In a remarkable collection of essays entitled Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, the great cultural historian Carlo Ginzburg returns again and again to a central problem of knowledge (in general) and historical knowledge (specifically): How far away should we be from the things we want to understand? In the optical sense, this is “perspective”. We use the same term when we speak of conceptual distance — but is it the same thing? Traditional historical practice, and possibly even the very idea of “historicism”, uses something like “distance” to create its objects. But does this mean that historians cut themselves off, and cut their readers off, from a certain kind of intimacy between then and now? Between the people of the past and us? In this lyrical essay on a very, very difficult and painful topic, the poet Kathryn Nuernberger works to defy history’s commitment to distance, to unsettling effect.
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
February 26, 2020
The historian Michel de Certeau wants to know what makes ideas possible. He asks versions of the question over and over in The Writing of History. “What makes something thinkable?” And insists the answer is the only story historians should bother telling.1
Herrick: Titiba what evil spirit have you familiarity with.
H: Why do you hurt these children.
T: I do not hurt them.2
Of all the accused witches, Titiba is the one who seems to have been the most radically transformed from who she actually was into who certain people wanted her to be. Unlike the white people of Salem, whose names, lineages, and racial identities have remained fixed since that time, hers went from Titiba in the trial records to Tituba in the popular culture. She was called “Indian” in court, but imagined in the histories that followed as African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, fictionalized her into “the daughter of a man all black and fierce,” while in The Crucible, that play performed in high schools all over the country every October, Arthur Miller called into being a reckless storyteller sowing wild fancies in the minds of the village girls.
Glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root.3 The Inquisitors imagined in one testimonial after another that they saw the transformation from person to demon before their eyes, even as they clung more fiercely to the power in the illusion they held about themselves, that they were not the ones conjuring such nightmares. It was Goodwife Sibley who asked Titiba to perform that old English spell with bread, dirt, and urine to ease the suffering of the poor afflicted child Betty, but that moment glimmered back in court as Titiba’s idea, her spell, her fault. And though she was compelled by the violence of Samuel Parris’s open hand into this line of questions by Constable John Herrick, the dominant narrative that emerged in the historiographies was that her confession was the reason for the craze that followed, that Titiba’s words conjured what we would come to know as the Salem Witch Hunt.
The Arawak word for the island renamed Barbados in the late 15th century is Ichi-rougan-aim, which means red land/island with white teeth. In the Eurocentric propaganda masquerading as so many of the textbooks distributed in history and social studies classes in this country you will read that the Arawak people disappeared or went extinct. In those books you will not read the word “genocide” because “genocide” means a crime was committed. You will not read “survivors” because in an ethical and moral world “survivors” means restitution must still be made. Today more than 10,000 people living in northern coastal regions of South America identify as Lokono, which is the name those people the colonizers called Arawaks used to call themselves.4
It was with witch trials in mind that Certeau critiqued his profession in his manifesto calling for the creation of new histories. “What we initially call history is nothing more than a narrative,” he writes, adding with mounting frustration that “the legend provides the imaginary dimension that we need so that the elsewhere can reiterate the here and now….”
It was with Certeau in mind that I read Pedagogies of Crossing by M. Jacqui Alexander, who founded and directs the Tobago Center for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality. She says that to create a just and sustainable future, we must “destabilize that which hegemony has rendered coherent or fixed; reassemble that which appears to be disparate, scattered, or otherwise idiosyncratic; foreground that which is latent and therefore powerful in its apparent absence; and analyze that which is apparently self-evident, which hegemony casts as commonsensical and natural, but which we shall read as gestures of power, that deploy violence to normalize and discipline.”5
Elaine Breslaw, author of Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem,6 was the first historian I read who looked through the glamour the inquisitors cast over Titiba and saw instead the resistance she conjured in her testimony. Breslaw speculates that Titiba’s name came from the Tivitivas tribe living at the mouth of the Orinoco. Or the Tebetana community of Arawaks living near the Amacura River. She found a 1676 inventory of a Barbados plantation owned by Samuel Thompson in which the name of a child, Tattuba, appears, along with 66 other names of slaves.
The spelling of names and many other words was irregular then, and the timeline makes sense, particularly given that Samuel Parris seems to have known the Thompson family well, even lived at a plantation near theirs in Barbados before setting sail for New England to take his new position in Salem as the minister of a rural Puritan community notorious for its squabbles, discord, and tendency to fire their clergy.
I’m always surprised by the number of intellectuals I have seen throw up their hands and say we’ll never be able to understand what happened in Salem or why. It is, after all, fairly identical to what happened in Bamberg, where three mayors in ten years were executed as witches along with hundreds of others, not to mention in Paisley and Scotland, all across Spain and its colonies, etc., etc. – there is the same line of questioning, the fear, and then the fear, hunger and drought or winter, a fungus, maybe, in the damp grain which causes delusions, something like what the DSM-5 might call PTSD from the most recent war, gaslighting gaolers and judges, a little torture, then a lot of torture…. In most of the trials you can tell nothing about the lives of the judges or the accused or afflicted or the audience feels sustainable based on how often one person will say and another person will agree that the world is surely ending soon.
And then there is that same old faith. In general the inquisitors won’t relent until a confession includes something new. New variations reassure them that they aren’t just being told what they want to hear. This is why they torment the accused past mere confession to the point where the trembling person accuses someone else.
So let’s observe that Titiba never gives the constable a new name. This is the only thing about the trials in Salem that is actually unusual at all. When asked who was torturing the girls, Sarah Good said it must be the insufferable Sarah Osbourne. Sarah Osbourne said if anything Sarah Good was the bewitched one and anyway she’d had a dream of being pricked by “something like an Indian.” When pressed, Titiba, who was often referred to by her neighbors as “Indian” or “Titiba Indian” named the two already-accused Sarahs, sure – they were already in shackles and accusing each other; what could she do for them? But when asked to name more, she said she could not make out any other names or the faces, and, when pressured further said she was blind now, could see no more, and collapsed to the floor.
H: What have you seen.
T: A man came to me and say serve me.
H: What service.
T: Hurt the children and last night there was an appearance that said kill the children and if I would not go on hurting the children they would do worse to me.
H: What is this appearance you see.
T: Sometimes it is like a hog and sometimes like a great dog, this appearance she saith she did see 4 times.
Historians typically begin the story of Salem in the woods of 1691 where the Reverend Samuel Parris’s daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, met to use an old divination method of telling their fortunes with an egg yolk. They expected to see the faces of their future lovers, but instead saw coffins and were not right again. They turned hysterical and began barking like dogs. Later, Abigail was found dancing in those woods.
H: What did it say to you?
T: ...The black dog said serve me but I said I am afraid he said if I did not he would doe worse to me.
H: What did you say to it.
T: I will serve you no longer. then he said he would hurt me and then he looked like a man and threatens to hurt me, she said that this man had a yellow bird that kept with him and he told me he had more pretty things that he would give me if I would serve him.
Because, like Certeau, I have been trying to understand what makes certain ideas thinkable, I have been reading the Situationists between the transcripts of the Salem testimonies. Living as I do, like one of these post-modernist avant-garde intellectuals inside the commodity fetishization of late-stage capitalism, I have been walking and thinking a meandering path through my neighborhood, which is a square of unceded Dakota land that was for a time a thriving center of African American businesses, homes, and prosperity. By 1968 urban planners, who were and are overwhelmingly white and male, had poured I-94 directly through the heart of this district on purpose and by design to destabilize the community. They probably did something similar where you live.7
In the most anthologized of Situationist texts, “Elementary Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism,” the philosophers Attila Kotámyi and Raoul Vaneigenn write, “Modern capitalism, which organizes the reduction of all social life to a spectacle, is incapable of presenting any spectacle other than our alienation.”8
Capitalism, it is widely known but seldom said, is dependent on the invention of scarcity. Salem villagers were obsessed with firewood, which had been made very scarce by their over-harvesting. As it became clear it would not be so easy to simply spread European colonization north, a three-generation-old feud over a tract of land between the influential Putnam and Proctor families was more and more on everyone’s mind. It came up each time the village had to agree to hire or fire a minister, build or not build a new meeting house, issue a warrant for some new arrest. You can grow and then cut down and burn a lot of trees on 1000 disputed acres.9
Bur Oak, Mossy cup oak, Yellow oak, Chinkapin oak, Sandburn willow, Swamp birch, Bicknell’s hawthorn, Mountain winterberry, Sweet bay magnolia, Swamp cottonwood, Northern mountain ash, Northern white cedar.10
In the negotiations conducted by letters from that Barbados plantation, Samuel Parris had secured a promise of firewood as well as a home to go along with his modest paycheck as part of his contract with the convening members of the church. But when winter arrived, neither the wood nor his paychecks were delivered.
Everyone in that small cold household – his wife, the four children, Titiba and also the other enslaved person, John Indian – lived inside the drafting and revising of the week’s sermons, the practicing and polishing of weekly jeremiads that became increasingly preoccupied with an evil that had infected the village.
Would any of them have remembered a view of the indigenous trees of Barbados growing scarce amidst all of the clear-cut sugar plantations stretched out across the island? Changunga, Cedro, Kapok, Guaiacwood, Sandbox tree, Lemon guava, Cabbage palm, False mastic, Swizzlestick tree.11
“The functional is what is practical,” Kotámyi and Vaneigenn observe in their Situationist manifesto, in which they try to lay out the core ideas necessary to make thinkable their utopian vision of a new kind of society. “The only thing that is practical is the resolution of our fundamental problem: our self-realization (our escape from the system of isolation).”
To justify the bloodshed their utopia seemed to require, the colonists designed a seal that was a picture of a Native American wearing a loin cloth made of leaves with a banner issuing forth from his mouth that reads “Come over and help us.” The witch trials are far from the only example of how genocidal invaders turn real people into the myths a system of oppressive power needs them to be.
It is all too easy for those who benefit from hegemonic powers to say there is nothing to learn from the uncertainties of these trials. That the mist of spectral evidence clouds all judgement. This is, after all, what the Governor eventually said when he issued a general pardon to all of the accused who had not already been executed. But in fact there is a great deal the afflicted know quite well — and that anyone who cared to could learn.
Did you know that Titiba was likely married to John Indian? He also survived the trials. He joined the ranks of the afflicted, trembling and fainting and accusing, which was a clever way then for anyone to stay alive or exact vengeance or both that year. His name was probably not really John Indian. I like to imagine he and Titiba knew each other by the names their mothers or grandmothers or aunts or fathers or brothers or whoever it was loved and cared for them had used at their beginning.
It is unclear precisely how many members of Salem village owned human beings as slaves. The first comprehensive records appear in 1754 when Governor Shirley ordered a census of all slaves over 16. In that year there were at least 83 people of African or Indigenous descent living as property in Salem village. 12
When Breslaw tells the story, she emphasizes the resistance in Titiba’s description of the nameless and faceless members of a coven, dressed in the fine clothes of well-to-do people. “Titiba invented a new idiom of resistance by overtly submitting to the will of her abuser while covertly feeding his fears of a conspiracy.”
Breslaw proposes a new history that explains how a group of people came to have the idea that there is no such thing as witches. Her story goes like this: When a person like Titiba who is not supposed to know how, masters the system and turns it against those who would master her, the ruling class suddenly and conveniently realizes nothing they have believed makes sense anymore.
The yellow birds of Barbados include: the Yellow-throated vireo, Bananaquit, American redstart, American yellow warbler, Northern waterthrush, Prothonotary warbler, Prairie warbler. 13
Yellow birds that can be found in New England: Saffron finch, Goldfinch, Pine warble, Yellow-throated vireo, Yellow-breasted chat, Yellow-rumped warbler, Yellow-headed blackbird. The recently extincted Bachman warbler would have been there when Titiba was.14
H: Did not you hurt Mr Currins child?
T: Goode good and goode Osburn told that they did hurt Mr Currens child and would have had me hurt him too, but I did not
H: What hath Sarah Osburn?
T: Yellow dog, she had a thing with a head like a woman with 2 legges, and wings. Abigail Williams that lives with her Uncle Parris said that she did see the same creature, and it turned into the shape of Goode Osburn.
H: What else have you seen with Osburn?
T: Another thing, hairy it goes upright like a man it hath only 2 legges.
When the general pardon was issued, the accused only had to pay their prison costs to be released. Samuel Parris did not pay the seven pounds owed for Titiba. We know she lived with little food and little heat in that prison for at least six more months until someone whose name no one thought to record bought her for the price of this modest debt. We also know that Violet was never with her mother again, because in Samuel Parris’s will, which was executed 45 years later, she was handed down to his heirs.
H: Did you not see Sarah Good upon Elizabeth Hubbard, last Saturday?
T: I did see her set a wolfe upon her to afflict her, the persons with this maid did say that she did complain of a wolfe.
T: She further saith that shee saw a cat with good at another time.
H: What cloathes doth the man go in?
T: He goes in black clothes a tall man with white hair I thinke.
H: How doth the woman go?
T: In a white hood and a black hood with a top knot.
H: Doe you see who it is that torments these children now.
At the time of the writing of this essay, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency held an estimated 10,000 migrant children in its custody;15 at least 7 had died.16 Which is a situation not unlike the one from 1879-1918 when the U. S. Government took 12,000 children from their parents and their nations or bands into the abusive Carlisle Indian School, an institution that approximately 150 other U.S.-run or Canadian-run or Catholic-run boarding schools for Native children modeled themselves after.17 Half of the 120,000 people held in Japanese internment camps in the US were children.18 Of the 12.5 million people carried across the Atlantic during the five centuries of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, 26% are estimated to have been children.19 The number of children born into slavery has not yet been calculated, but they have been there, the children, afflicted, since the beginning of the American story.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently RUE (BOA, 2020), as well as the essay collections, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017) and The Witch of Eye (Sarabande Books, forthcoming in 2021). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, she teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota.
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