Tituba and I

A Review of Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem

 

“There would be mention here and there of a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing hoodoo. There would be no mention of my age or my personality. I would be ignored. . . . There would never, ever be a careful, sensitive biography recreating my life and its suffering. And I was outraged by this future injustice that seemed more cruel than even death itself….”( Conde 110) . Here lies the premise behind I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.  My interest was peaked immediately when I initially came across this book for a myriad of reasons. For one, I had read Sequ, one of the author’s previous works and became fond of her writing, but I was primarily compelled to dive into this books because whenever any topic regarding American colonial history emerged in any of my high school classes, as a student, I purposefully and very publically laid my head on the desk and drifted off into a deep sleep or daydreamed in what I thought was an admirable form of protest. Ironically, I later majored in American History in college and became an American History teacher. I did not hate history. I lived and breathed it at a very young age; however, any events that occurred before the Civil War, specifically the colonial era, bored me for it rarely reflected any individuals that looked like me. It was not until I went to college where I realized that people of African descent arrived in Jamestown three years before the Puritan passengers whose families would later take part in the Salem Witch trials.

Before I begin my review I must state that most historians now believe that Tituba was a Native American of Caribbean descent. However, in Conde’s tale, she is unapologetically West African, whose mother, a member of the Ashanti tribe, was abducted and raped aboard a ship destined for Barbados. Although her mother suffered extreme misfortune in life and attempts in death to guide her daughter to freedom, Tituba’s quest for love, acceptance, and relationships constantly redirects her to a life of bondage. Yet, it is at times hard to sympathize with Tituba, because the author effectively foreshadows the detrimental consequences of every single one of her choices. For example, ignoring her mother and godmother’s warnings from the spirit world, she relinquishes her freedom for a slave whose loyalty from the beginning seems facile. She then uses her hoodoo knowledge of healing for revenge which ultimately forces her to move from the gentle and protecting arms of the island of Barbados to the cold callous clutches of Salem, a town that is being held captive by the ignorance and religious fanaticism of the Puritan community. She suffers the fate of descendants of the slave trade and is completely cut off from her ancestral guides. She tries to form relationships with the same set of white women and young girls who will in the end be her accusers.   I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem was written in the 90s, and I feel that almost all of Tituba’s relationships and encounters are allegorical representations of different aspects of the feminist movement and the frustration and betrayal many Black women have felt for decades. However, sometimes I felt this message was delivered with minimal guile.  All of the men in her life do not mean her harm unlike almost all of the women she encounters. Although at times I wanted to throw the book across my room out of frustration of Tituba’s naiveté, I could not help but remembering events in my own life where I too made ill choices out of the desire to be loved and accepted. Whatever views you have on  modern feminism, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is worth a read because I have not come across a book in a while where eyewitnesses to  puritanism and the Salem Witch Trials have not succumbed  to the mass hysteria and religious zealotry of the town. From day one Tituba realizes that the people and the town are mad and it was entertaining following her while she tried to escape both their damning labels and deathly gallows of Salem.

 

Review of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

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Before I became pregnant with my two year old son, I was haunted by fears of being unable to conceive. I had dismissed the fact that I had worked out five days a week, followed a strict diet, never smoked, and rarely drank even a cheap glass of watered down grocery store wine.  Instead I was consumed by the reality that I was trying to have a baby after the age of thirty-five. Now looking back, I am not sure if I was more terrified of the idea of being unable to biological give birth to a child of my own or of being labeled by society as a woman who could not conceive. Despite all of the feminist literature I devoured during and after college, the numerous degrees, and professional milestones I reached, I still found myself falling into that dangerous mindset of assigning my worth and value as a woman to my reproductive ability.

I would like you to now imagine a United States of America renamed the Republic of Gilead where every woman’s status in society is in fact based upon their ability to procreate. This is the world created by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale which debuts this month as a Hulu television series. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed to read, write, or earn an income, and the future existence of the human race is in jeopardy due to an unknown source that has left most of the female population infertile. The very suspicion that the root of the population’s infertility problems could stem from a biological complication specifically targeting men is never uttered or considered .In fact, the male elite control every aspect of Gilead’s economy and government. With little choice, women who can procreate are assigned to a commander, and their basic needs are cared for with the sole expectation that they will bear his children and immediately hand them over to their pious wives to raise as their own. Those individuals who are past the child bearing age are assigned to clean toxic waste sites that dominate the outer Gilead landscape or work as maids and cooks for the women that can.

The story revolves around Offred, the main character whose real name is never revealed. Her given name denotes the commander she has been assigned, for she is “of Fred.”  She is forced to wear bright red clothing unsuitable for extreme climates and a white hat that shields her face. She is forced to live on a compound in austere prison like conditions and is allowed minimal time outside under the close and watchful eye of male “protectors.” Her existence is absent of all forms of art, music, literature or any form  of mental stimulation. However, she is forced on a daily basis to listen to  selected religious sermons and texts read out loud by the male commanders that reaffirm her duty to procreate and serve the needs of society.  Although there are some women who exercise limited power, they are usually the commander’s wives and take every opportunity to both overtly and covertly express their anguish over their own sterility and envy  at their  handmaids who  will hopefully bear their husbands’ children and give their life purpose. I found Atwood’s description of Offred’s current world fascinating and loved the debate that existed among the characters as to whether this new world in fact freed women from the financial stresses and strains of economic independence and sexual objectivity of the “old days.” As I read, I kept envisioning Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem battling it out over feminism and  women’s rights. There were  times where I felt that Atwood’s description of Offred’s world was on the verge of the absurd, until I came across a recent New York Times article that discussed how relevant The Handmaid’s Tale was to today’s current political environment. After reading the article, I learned that there was no part of the story that was not rooted in actual history. Atwood used examples from different societies around the world from various eras in history that implemented some form of the nuances of Offred’s world.  The explanation of how a society that  was inching towards gender equality fell and transitioned  into a dystopian nightmare yielded too many parallels to  today’s modern day events under the Trump administration. Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written decades ago, this book could have been  written yesterday  and would have the same relevance. It has become a hub of feminist literature and could definitely be  a  modern day wake up call for women and men to stay woke before Offred’s world becomes our own.

If anyone catches this month’s Hulu series this month, let me know what you think!

You should also check out the recent New York Times interview with Margaret Atwood where she discusses what her book means today in the age of Trump.

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Review of Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State

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This week I finished Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. An Untamed State is the fictional tale of Mireille Duval Jameson, a confident borderline arrogant successful immigration attorney, wife, and mother. However, it is her family name that makes her a target of ruthless kidnappers when she and her husband visit Port-au- Prince, Haiti on vacation. While in captivity, she endures countless forms of emotional and physical torture by her kidnappers as she waits for her wealthy father to pay her ransom. However, her strength and fortitude are challenged when she soon realizes that her prideful father has refused to pay 1 million dollars for her release. As a South Florida native of West Indian roots, I loved this book because it flips back and forth from Port-au-Prince  to the streets of Miami to the corn fields of Nebraska. Gay does a noteworthy job of taking her readers through tours of the opulent mansions of Haiti’s elites protected by barbed wire and armed guards  and the crime ridden streets of Haiti’s poor ruled by violence and organized crime lords. Nevertheless, Gay successfully never lets her readers forget that people with the same hopes and dreams makeup both sides of the island and are separated by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness to address and fix the inherent economic and geopolitical problems that have plagued this proud country for centuries. When Mireille is snatched away from her pristine life and held captive in a cell under the direction of a sadistic kidnapper named “The Commander,” she is forced to not only acknowledge but see “how the other half lives.” There were some parts of this book that were exceptionally graphic and brutal but were balanced by the raw love story  between Mireille and her husband  that Gay skillfully weaves between each chapter of Mireille’s confinement. I will warn you that the story neither ends with a happy  ending nor sad ending but a real ending and is worth a read.

I am really excited by the fact that the rights to a screen play have been purchased by Gina Prince Bythewood, the same force behind Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. I can’t wait t see the film adaptation!

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Review of Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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I recently finished Balm by Dolen Perkins -Valdez over Thanksgiving Break. Balm is Perkins-Valdez’s second novel and follows her New York Times bestseller debut Wench.I had the pleasure of meeting Perkins-Valdez four years ago while she discussed the premise and success of Wench. I have to confess that Wench held me hostage for an entire weekend and would not allow me to leave my house until I finished reading it. Wench was  a historical godsend, for it explored the relationship among four African American enslaved women whose owners would meet and vacation at  a resort in antebellum Ohio and bring their servants with them. Over the years, the women formed a friendship and bonded over the fact that they all shared many of the sorrows that  specifically plagued enslaved women such as abuse, broken families, and the struggle to control and express themselves under a system that sought to strip them of their femininity. At the same time, each of the women had their own unique background and story to tell and was very similar to the structure and content of Nina Simone’s Four Girls. The depiction of the bond and community of support these women formed over the years to survive such an oppressive system  was a breath of fresh and is in direct contrast to the misguided images currently dominating many of today’s reality television shows .wench

When I heard that Perkins-Valdez had finally released her second novel, I was elated and could not wait to pick up a copy. This time around it took me a little longer to read because of my work schedule and the fact that I  am now mom to a rambunctious toddler. Perkins-Valdez introduces us to three characters: Madge, Sadie, and Hemp. Before I began, I had to make a conscience effort to remind myself that I was not reading a sequel to Wench, for this turn around only one of the main characters, Madge, is African American and she shares the spotlight with Sadie, a white woman, and Hemp, and African American man. All three of the characters converge on Chicago for different reasons before the conclusion of the  Civil War and immediately feel like fish out of water. Madge, who has been taught the art of homeopathic healing, like so many other African Americans moves to Chicago seeking new opportunities that were absent  back home in Tennessee among her emotionally distant mother and aunts.Sadie on the other hand  has been forced to move to Chicago after her mother and father arranged a marriage to a  wealthy Union soldier she met only once . Upon her arrival, she is greeted by the news that her husband died a few days before. While trying to find her way in a new city as a wealthy widow to a man with whom she had yet to consummate her marriage, she instead finds herself consumed by a male spirit who begins to use her as a medium.  Hemp unlike Sadie and Madge is a runaway that relocated to Chicago with  hopes of finding word of his  wife who was taken from him during the war. All three of their paths cross in a  foreign city where the lingering effects of the war hang around every corner.

Although Perkins-Valdez formula slightly deviates from Wench, the celebration and exploration of sisterhood is still an integral piece of the story whether it is being displayed in the relationship between Madge and her mother, among Madge’s mother and aunts, or between Madge and Elizabeth who eventually employs Madge as her maid .In addition, both Madge and Elizabeth are forced to identify, recognize, and embrace their strength as single women living in Chicago free from the guardianship of a man.

I really sympathized with Hemp’s search for his wife which seems to be the core of his story .One can only image how many enslaved men and women wrestled with  the same inner turmoil he experiences over his attraction to Madge and temptation to pursue happiness. Although he desperately tries to honor the matrimonial vows he holds dear, he is constantly reminded that those very vows were  exchanged under a system that does not legally recognize marriages among the enslaved. At the same time, I was disappointed by the fact that Perkins-Valdez successfully built up the suspense and mystery behind his wife’s disappearance only to provide somewhat empty answers to a plethora of questions I just knew she would address upon the conclusion of his story. In retrospect, I think this is an issue I have with all of Balm’s main characters. I ended the book still feeling that I needed to know more about their fates in Chicago or with the families they left the behind.

Nevertheless, Balm is a great read, and I can’t wait for Perkins-Valdez’s third publication.

What am I currently reading?

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Hello out there! Last week I finally picked up a copy of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. . .

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Zadie Smith is an accomplished novelist of Jamaican and English heritage. She has authored  numerous works of fiction in which two, White Teeth and On Beauty, changed my life. She has a natural gift for crafting stories that center around the exploration of race, class, gender, and the immigrant experience in contemporary England. Smith has an amazing ability to dedicate enough space and time to the development of each character leaving even the most introverted reader  with the feeling that they have either acquired a new best friend or been whisked away to England and are living the experience with them. She has further earned rock star status in my book by the fact that she tends to explore the experiences of many generations and groups that were born and raised or migrated to  England  and has avoided the temptation to paint or depict a uniform “immigrant experience.” Swing Time begins its story in London in the 1980’s with the introduction of the young narrator who finds solace in swing and bebop music, dance , and old black and white musicals and who interestingly enough remains nameless throughout the entire book.Tracey is the narrator’s best friend who like the narrator is biracial and equally shares a love for dance but unlike the narrator is not cursed with flat fleet. The narrator’s mother, a proud Jamaican immigrant who desperately desires to both intellectually separate herself from the masses and serve as their champion,  has become one of my favorite characters thus far while the narrator’s father, has left me wanting to know more about his background.I am halfway through the book and cannot wait to share my review!