels and disputes with neighbors often incited witchcraft allegations.

Women who did not conform to the norms of Puritan society were more likely to be the target of an accusation, especially those who were unmarried or did not have children.

It marked the beginning of a period of paranoia in which nineteen women and one man were hanged, before the governor of the colony sent a report to London about the cases of 50 women and a general pardon was granted, putting an end to a disturbing chapter in the history of the village, subsequently renamed Danvers.

Though Tituba was acquitted, prisoners were required to pay the cost of their stay in prison, including the cost of chains and shackles. She was eventually sold for the price of those fees, though it is not known to whom. Ann Petry shares her theories, which we discover here, and Maryse Condé has another.

It is one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria,  a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, fake news and lapses in due process.

Review

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsI had read nothing about the witch trials before, though I’d heard of them, but I’m glad that this was my introduction, to see this little segment of American history, through the eyes of the innocent black slave, Tituba and her husband John.

As the book opens and Tituba and John are in the kitchen of the Barbados home they live in, the scene is so evocative, you can’t imagine how their lives are going to change so abruptly, having been so stable for so long – but then the harsh reality of them being commodities, slaves, sold like jewels, to pay a debt, their lives irrevocably changed, within 24 hours they are on a ship heading for the Bay Colony of Boston, their new owner the Reverend Parris.

Her husband instills in her the importance of staying alive and maintaining good health.

“Remember, always remember, the slave must survive. No matter what happens to the master, the slave must survive.”

Petry’s descriptions of the environment are so evocative, the contrast so great, from the warmth of the island to the damp, unwelcoming cold climate of Massachusetts.

Tituba is caring and empathetic, she has a traditional knowledge of herbs from the island, learned from the women in her family, in Boston she searches in the woods for substitutes and is helped by another woman with knowledge of herbal medicine. She is sensitive to people, animals and the environment.

Tituba Samel witch cauldron fire

Photo by Plato Terentev on Pexels.com

Sometimes if she stood still, used all her senses, sight and sound and touch and small would make a place speak to her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

She decided it was not an evil house. It was sad and gloomy. Nothing about it suggested happiness in the future. It had been a long time since anyone had been happy in this house. People leave something of themselves in a house, and the spirit of this house was frighteningly sad.

However, these people live in fearful times and among people whose belief system instills fear and suspicion. They bear children whose imaginations run wild, their behaviour’s running even wilder.

She finally accepted the fact that Abigail was her enemy, and though young, a dangerous enemy. On the other hand, Samuel Conkin, the weaver, was her friend, and though a new friend, a very good friend.

Tituba Salem Witch Trials Weaver Thread Ann Petry

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Tituba is a wonderful character, depicted with compassion and understanding, put in a situation where young people are drawn towards her but unable to overcome their own inner hurts, exaggerate and invent scenarios, combining imagination and superstition, creating drama that spirals out of control into very real consequences for those accused of “witching”, until the farce that it is, becomes all too clear, though not without lives having been lost.

Elena Ferrante in The Lying Life of Adults shows that sometime erratic behaviour of an adolescent and its consequences. Ann Petry shows how childish games, immaturity, attention seeking and hurt can claim lives, and though her book offers a message of courage in the face of adversity, it also offers a warning to that same youthful audience, that lives can be irrevocably damaged by the actions of a few.

I loved the character Petry created, her many talents and her resilience and the imagined appreciation that did exist, even if that might have been willful fantasy, knowing that in the era in which she lived, it was rare indeed for any person who purchased a slave to treat them as her weaver did.

Petry offers perhaps the most persuasive explanation of all—that cruelty begets cruelty, among children as well as adults. At least half the novel takes place before the trials, building the case for the horrors that follow. Anna Mae Duane, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Johns Hopkins University Press

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Article, Smithsonian Magazine: Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials by Stacy Schiff; Nov 2015

Play: The Crucible (1952), by Arthur Miller

Essay: Ann Petry

Story of the Week: Harlem Ann Petry (1908-1997)