Residing a stone’s throw from Salem, Massachusetts, as I celebrate Women’s History Month, I am reminded of one of this nation’s earliest examples of home-grown domestic terrorism – the Salem Witch Trails of 1692.
This haunting history of the Puritan’s execution of innocent women, and certain men too, is a window into how their religious fanaticism, misogyny, and homophobia destroyed not only the moral fiber of their town, but how it also decimated its own Christian zeal all to become a “city on the hill.”
While today new light is being shed on the Salem Witch Trials little is still known about the first women accused of witchcraft who sparked the trials – Tituba, a black slave.
Born in Barbados, earlier white historians depict Tituba as Carib Indian. However, African American feminist historians depict Tituba as black. With Tituba married to a man named John Indian, at the time the trans-Altantic slave trade was transporting Africans throughout and among the Caribbean islands, also known as the West Indies, Tituba’s racial identity is only obscured to those who erase the history of slavery.
“There are those who dispute her African descent, countering that she was Indian, perhaps hoping to stir up enmity between black and native American women as we seek to recreate our respective histories…. For, in the final analysis, Tituba’s revenge consists in reminding us all that the doors of our suppressed cultural histories are still ajar,” states African American lesbian feminist scholar and activist Angela Davis.
Tituba is the protagonist of the novel I, TITUBA: BLACK WITCH OF SALEM (1982) by Maryse Conde, a Guadeloupean author of historical fiction. Conde’s novels like I, TITUBA explore racial, gender, and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales.
While queries about Tituba’s race is of debate, her gender is indisputable. And though a slave, Tituba was nonetheless subjected to the same gender restrictions placed on Puritan women. And Puritan men had only two views of women: the good wife and the bad witch.
But nothing, however, was deadlier the plight of Puritan women than clerics’ sanctioning of Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Not only did this scripture verse give men biblical legitimacy to control women, but it also gave men a legal license to kill them.
Homosocial circles of women threatened the Puritan’s paradigm of male dominance, giving rise to the charges of witchcraft, because of the theological belief that women ought not be in the company of each other without the presence of a man. And without the presence of a man, of course, women could not help but engage in sorcery, paganism, and lesbianism.
“Lesbianism was identified with witchcraft… she could not form a household of her own apart from church and family… Her relations with a man were apt to be moral to the point of martyrdom, but not romantic. Puritanism does not seem to have been any more personally fulfilling to women than the slavery that they had willingly submitted to in previous times,’” historian Ellwood Johnson points out.
As the house slave of the Rev. Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, Tituba was accused of witchcraft by Parris’ daughter and her cousin. Allegedly, while assisting Tituba in preparing a “witchcake, ” the girls experienced unexplained “fits” and “symptoms.”
Forced to confessed that she was a witch, Tituba was known throughout Salem to tell tales from her African folklore tradition that both frightened and fascinated children and adults alike, stories later seen as evidence of her personal witchcraft.
“It is ironic that the belief that Tituba led these girls astray has persisted in popular lore, fiction and non fiction alike. The charge has barely disguised racial undertones and is based on the imagination of authors like Starkey, who eerily mirrors Salem’s accusers, ” states Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.
And Marion L. Starkey’ in her book The Devil in Massachusetts unabashedly stated, “I have invented the scenes with Tituba… but they are what I really believe happened.”
Tituba’s “confession,” nonetheless, served to silence most skeptics at the time of the veracity of the witch trials, thus giving Parris and other ministers a righteous license to hunt and kill witches with a religious fervor and zeal.
But Tituba’s bogus confession also spared her her life. Interestingly, however, the disappearance of Tituba immediately following the witch trials is clouded with intentional silence and a brief mention that she went back to Barbados, implying perhaps for some, that Tituba went back to her native land and lived happily ever after with her husband John Indian and her daughter Violet.
However, the truth is Tituba, as a slave and chattel property of Parris, was sold. Her utility to the Parris family was depleted.
Also, Parris’ church brought charges against him for his part in causing the Witch Trials. He had to rebuild his reputation and regain the trust of his community. Tituba, on the other hand, was expendable and had to leave.
However, in later years, Tituba’s confession gave many historians the belief that her race and low status as a slave in the community were enough to accuse her of being a witch.