- Theresa and Blake:Mobility and Resistance in Antebellum African American Serialized Fiction
"How do you solve a problem like Theresa?" asks Frances Smith Foster in the Winter 2006 issue of the African American Review. Speaking specifically of "Theresa—A Haytien Tale" (1828), published serially in four installments of Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm's Freedom's Journal, Foster notes how it challenges our notions of black literary history. It predates by several decades what were assumed to be the first works of fiction by African Americans (e.g., "The Heroic Slave" by Frederick Douglass in 1852, and William Wells Brown's Clotel, published in England in 1853). It is not a slave narrative. It is not even set in the United States. And it focuses on the trials and tribulations of three women—a widowed mother and her two daughters—rather than men. Indeed, Foster proclaims, the discovery of this story demonstrates that "neither fiction as a genre, Haiti as a topic, nor (black) women as heroic protagonists were unfamiliar to the readers of Freedom's Journal" ("Forgotten" 637). More importantly, she writes, its dissimilarity to recognized forms of nineteenth-century African American writing, in particular the slave narrative—which William L. Andrews describes as "the dominant mode of black antebellum narrative" ("Novelization" 23)—indicates "the need for a more complete and accurate corpus, canon, or reconstruction of literary history" ("Forgotten" 633).
"Theresa," however, is not completely anomalous. In fact, it bears many similarities to another work that also departs from the conventions of "African American Literature": Martin R. Delany's Blake: Or, the Huts of America, twenty-six chapters of which were serialized in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and serialized in its entirety in the Weekly Anglo-African from November 1861 to May 1862. Both works take the West Indies as their setting, black revolution as their subject, and test the boundaries of believable storytelling. What is most striking about the two works, however, especially in contrast to the slave narrative, is the mobility of the characters as well as the exotic settings they occupy. Theresa, her sisters, and her mother, Madame Paulina, travel across Haiti, unattended and unmolested, while Delany's Henry Blake foments slave insurrections throughout the American South as well as Cuba. In this, the two works reflected the periodicals in which they appeared. Although Freedom's Journal, the Anglo-African Magazine, and the Weekly Anglo-African were all published in New York City, they provided readers with a wide range of content. They did not simply cover the day's (or week's) events, but also included essays, poetry, anecdotes, and fiction that exposed readers to people, places, and ideas from around the world. Ultimately, when seen in light of their publication in African American periodicals, "Theresa—A Haytien Tale" and Blake demonstrate the extent to which [End Page 158] the notion of mobility infused the African American consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century—and in ways distinct from, even in opposition to, the slave narrative.
The very notion of black mobility during the antebellum period, of course, may be difficult to imagine. The movements of enslaved blacks were highly regulated and proscribed, and if they did move, it was often at the behest of their owners—or sellers. Escape, obviously, cannot be characterized as "free" mobility; it is more a movement undertaken to achieve it.1 And after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, even free blacks in the North were subject to the laws of capture, sale, and transfer that had long dictated the movements of the enslaved.
The antebellum slave narrative codified the movement north as a movement toward freedom; likewise, abolitionist fiction like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin codified the movement south—"down the river"—as a movement toward bondage. Yet these were not the only movements available to blacks in the United States. From the outset, the African American press reached beyond the issue of slavery and the sayings and doings of black Americans. While detailing the travels, speeches, and publications of the black leaders of the day (and showing that they were indeed very well traveled), periodicals also brought to...