On a visit to the UCLA Library, the author and scholar Maryse Condé found herself lost in the stacks. A library can be a spooky place. It is little wonder that they are so often listed among haunted buildings. The whispering shuffles of paper, the eerie quiet, the echoing click-clack heel-toe of shoes on cool linoleum floors. The impatience of a long-shelved book awaiting a reader might be the only thing to rival that of a spirit biding her time until the perfect audience appears. Says Condé of the inspiration for her novel I, Tituba … Black Witch of Salem, “I got lost in the huge building and found myself in the history section in front of a shelf full of books about the Salem witch trials. Looking through them, I discovered the existence of Tituba, whom I had never heard of before.”
Armed only with what scant information history managed not to mislay about the life of this woman, Condé invented the rest. What she, and we, do know is that Tituba played a critical role in one of the U.S.’s most infamous events. One of the few Black women in Salem, she was the first woman to be accused of witchcraft during the witch trials. Her deposition, which survives in the historical record, appears as a chapter in the text. Condé’s Tituba narrates the story of her life in a flamboyantly ironic voice. She is a modern and charming heroine capable of evoking both witchy cackles of satisfaction when her oppressors get their due, and tears of sorrow and rage at her ultimate fate. History observed through the veil of intersectional feminism does not look rosy, of course. Colonialism, the slave trade, racism, Puritanism, misogyny: how quaint were the Puritans to think there was only one devil in Salem. “I wanted to offer her her revenge,” Condé has said. The title itself is an unashamed confession. I, Tituba … Black Witch of Salem is a reclamation of this woman’s place in history and literature, and an act of revenge on the history that forgot her.
Like the best characters, Tituba is a contradiction: born from violence, she embraces love. From the very first sentence, Condé lays plain the degrading terror of life as an enslaved woman: “Abena, my mother, was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16** while the ship was sailing for Barbados. I was born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt.”
Tituba appears here and there in history lessons and pop culture, but rarely as more than a catalyst for the rest of the Salem drama to unfold. When asked if Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was used as a source, Condé’s responds, “I saw an adaptation of the play in Paris while I was a student. It did not impress me.” She reminds readers in the afterword that to miss the parody in her novel is to miss the point. She goes so far as to weave in a new reading of The Scarlet Letter: toward the end of the book, the spirit of Hester Prynne appears nightly to offer Tituba “bodily pleasure.”
In Condé’s telling, at the age of seven Tituba sees her mother hanged for defending herself from another rape by a wealthy planter. “They hanged my mother” is repeated several times to devastating effect. “I felt something harden inside me like lava; a feeling that was never to leave me, a mixture of terror and mourning. When her body swung round and round in the air, I gathered up enough strength to tiptoe away and vomit my heart out in the grass.”
An old woman named Mama Yaya takes her in and initiates her into the world of magic. “You will suffer during your life. A lot. A lot. But you’ll survive.” Tituba’s humor, dry and droll, emerges: “That was not very reassuring!” she recalls thinking. The spirit of her mother, Abena, warns her away from unworthy men, whom Tituba is unable to resist. Her husband, John Indian, is only the first, while Abena’s spirit, in the shadows, sighs at her daughter’s weakness.
“You don’t know how to talk. Your hair is a tangle. You could be lovely if you wanted to,” Tituba’s future husband insults her on their first meeting. And yet she falls in love, another tragedy among the many. “Up until now I had never thought about my body. Was I beautiful? Was I ugly? I had no idea.” The reader is as infuriated as the ghost of Abena, who laments over and over, “Why can’t women do without men?” Tituba cannot help herself, though. Her magic comes from what she will be routinely punished for: her connection to her ancestors, her expertise as a healer, and her sexuality.
To stay with John Indian, Tituba must become an enslaved woman. She must learn about Christianity, of which she knows nothing. She must endure the abuse of her husband’s mistress, Susanna Endicott. “Nobody had ever spoken to me, humiliated me, in such a manner! … My blood was boiling inside me.” Just as she has never considered that she might be unattractive, she never knew her magic as anything but a gift. She is incensed at the charge that she is dealing with Satan. “Before setting foot inside this house, I didn’t know who Satan was!” she retorts.
Following the advice of her spirit guides, Tituba conjures upon Endicott a humiliating illness instead of killing her outright, and soon both she and her husband are sold to Samuel Parris. She befriends Parris’s wife and daughter, while enduring the humiliations and violence of this second-rate minister. “We stayed a year in Boston while Samuel Parris waited for his religious community, the Puritans, to offer him a parish. Alas! The offers did not exactly flow in!” The reader is like a poppet, and every sentence is a needle inserted to elicit the emotion Tituba wants to conjure. Sly as Satan in her moments of bone-dry wit, barely a few lines later she returns the focus to the reality of history when John Indian brings her news of the slave trade: “Thousands of our people were being snatched from Africa. I learned that we were not the only ones the whites were reducing to slavery, they were also enslaving the Indians, the original inhabitants of both America and our beloved Barbados.”
The evil of the Puritans among whom she is trapped astonishes. The wife herself tells her neighbors, brought over by the screams of her children, “A child is like bread that requires kneading.” The neighbors then urge her to beat them more often, shrieks of torment in the background. When Tituba writes, “That was Salem! A community that stole, cheated, and burgled while wrapping itself in the cloak of God’s name,” she may as well just say, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Tituba, one of the only Black women in Salem, is naturally the first accused of the crime of witchcraft, even as respectable Puritan women approach her for magical favors. She holds fast to the advice of her spirit guides, “Don’t become like them, knowing only how to do evil.” Amid this, John Indian still finds the time to criticize her, “You’re neglecting yourself, wife. You used to be a meadow where I grazed. Now the tall grass of your pubis and the tufts of your armpits almost disgust me.” It is not a surprise when he becomes one of the accusers to save himself. Sigh.
It is while she is imprisoned and awaiting trial that Tituba encounters Hester Prynne, and their friendship offers hope not only for our narrator, but for the future of women—with or without men, as Hester’s ghost later suggests. In one of the best lines of the book, Hester says, “You’re too fond of love, Tituba! I’ll never make a feminist out of you!” She is the first person to ask Tituba to recount her story, to make her feel that she is worth remembering. With a “Crick, crack!,” the traditional Caribbean phrase to open stories, Tituba takes her rightful place in history and literature. By remembering Tituba, Condé has made a loving gesture to remember all of the Black women forgotten and abused by history. Angela Davis writes in the foreword that Tituba’s voice is “the voice of a suppressed black feminist tradition.”
Originally from Guadeloupe, Condé has won many major French literary prizes. In 1986, the year it was published, I, Tituba won the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme. In 2018, Condé was awarded the so-called alternative Nobel, the New Academy Prize in Literature, when the Nobel was temporarily suspended due to accusations of sexual misconduct and an ensuing scandal. (Was that the spirit of Abena sighing again?)
To travel with Tituba, from Africa to Barbados and then to Boston and Salem, is to relive so many brutalities inherent to colonial life. The matter-of-factness with which Tituba recounts horrific events leaves a reader gutted. Every blow and slur Condé places into her historical re-creation is an intentional violence for the purpose of remembering. When they are first in New England, Tituba wonders to her husband: “Perhaps it’s because they have done so much harm to their fellow beings, to some because their skin is black, to others because their skin is red, that they have such a strong feeling of being damned?”
The most damning lines in the book, however, read like a prayer: “I hope that the generations to come will live under a welfare state that will truly provide for the well-being of its citizens. In 1692, at the time of our story, this was not the case.” It is hard not to notice Charlottesville printed in bold on the back cover of the University of Virginia Press edition and feel the consequences of refusing to remember.
In Condé’s history, Tituba returns to Barbados a legend—“Are you the daughter of Abena, who murdered a white man?” As the month of October waxes toward Halloween, the celebration of witches is in full swing. How can it be that this book written to remember feels so often forgotten? Let Tituba be remembered for herself. Let Condé’s I, Tituba be seen for its brilliance. In the epilogue, Tituba grants favors to those who sing songs to celebrate her life, but the voice Condé has given her is already reward enough.
J. Nicole Jones is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in VICE, VanityFair.com, the Harper’s Magazine website, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and others. Her memoir, Low Country, is forthcoming from Catapult in 2021.