[Protection Edition] Uplifting Tituba: Protecting Witches of Color Then and Now
Earlier this year, I went to Salem, MA for Halloween. The site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, Salem transforms into a gruesome carnival town for the month of October every year, capitalizing on a haunting theme of racialized and gendered persecution and violence that occurred centuries ago. It’s hard to walk one block in the town without encountering three costume shops, a witch-related museum, and a spooky-themed restaurant or two.
While riding the commuter rail from Boston to Salem, I realized how concerning the story of the Salem Witch Trials actually was. I remembered reading “The Crucible” in high school and learning about Tituba, a character who has since remained the most prominent in my mind. A black (or possibly Arawak) slave woman brought from the West Indies, Tituba is often cited as the source of the witchcraft problems in Salem, having created a “witchcake” in order to learn who had afflicted the daughter of her master. It was later revealed that Tituba was advised to do this by one of the neighbors of her master, Mary Sibley.
Beaten until she confessed to witchcraft, Tituba was willing to affirm any of the leading questions directed at her. As a slave in the colonies, Tituba acted in self-protection. One might call it self-preservation at the hands of a physically-violent and systemically-violent scenario. However, similar to conditions described today, court and prison fees prevented Tituba from walking free after her testimony. Due to a prison cost of seven pounds, Tituba remained imprisoned until she was bought by a new owner for the price of her debt. This is where she disappeared from the record.
Tituba’s story haunted me as I walked through the streets of Salem, thinking about how Black women have long functioned as laborers of love… as midwives and folk healers, we have taken on the labor of caring for ill, elderly, pregnant, and disabled members of our communities, making lives more livable with the aid of herbs, natural remedies, and recipes for wellness. By many standards, black women’s role in ensuring black people’s survival through slavery, reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, and the structural racism of modern America is nothing short of magical. We do emotional labor that heals, we find remedies in our kitchen and bathroom cabinets, we make something out of nothing — like magic. This is not new, and yet, this work has been whitewashed.
When I think of my own introduction to witchcraft, I’m reminded of my preteen obsession with the musical Wicked. As a biracial young woman growing up in a predominantly white community, I connected with Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, as someone whose skin color was incongruent with the skin color of my friends and family. The racial allegories in Wicked did not miss me; and I did some important identity work through my obsession with that musical.
By and large, however, witchcraft as it is presented via the media we consume remains largely white (e.g. the #witch tag on Instagram and basically all witch movies and shows). What’s missing from this portrayal is the representation of real practitioners of Hoodoo and Voodoo, the real herbalists and healers and bodyworkers and community workers of color who engage in the labor of making and keeping others well every day. Instead of appropriating from “authentic” witchcraft practices without an invitation, white witches have a role to play in protecting indigenous, black, and brown forms of witchcraft/hoodoo/voodoo/brujería in the many forms they take.
Seeing the #blackgirlmagic hashtag emerge was one of the happiest online moments I’ve ever had. It was a reminder to myself that witchcraft of color is worthy of protection and practice, of uplifting for communities of color still in need of healing. To me, witchcraft as a practice promises not only survival and healing, but also liberation — from respectability, from internalized oppression, from the apparent necessity of resilience that often blinds us from observing the real necessity for structural change.
Of Tituba, Marilynne K. Roach writes: “her memory can be that of not just a slave but also a survivor, a woman in a dangerous situation with no one to speak for her, a woman who, in her efforts to endure, managed to turn her accusers’ fears back upon themselves.” Perhaps even more than self-protection, though, we can begin to understand modern iterations of intersectional witchcraft as something culturally-informed and liberatory, something going far beyond survival, something worthy of all the protection we can provide, just as Tituba was.
Thanks for reading WITCHES RISE! Please share this article if it’s tickled your inner witch by using the buttons to the left of and below the story.
Follow WITCHES RISE here for more juicy witchery.
Brianna Suslovic is a young twentysomething with a passion for social work, social justice, intersectionality, and witchcraft. She’s honing her tarot skills and self-educating about crystals, focusing her craft on the practice of writing as self-healing. She is particularly interested in self-care and collective care through witchcraft. Her work has been published at Black Girl Dangerous, The Tempest, and The Establishment. For more, check out her website at briannasuslovic.com.