Subjugation and resistance of black women in the novels of Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde

Thesis (M.A.), 2005

76 Pages, Grade: 2.3



1.0 Introduction..

2.0 Subjugation and Resistance of Black Women: Forms of Oppression and their Consequences as depicted in the Novels
2.1 Historical Subjugation and Resistance in Fiction – a Paradox?
2.2 Maryse Condé’s: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
2.2.1 Uprooting, Misapprehension and Slavery in Tituba
2.2.2 “I will not give in!”: Condé’s Women’s Resistance
2.3 Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Blacks within subjugating Mechanisms of Slavery.
2.3.1 “You got two feet () not four”: Self-love versus Dehumanization
2.3.2 Personal Memory and the Problem of Overcoming the Past
2.4 The Triple Burden: A Reflection on Black Women’s Particular Status in Slavery
2.4.1 “Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer”: Motherhood in Slavery and the Tradition of Infanticide.
2.5 Toni Morrison’s Sula: “I want to make my self”
2.5.1 Subjugation, Female Resistance and Identity in the 20th Century
2.5.2 A Black Woman’s Otherness as Threat – Sula’s Dilemmas.

3.0 Sources of Strength and Motives for Black Women’s Resistance in the Novels
3.1 The Meaning of Love and Interpersonal Friendships.
3.1.1 The Meaning of the Relationship between Man and Woman
3.1.2 Female Friendship, Solidarity and Intimacy.
3.2 The Role of the African Culture, Traditions, Religion and the Supernatural.
3.3 The Black Community and its Ambivalence for Morrison’s and Condé’s Women

4.0 Morrison’s and Condé’s Women’s Subjugation and Resistance and the Correlation between Present and Past with Regard to Collective Suffering, Memory and Responsibility

5.0 Conclusion

6.0 Bibliography

1.0 Introduction

The present paper is concerned with the depiction of black women’s subjugation and resistance in fiction. It examines the quality of black women’s suffering through racism and sexism, especially within the system of slavery in America from the 17th to the 19th century. Moreover, the paper contrasts black women’s status in and after slavery. This is done, on the one hand, in order to illustrate and underline slavery’s inhuman conditions black women suffered from and, on the other hand, to show the continuation of racism and sexism after slavery. It will be revealed that the assumed changes of conditions for black women nowadays are rather superficial and that discrimination and inequality, compared to men and white people, have been persisting.

The analysis is based on the novels Beloved[1] and Sula[2] by Toni Morrison and on Maryse Condé’s novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem[3] (in the following referred to as Tituba). These three novels are selected as basis for the analysis because they depict black people’s oppression in several forms, intensities and times and focus especially on women’s particular situation. While Beloved and Tituba illustrate the human being’s oppression during and shortly after slavery, Sula reflects black people’s discrimination and black women’s suffering after the abolition, to be precise in the 20th century. It is of particular significance for the study that the novels’ actions are set in different times because this way it is possible to scrutinize similarities or potential changes in black women’s situation over a period of about 300 years. While Tituba stands for the depiction of the mechanisms of the colonial slave trade and slave life in the 17th and 18th century, Beloved displays slavery in America in the 19th century, including issues like slaves’ every-day life, dehumanization and flight. Sula serves as mirror of African-American women’s life and difficulties during the 20th century and must be part of the examination because only a comparison of selected motifs and issues in all three novels will provide a substantiation of the paper’s thesis that black women’s situation in the past was different and particular difficult compared with black men and Whites and has not changed significantly until present.

Even if this paper explicitly deals with black women’s matters, it has to examine black men’s position as well in order to detect and assess similarities and differences of the injustices and crimes done to them. It has to be taken into consideration that with regard to the general human aspect, male misery in the novels corresponds to female suffering. This means exploitation, fear, despair, helplessness and weakness are not exclusively connected with women, as will be shown. In the novels both black men and women are victims of systems of subjugation and discrimination. However, it is striking that in the books women and their particular situation and problems dominate the plot. Concerning this, the paper is based on the view that oppression of black women is a special case of oppression of females in general, which means that the circumstances and quality of white women’s subjugation must be considered as well in order to evaluate and analyze potential differences between white and black female forms of resistance, their motives and consequences. It will be shown that in their suffering, women share a special status connected with their definition of their selves, their universal responsibilities (e.g. as mothers) and, especially, the specific difficulties the female gender evokes. Therefore, the question for black women’s ways of coping with these as well as their motives and sources of resistance in the novels are important matters to be treated. It will be discussed how Blacks, especially women, were capable at all to endure and survive the physical and mental tortures of captivity in slavery or of discrimination and inequality after slavery.

Connected with this question the role of the African culture is debated. Here, attention is turned to the authors’ African roots and the question how (much) these roots inspired the elements of the actions and in what respect African tradition and beliefs are interwoven in the books. Being further backing aspects for the novels’ women, human interpersonal relationships and collectivity are examined connected with a consideration of the novels’ investigation and analysis of human nature, psyche and emotions. These subjects’ special status in Tituba, Beloved and Sula can be indicated by pointing to the novels’ capacity of emotions, relations and individuality. For example, the books’ actions balance fear, hatred, tension, passion and also love, which appears in various forms such as motherly love, physical love or the abstract love of freedom. The analysis of this important and interesting theme focuses on questions that are essential for an entire comprehension of the books, for example: How are feelings (especially love) presented and which special functions do they fulfill? What significance do the various interpersonal relationships have? To what extent are they cores of resistance? What causes the significance of female friendships? What differentiates female suffering from male?

In Mari Evans's book Black Women Writers[4], Toni Morrison states that to her the best art “is unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time”. Both Toni Morrison and Maryse Condé’ have met this standard in their work as the attention drawn to the socio-political aspects implied in the books will prove. Morrison’s and Condé’s question the great American maxim stated in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” by revealing how slaves worked, fought and even died for ‘natural’ human rights like freedom, the pursuit of happiness or, even more fundamental, the mere recognition as human beings. The multi-perspective view of the slaves’ every-day live before, during and after the escape into freedom is both a fascinating and upsetting description of how slavery really was and, furthermore, an accusation of injustice and inhumanity throughout the time of slavery and today. Therefore, it shall be shown how this dark part of the American history influenced, respectively manipulated, human beings and their actions and feelings and is still present in prejudice, racism and inequality.

Beside Beloved, Sula particularly confirms that the difficulties and injustices of the past still affect the black community and cause disturbing effects. Seemingly natural aspects of a human’s life like being part of a community, an identity and security are revealed to be not a matter of course. Thus, the analysis must throughout focus on the problems, obstacles and methods in relation to black woman’s search for a self, which include the processes of (re-) gaining self-love, the recognition of the self, the emancipation from white and male structures and, finally, raising the courage to maintain their identity, even against opposition.

This paper claims to elucidate the profound meaning Morrison’s and Condé’s insights into black women’s present and past provide and their works’ potential to be far more than just entertaining pieces of magic realism.

2.0 Subjugation and Resistance of Black Women: Forms of Oppression and their Consequences as depicted in the Novels

2.1 Historical Subjugation and Resistance in Fiction – a Paradox?

Regarding their context, subjugation and resistance are closely connected. As the analysis in 2.0 will underline, in subjugating and suppressive systems (like slavery) resistance is likely to grow an inevitable consequence. However, resistance has various forms and can be offered consciously or unconsciously. Especially female victims of enslavement, discrimination or prejudice demonstrate resistance that seems to be the opposite of what is mostly connected with the term: the novels’ women who do not fight conventionally, using violence, force or weapons. Rather do they develop their new, effective strategies and distinctive methods to oppose those subjugating mechanisms of slavery, patriarchy or racism they have been suffering from.

But what does actually subjugation mean? Is it the ‘act of defeating somebody and gaining control over him and his life’ as the dictionary[5] defines it? Isn’t there a subjugation e.g. by racism and underlying antagonism that is not able to defeat somebody completely and yet causes individual and collective distress? And, the other way round, do we not know of forms and strategies of subjugation that are far from being defined since they involve various devastating cruelties and inhumanities, which are not understandable to the human mind? With regard to this, it seems that neither the crimes of the past nor the injustices of the present are compatible to plain and logical definitions and sober scientific analyses.

On this background, fiction as a means of entirely describing destinies, feelings, circumstances and interpersonal relationships seems much more appropriate. This is because skilful fiction does not merely tell, depict, describe and explain but eventually involves and captivates the reader. This way, it (ideally) causes a kind of emotional intimacy between the reader and the fictional characters which lets the reader approach differently and allows different conclusions. However, this seems only constructive when fiction claims to be realistic in one way or another e.g. historically accurate, politically relevant or critical. Can this be possible?

A general inspection of fiction’s nature will only result in superficial findings. Therefore, on the one hand, fiction can be defined as “a type of literature that describes imaginary people and events, not real ones” and “truth”[6] can be stated to be its antonym. On the other hand, Jeremy Hawthorne’s closer view reveals

“a number of seeming [sic!] paradoxes: fictions are not true, but they are not lies; they typically describe that which is not real but which is nonetheless not totally unreal (…), it is known that they (sometimes) describe people who do not exist or events which have not happened, but they do produce real emotions, important reflections, and even altered behavior in the real world.”[7]

An agreement with Hawthorne’s conclusion that “fiction has its historical and cultural dimensions”[8] can serve as justification to base a scientific analysis of society, of history and of the involved human beings partly on fictional sources, i.e. novels. Even though the coherence between fiction and reality must be considered carefully, the following examination will point out cases where fiction’s potential and intention to depict reality are substantial.

2.2 Maryse Condé’s: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

2.2.1 Uprooting, Misapprehension and Slavery in Tituba

In Tituba, the odyssey of slavery is depicted starting with cruelties connected with the slaves’ removal from their homeland and during the slave ships’ crossing to the Caribbean and America. The fear and despair probably every slave undergoes when beholding from the slave ship how the mother country disappears is exemplified by John Indian, “who had cried out his heart when our beloved Barbados faded into the mist.“[9] Accordingly, for Tituba the unbearable feeling of being separated from her beloved Barbados is a trauma that is persistent throughout her whole life and makes her “feel a pain that never loses its grip welling up inside (…) [her].”[10] For the reason of historic accuracy, it has to be taken into consideration that Tituba‘s situation, although characterized by scare of Samuel Parris and the shock of being taken away from her usual surroundings and people, is rather endurable compared to the condition of slaves who were forced to cross on a slave ship in order to be exploited as workers.

These violently captured slaves’ position was much worse due to the slaver’s brutality, (sexual) harassment and humiliation as well as disastrous circumstances concerning hygiene, medical treatment food and space.[11] These slaves on ships to the American colonies shared feelings of abandonment, depression, terror and helplessness, as a slave ship’s physician’s report illustrates:

“Nachts machten die Sklaven heulende Geräusche voller Melancholie, die den Eindruck extremer Qualen hinterließen. (…) Der hohe Grad an Sensibilität war vor allem bei Frauen zu beobachten, bei denen ich zahlreiche Anfälle tiefer und heftiger Hysterie entdecken konnte.“[12]

As the reader learns, also Tituba’s mother Abena had to face such a typical, dreadful destiny: “(…) her village had been burned to the ground, her parents had been stabbed to death trying to defend themselves, she had been raped (…)”[13] and finally she was hanged for defending herself against another white rapist. Early in her life, Tituba is involved in her mother’s pain and has to learn that she constantly reminds Abena of the rape’s physical and mental injury[14] and is therefore rejected by her mother.

It can be assumed that probably every abducted individual, forced into slavery, is in some way affected and finally consumed by such traumas of separation, abandonment and loss of identity. This thesis is supported by the fact the slaves’ tortures did not end with the arrival in America since they had to assimilate to a country in many respects completely different from their own such as in its people, climate, landscape, traditions, religion or language:

“What kind of world was this that had turned me into a slave, an orphan, and an outcast? What kind of world that had taken me away from my own people? That had forced me to live among people that did not speak my language and who did not share my religion in their forbidding, unwelcoming land?”[15]

These and the subsequent examples of apparent disparities between Puritan society and Tituba’s Afro-Caribbean origin indicate a slave’s probable feelings of homelessness and isolation, as well as his or her search for identity and the need to be part of a community.

As a result of this direct and indirect oppression and as a means of protest, for Tituba, ‘her island’, as she often refers to it, not only symbolizes everything that is good and harmonic but it is an opposite to all the hypocrisy, coldness and disorder she witnesses in her new life. This way, her view emerges that there is a link between nature (as a metaphor for the country and its inhabitants’ mentality) and human nature ‘embedded’ in these surroundings: “Yes, nature changes her language according to the land, and curiously, her language harmonizes with that of man. Savage nature, savage men! Protecting, well-meaning nature, openhearted and generous men.”[16] For Tituba, it is obvious that “savage men” are not to be found in Barbados but in New England. The Puritan world seems so superior to Tituba - for it is a whole community which acts against a single person - that she is often tempted to despair of her longing for her native country and her desperate situation as a slave.

Tituba’s way of criticizing the various forms of subjugation and injustice such as racism, prejudices, inhumanity and discrimination is clearly accusing and metaphorically subtle at the same time. Thus, her gentle and bright character is stressed as a sharp opposition to the Puritan society’s narrow-mindedness, which is pointed out in numerous situations.

From the moment of Tituba’s first encounter with a white person (Susanna Endicott) after her going away from the plantation, Tituba has been humiliated[17] and so she draws her conclusion: “They [the white women in Endicott’s house] were striking me off the map of human beings. I was a nonbeing.”[18]

Here, the white women’s behavior clearly reflects the process of dehumanization most slaves were subjected to. Slaves were not only denied basic (civil) rights such as free speech, free opinion or fair trial. Mostly they were simply deprived of everything that signifies and individualizes a human being - factors like culture, tradition, religion, identity and membership in a community. What was left to them at best were their thoughts and sorrow. At this point, Tituba can compensate such treatment with her relationship to John Indian, her inner knowledge that she is legally free and her connection to her country and spirits.

Things change when Tituba has to face injustice by people she believed to know her and back her. Although having used her skills in healing for Mrs. Parris, Tituba is only once thanked by her but usually never rewarded. Instead, she is treated like scum by Elizabeth Parris for instance in the situation when the minister’s wife refers to the accusations as “a sickness that first of all (…) affects the lesser parts of the body”[19] and alludes to Tituba’s membership in the lowest social group. Tituba is deeply hurt by such expressions, which are probably not even formulated arbitrarily but reflect the popular opinion. From an objective point of view, her only mistake is that her appearance, mentality and temper are different from Puritan ideals and ideologies and thus her rejection is merely based on prejudices, intolerance and bigotry. Contemplating about what Tituba’s life would have been like if she had been born as a free, white woman underscores that her honorable deeds and her caring personality are misjudged, respectively ignored or tabooed by the Puritans because they are collectively blinded by Tituba’s obvious otherness.

As indicated, within this seeming inferiority towards society, Tituba always had the ‘better’ character. Ironically, she does justice to all the Puritan values like truth, honor or devotion and is the moral opposition to most of Salem’s inhabitants - an allusion to the traditional opposition of good and evil and the fight between these two forces.

Tituba’s inherent sensitivity can be realized at different points in the book. Right from the beginning of her acquaintance to Mrs. Parris and her daughter, Tituba befriends them and comforts, soothes and distracts them by conversations, massages, storytelling or simply by listening. Moreover, she does good to a lot of people (entertaining the girls in the kitchen, occasionally providing Sarah Good’s undernourished daughter with food, using her powers benevolently etc.) without expecting anything in return. This might be one of the reasons why Tituba frequently runs the risk of being exploited. When it becomes known in Salem that she has extraordinary skills, people quickly try to convince her to use her skills for them to do harm to others, such as Sarah Hutchinson who wants Tituba to help her taking revenge for the theft of her flock. Viciously, there is already a plan in Hutchinson’s head what shall happen to the thief: “Let his firstborn, if there is one, perish from something like smallpox. If there isn’t a child yet, may his wife never bear one!”[20] When Tituba refuses, Sarah Hutchinson shows her true character: “You’re very philosophical, my girl! You won’t philosophize so much, when you’re swinging at the end of a rope!”[21] This behavior exemplifies the people’s moral double-standards in Salem: On the one hand they want to make use of Tituba’s skills, on the other hand they fear ‘witches’ and aim at expelling Tituba from their environment, if necessary by killing her.

Puritan society is characterized by the inhabitants of Salem, above all Samuel Parris, the ‘moral instance’ in Salem, who has two faces. He is the minister, an authority and representative of God on earth. Within the community, he is respected, maybe also feared. Besides, he is a husband and father and it must be assumed that, self-righteously, he sees himself as a just and virtuous man. Tituba sees him as a “devil creating evil [with his eyes] because they saw it everywhere”.[22] (There is a certain, emblematic irony in the fact that Tituba is seen as a ‘messenger of the devil’ and describes Samuel Parris, the minister, as devil, too.) Regarding the fact that Puritans are seen by historians as very collected and serious people, who hide their feelings and keep their emotions under control[23], Samuel Parris represents a typical Puritan. The polemical quotation by H.L. Mencken „Puritanismus ist die bohrende Angst, daß irgendjemand, irgendwo glücklich sein könnte“[24] can be transferred to the situation in the Parris family. Nobody in the family is really happy - a situation which is chiefly based on Samuel Parris’ nature and the circumstance that he is an imperious patriarch, surrounded by women who are anyway “dead in law.“[25] This old juridical principle caused the difficulty and inequality of women’s general status in New England. Women were dependent on men, at first on their fathers, later on their husbands. The common law said: “Husband and wife are one, and that one the husband.”[26]

Maryse Condé creates a metaphor for the women’s hopeless situation in the political and social everyday - life of the 17th century by minutely describing the Parris women’s suppression by a single man, who acts as the ‘head of the family’ in its very conventional way. He gains his dominance by making use of violence and intimidation, which is present in his whole behavior and appearance. The result is that Samuel Parris is not loved but detested and not respected but feared by his family. Especially the relationship between Samuel and his wife reveals these human abysses.

Elizabeth Parris fits into the Puritan principle that women are nothing without men. She seems to be a puppet in his hands and not able to survive without him. However, she is not inferior to her husband because she accepts the conventional roles but because she is forced to be, which means that she is not strong enough to defend herself against her husband. Although Elizabeth’s adaptation to her role is evident in many cases, for example when she “fell to her knees at the feet of her husband” in order to apologize to him for she “knew not what (…) [she] was doing”[27], she has a certain will to resist her husband and his inhumanity.

Once she dares to contradict him, he reacts brutally and strikes her in presence of the children, Tituba and John Indian[28]. This humiliating act not only shows that Samuel Parris’ superiority is a mere illusion and nothing more but insecurity and a protection to hide his own fears, emotions and his incompetence as a husband, father and minister. It is also a manifestation of Parris’ egoism and indifference, since he does not care about his fellow human beings’ feelings and views, for only his convictions are right and important in his narrow mind.

This is not the only situation in which the discrepancies between husband and wife are illustrated. An interesting detail is that Mrs. Parris is not confident about what happens in intimate moments with her husband: “My poor Tituba, he lies with me without taking off either his clothes or mine.“[29] Although Elizabeth is a humble and pious woman, the situation she describes seems unpleasant and unusual enough for her to mention it to Tituba. Even if Elizabeth, as a result of her husband’s authority, pressure and manipulation, ‘officially’ judges physical pleasure to be “Satan’s heritage in us”[30], her real convictions and desires remain unclear. The combination of Elizabeth’s own virtue and external influences make her a victim of her religiousness to the degree that she does not dare to speak out her thoughts. This might also be true of Samuel Parris, whose fanatic religiousness is rather a kind of outlet or facade to compensate and cover his actual feelings. Therefore, it can not be fully revealed whether his misinterpretation of the Bible, according to which moderation and chastity does contradict conjugal love and intimacy, is mere incompetence or arbitrary escapism. Once more, the minister is depicted as hardhearted, egocentric but in a way also as a self-conscious and lonesome man.

The fact that Parris does not even know about his wife’s health- problems[31] supports the conclusion that their marriage rather exists on paper than in their hearts. Elizabeth Parris’ reasons to decide not to let her husband in on her secrets become obvious when examining his behavior towards women, which is full of ignorance, indifference and devaluation. One can figure out clearly why Elizabeth Parris chooses Tituba as a companion and lets her have a look into her inmost secrets. The relation between Tituba and Mrs. Parris, which can be called a kind of friendship, is caused by Elizabeth’s understanding for Tituba’s situation, as Elizabeth herself is a ‘slave’: a slave of her husband and Puritan conventions. She has to act according to Samuel Parris’ will, she is a servant for him and his property. And so is Tituba. The women’s awareness that they share a similar destiny, namely being oppressed and subjugated by Samuel Parris (albeit in different ways), makes them conspire. The reader witnesses that both of them suffer from Parris, whose brutality welds them together: “He struck me. (…) He struck her in turn. She too bled. This blood sealed our alliance.”[32]

In fact, Samuel Parris’ dominance causes the two women’s companionship, which is the source of a temporary, slight rapprochement in culture and personality between Elizabeth and Tituba. Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s compassion for Tituba (“How cruel it must be to be separated from your own family. From your father, your mother, and your people.”[33]) is not the compassion for an uprooted slave but for an individual serving as compensation for her lacking company and affection. This fact suggests that Elizabeth Parris is neither aware of an individual’s distress due to slavery’s inhumanities nor does she undergo a realization about that. Within her role as a slave-owner’s and minister’s wife, she accepts all circumstances as being natural, even God-given. Only temporarily and unconsciously Elizabeth dares to leave her schemes: “Standing at the door, Elizabeth Parris would plead weakly: ‘Be careful, Tituba! Don’t let them dance! Don’t let them dance!‘ And yet the minute after she would contradict herself and be beating her hands in time, delighted with our dance steps.”[34]

Yet, Elizabeth Parris never really questions the paradoxes in her life, which are connected with discrepancies between theory and practice of religious, personal or conjugal issues, for example the fact that her seemingly pious husband beats and humiliates his family and servants, directly disregarding several of the Bible’s commandments. Consequently, Samuel’s violent and arrogant (mis-)interpretation of his religion’s fundamentals causes (and in a way forces) Elizabeth’s own mistaken beliefs and her weakness, naivety and fright.

It seems that evil did not come to Salem with Tituba and ‘witchcraft’ but had always been there because it is in the inhabitants’ hearts and thoughts. This is emphasized by their characterization, for instance that of Dr. Griggs, who takes advantage of Tituba’s skills and later spreads his view that she uses witchcraft. These double standards are further stressed by the people’s attempts to get Tituba to use her skills (e.g. Sarah Hutchinson, Rebecca Nurse) and their later mistrust, respectively their indifference towards her and the condemnation of her powers.

Salem’s decay is also apparent in the children’s conduct. Not only Abigail, who anyway seems to have her spiteful traits by nature, but also Betsey and the other girls appeared harmless and thoughtful and then surrender to their parents’ and neighbors’ prejudices. (However, the girls’ incentives to pretend to be possessed and accuse Tituba of witchery are various such as peer-pressure, people’s increased attention or incitement by their parents.) Although Tituba has already figured out the structures in Salem, she is “aghast” when hearing Betsey’s statement “(…) You’re a Negress, Tituba! You can only do evil. You are evil itself.”[35]

Once more, a look behind the hypocrisy of humility, faith in God and piety uncovers the true atmosphere of hatred, barbarity and moral double-standards, described by Tituba as a “putrid smell of (…) crimes seeking to be committed”.[36] Inconsistently, Tituba, who is seen by the people as personified evil, has character traits to go with a kind, warm- hearted person but not with the “visible messenger of Satan”.[37] She is a kind and caring character with a lot of love to give. Her humanity, helpfulness and sympathy contrast the contempt and hostility she is treated with. Condé portrays Tituba according to Mama Yaya’s conviction about black people’s fate that “misfortune (…) is our constant companion. (…) But we’re tough (…).”[38] - a maxim which is perfectly embodied by Tituba as well as by her mother Abena.

2.2.2 “I will not give in!”: Condé’s Women’s Resistance

In the book, Tituba[39] is rather an anti- heroine than a heroine because she has traits of a picaro: belonging to a lower social class and having a strong extraordinary personality, she gets into conflict with the social conventions, goes through a variety of unusual situations and becomes a scapegoat of an intolerant society. As was shown before, she is oppressed and treated like a non-being but facing such a situation, Tituba neither becomes an opportunist (like her husband) nor a weak-willed subject to her oppressors. She may have been humiliated, hurt and victimized but she was never broken. Even if Tituba’s tough destiny leads her into thoughts of revenge and even suicide, she has always kept her pride and has been true to herself: “Oh no, they won’t get me to be the same as they are! I will not give in. I will not do evil!”[40]

Tituba is following her mother’s example of resistance to white subjugation and arbitrarily executed power. Abena herself suffers from her deep-rooted trauma due to the mechanisms of white masters’ dominance within the system of slavery such as their right to abduct, to uproot, to rape, to humiliate, to separate, to abuse and to kill, mostly connected with the victims’ defenselessness. An expression of this trauma is Abena’s disgust for her little daughter Tituba, which undoubtedly implies Abena’s disgust for her own body caused by the rape she had to endure. Consequently, for Abena, her rejection of Tituba as living stigma of the English sailor’s violation is not only a repression of that act and a means of protest but partly also an unconscious, psychologically motivated reaction within which Abena turns her hatred against herself and her own child. Equally, Abena’s active resistance in “clumsy rage[41]” to Darnell Davis is not simply set off by her will to oppose her white master but by the human instinct of self-defense. Yet, it can be conjectured that Abena is aware of her ‘disobedience’s’ consequences, namely her death, because she has been familiar with sorrow and punishment by Whites from her childhood on.

Tragically, Abena’s untimely death is a logical and usual conclusion of a slave life, especially with regard to her resistance. But even if it appears to be the impulse that leads to another disaster - the extinction of a family - it was not in vain. First of all, it is not explicitly Abena’s death which causes the tragedy of Yao’s suicide. It can be argued that Yao’s decision to leave this world is not instigated by his despair about Abena’s loss but by his distress because of being captivated. As Yao’s anguish is so deep that he has already committed two suicide attempts, Abena could distract him for a while however she would not have been able to cure his pain. Thus, Yao’s survival would not have been dependent on Abena but on his freedom, respectively the abolition of slavery. In other words, Yao would not have been likely to survive even if Abena had not been murdered.

Secondly, it must be considered that Abena’s resistance and her death also have ‘positive’ aspects: Tituba is driven off the plantation, which brings about her liberation from slavery and the chance to grow up in freedom and safety. Through her mother’s death, she is given the opportunity to live a free woman’s life. In addition, Abena is freed from slavery as well and enters the invisible world as a spirit, where she can exist well-balanced and therefore truer to herself. Moreover, she and Yao meet again in the invisible world and they can finally leave behind the dreadfulness of their former existence. From this angle, death loses its negativity and Abena’s opposition does not end up tragically but happily.

Tituba is deeply influenced by her childhood and her mother’s and Yao’s destinies. This might be one of the reasons why she is such an active character and ready to resist injustice subsequent to her judgment of things in agreement with her personal values and common sense. Tituba has to learn early that acting according to one’s conviction is risky but essential and desirable. As was illustrated before, Tituba faces multiple injustices and prejudices in the white man’s world. In order to resist them, she has to apply this knowledge and these convictions and values.

Initially, Tituba’s outward reaction to white hostility seems moderate because she does not contradict or oppose directly, although she is upset by the white people’s treatment.[42] But her decision to remain silent and endure the humiliation is a form of opposition as well, namely in so far as she does not show her hurt and shame and keeps her pride, her humanity, even within the atmosphere of dehumanization and inhumanity.

Gradually, as white people, their views and manners grow incomprehensible and intolerable to Tituba, her resistance becomes more courageous and resolute for instance when she refuses to confess her sins stating: “Why should I confess? What goes on in my head and my heart is my business.”[43] Again, she acts according to her natural and straightforward convictions and demands a certain privacy and piety instead of a hypocritical collective guilt complex.

Out of the same self-confidence Tituba (frequently indirectly or nonverbal) encourages her mistress Elizabeth to follow her own mind, which is temporally successful. As was shown before, Elizabeth and Tituba have partly similar aims of and reasons for their opposition. Their unconventional alliance against injustice, inhumanity and hardheartedness is based on mutual care, pity and the women’s different forms of isolation. However not politically or idealistically motivated but rather brought about by chance, their conspiracy is a risky and bizarre form of ‘underground’ resistance in thoughts, conversations and in their affection. It is so risky because the two of them not only negate society’s but also Samuel Parris’s ethics. In fact, these values overlap but the consequences of resisting Samuel Paris (and being discovered to do so) are far worse because both women are dependant on him due to his functions as master, husband and also as man - a woman’s legal guardian.[44] His anger and disgust is clearly expressed in his reactions after discovering only a slight ‘intimacy’ between the women: “Elizabeth, are you mad? Letting this Negress sit next to you.”[45] Samuel’s impact on Elizabeth’s life, his dominance and her frailty finally make her abandon her former companion and leave Tituba to the accusations, which Tituba tries to resist according to her nature. Her resistance is multiple and distinctive. She overcomes the mental and physical humiliations, the shame of false accusations and opposes the easy way to ‘denounce her guilt’ in order to demonstrate that her oppressors do not have power over her.

The form and intensity of Tituba’s resistant deeds depend on the situation, its consequences and her personal assessment, which means that she is able to act both tactically and radically but her acts are always consistent with her values. Even her most radical decision, killing her child, fits into that scheme. Tituba chooses infanticide after witnessing “a sort of total barbarity”[46] - the execution of an old woman, who is supposed to be ‘in league with the devil’. The fact that Tituba suffers from this decision her whole life, underscores that she has not made it easily and without doubts but knowing that a murder is the worst thing to do. However, she feels that bringing a child into this cruel, cold world she lives in is unethical as well. Thus, she follows her mind and rather bears the guilt because of a deed she believes to be right, respectively less errant. Her resistance through infanticide demands enormous personal sacrifice, which Tituba nonetheless endures.[47]

Such persistence is also evident in Tituba’s will to fight actively against white dominance in Barbados. Earlier, she has reflected on the need to become as “ferocious”[48] as her fellow human beings in order to survive. Although Tituba never carries out white hypocrisy and malevolence, she realizes that active resistance involving fights and certain pressure must be considered. Besides, she admits to feel “an unfulfilled lust for revenge” even if her aim is “to live in peace on (…) [her] island regained.[49] Here, Condé stresses that Tituba goes through those normal human emotions every slave feels and that her feelings of revenge naturally belong to her story - a slave’s story but also the story of a human being’s life, like all the other emotions of distress, shame, pleasure or love point out. An Obeah slave Tituba meets, expresses his feelings about her destiny in Salem: “If I had been in your shoes (…) I would have bewitched every one of them”[50] and herewith mirrors Tituba’s own thoughts of retribution and triumph.

So, despite her special powers, Tituba shall be perceived as a representative of the black slave community and as a ‘normal’ human being with ‘normal’ reactions. This is because on the one hand, her tragic destiny, based on tragic coincidences and demanding particular (partly radical) actions, is shared by millions of black slaves. On the other hand, Tituba’s life and her character are as unique as the forms of her subjugation and resistance. It is this combination of individual and collective suffering, opposition and hope for a better life that makes Tituba finally instigate active resistance and devote her time and powers to Christopher’s and later to Iphigene’s ideas of revolt.

In conclusion of her acts of resistance, it must be found that Tituba is an extraordinary and strong character. Even if Salem’s “putrifying atmosphere”[51] has an impact on her and she feels that “something inside (…) [her is] slowly but surely coming undone”[52], Salem’s people’s moral double standards and their violence can not turn her into a follower and opportunist, on account of her sense of justice and her ethics. This fact indicates that Tituba does not oppose Salem’s decay because of her different origin and supernatural skills but due to her decent and sane personality.

In contrast, it is shown that the indoctrination can even impinge on Puritan society’s outsiders, black slaves like Tituba, e.g. Sarah and John Indian, who once had an own culture, religion and own principles and thus should not willingly “become like them”[53], which means getting caught up in the atmosphere of hatred, fear and psychoses among Puritans in Salem.


[1] Morrison, Toni, Beloved, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991

[2] Morrison, Toni, Sula, London: Pan Books, 1991

[3] Condé, Maryse, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Transl. Richard Philcox, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994

[4] Evans, Mari, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, New York: Anchor, 1984, 345

[5] Cf.: Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, ed. by Sally Wehmeier, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 1296

[6] Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 409

[7] Hawthorne, Jeremy, Studying the Novel, London: Arnold, 2001, 5

[8] Hawthorne, 5

[9] Condé, 40

[10] Condé, 48

[11] Everett, Susanne, Geschichte der Sklaverei, Augsburg: Weltbild Verlag, 1998, 46-51, 54-55, 58

[12] Everett, 51

[13] Condé, 4

[14] Condé, 6

[15] Condé, 49

[16] Condé, 147

[17] Condé, 21-22

[18] Condé, 24

[19] Condé, 107

[20] Condé, 86

[21] Condé, 86

[22] Condé, 34

[23] Raeithel, Gert, Geschichte der Amerikanischen Kultur. Band 1. Parkland, 1992, 84

[24] Raeithel, 86

[25] Raeithel, 84

[26] Raeithel, 84

[27] Condé, 72

[28] Condé, 41

[29] Condé, 80

[30] Condé, 42

[31] Condé, 42

[32] Condé, 41

[33] Condé, 38

[34] Condé, 48

[35] Condé, 77

[36] Condé, 66

[37] Condé, 65

[38] Condé, 85

[39] Condé, 69

[40] Condé, 69

[41] Condé, 8

[42] Cf. : Condé, 21-24

[43] Condé, 41

[44] Cf.: women’s legal status in: Raeithel, 84

[45] Condé, 39

[46] Condé, 49

[47] Cf.: the circumstances of Tituba’s infanticide in 2.3.1 “Motherhood in Slavery and the Tradition of Infanticide”

[48] Condé, 73

[49] Condé, 144

[50] Condé, 149

[51] Condé, 65

[52] Condé, 66

[53] Condé, 68

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Subjugation and resistance of black women in the novels of Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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The thesis contains an analyse of the historic and political bachkground of African-American women in the US and their depiction in post-modern black women writing. The work was assessed to be very good, the average mark was given subjectively due to the author's concentration on own interpretation and less on the quotation of existing material. Can be improved easily, if necessary.
Subjugation, Toni, Morrison, Maryse, Conde, black women, black resistance, slavery
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Adriana Zühlke (Author), 2005, Subjugation and resistance of black women in the novels of Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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