I was Tituba. Or at least, everyone thought I was. During my freshman year at a small liberal arts Christian college in Wenham, Massachusetts, my lifelong fascination with the Salem Witch Trials and an empty bank account prompted me to apply for a job as a historical reenactor. For nine dolllars an hour, I dressed in heavy cloaks, long skirts, and leather boots with golden buckles. I revived the past as a member of the street cast for Cry Innocent, a dramatized play recounting the trail of Bridget Bishop, the first citizen of Salem to be executed as a witch. Somewhere between the excitement of make-believe and a steady paycheck, I forgot the historical implications of something I couldn’t change: the color of my skin.
As part of the required training, my fellow street cast members and I toured the cobbled streets of Salem guided by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. We stood in the shadow of the Custom House and filed past the House of Seven Gables as she told us of her husband’s inspiration for The Scarlet Letter. She showed us the graves of his forefathers, briefly mentioning his family’s involvement in the witch trials and Hawthorne’s resulting guilt. We traveled to the nearby Plymouth Plantation, a “living museum” depicting the daily grind of 17th-century colonists. Women in bonnets, with names like “Prudence” and “Constance,” demonstrated how to spin wool and make candles. Then we returned to downtown Salem for a costume fitting and dinner.
Our supervisor informed us that our meal would also be a historical reenactment. As we neared the Old Town Hall, she encouraged us to come up with a name and a back-story for our Puritan alter egos, to imagine ourselves in the 1690s and act accordingly. That night, we would dine in character.
Once inside the Old Town Hall, I traded in my Gap jeans and worn Chuck Taylors for a linen lace-up blouse and an ankle-length wool skirt. I reached for a red bodice, but my supervisor reminded me that my social status in the 1690s would not have allowed for such grand attire, so I selected a grey one instead. I pulled my hair into a bun and pinned what a veteran cast member called a “coif” to the top of my head before joining everyone on an empty stage.
I asked people who they would portray at dinner. A soft-spoken girl who also lived in my dorm said she would be the apothecary’s daughter. Another girl rummaged through a box of props until she pulled out a wooden smoking pipe; dropping it into the pocket of her apron, she declared that she would be an old widow with a small plot of land. The only guy in our street cast would be the blacksmith’s apprentice who secretly wanted to go to seminary to become a minister.
They asked me who I would be. I went for something probable, telling them I would be Zipporah, a spirited servant girl. The blacksmith’s apprentice scratched his head. “Did Puritans have slaves?” I shrugged, then mumbled, “Probably.”
That night at dinner, we sat in the dark. Candles flickered as we drank from faux pewter mugs and ate from wooden rectangular plates our supervisor referred to as “trenchers.” We were allowed the luxury of modern forks, but she suggested that we pretend that they weren’t there. Conversation around the table focused on fictive crops, barn roofs that needed mending, and the circulating rumor about Goody Bishop. I jumped into the conversation, making a snarky comment about Goody Bishop being in league with the devil.
My supervisor cleared her throat, placing her fork beside her trencher. “Mind your place, Zipporah!” She broke out of character briefly to remind me that servants of my character’s standing were not given the privilege to speak so freely without punishment. The blacksmith’s apprentice wagged his finger at me in disapproval. “Such a brazen tongue for a servant girl,” he said. I firmly pressed my lips together to keep myself from responding.
Each shift, I walked the streets of Salem with the apothecary’s daughter, the blacksmith’s apprentice, and the village widow, who demanded that we refer to her as Old Woman Hutchins. We handed out maps of historic Salem and helped eager tourists find their way to the Witch Museum. We hung out in Burying Point Cemetery near the tombstone of the infamous witch trial judge and great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Hathorne. We complained about how uncomfortable our costumes were as we sipped lattes from Starbucks. Habitually, Old Woman Hutchins ditched her wooden pipe to chain smoke Parliaments while I checked my phone for texts. We relived the arrest of Bridget Bishop each day in front of the Old Town Hall again and again and again as September slipped into October. More and more tourists crowded the streets of Salem, their eyes wide with excitement. And that’s when it started to happen.
That’s when I became Tituba.
For them, it was a logical conclusion: they assumed that because I was Black, I had to be Tituba. Most of the time it was middle-aged dads or teachers leading a group of students on a field trip. “Hey, Tituba! Can we get a picture with you?” they’d shout, waving their arms for me to come closer. The first time this happened, I rolled my eyes before explaining that I was Zipporah, a servant girl, not a witch. But they remained unconvinced. To them, my skin color meant that I must be playing a different part — a 21st-century reincarnation of Samuel Parris’ female slave, who confessed to practicing the dark arts. My attempts to present myself as a servant girl failed, and I became a stand-in for the most famous person of color in Salem.
As the weeks passed, group after group of tourists pulled out their disposable cameras, recruiting passersby to snap pictures of me standing beside them. I can only imagine how many scrapbooks or albums include pictures of me sulking in modest colonial attire. “Tituba!” I heard one weekend as I walked down Essex Street, pulling my cloak closer around my shoulders. I turned around quickly, replying, “I’m not Tituba. I’m Zipporah, the servant girl,” in a firm but friendly voice, making sure to emphasize the word servant. A man in a crewneck sweatshirt nodded his head (“Sure you are!”) and winked before raising his hands in the air and pleading, “Don’t put a hex on me!” The woman with him laughed as their small child hid behind her. I forced a tight-lipped smile and gave them a pamphlet on sites of interest before turning to leave.
All Hallow’s Eve drew closer, and during each shift, I got into the habit of handing out flyers and maps by myself. I searched for backstreets and empty benches surrounding the Old Town Hall, seeking refuge from the growing numbers of tourists who wanted to take their picture with me. At the end of each shift, I changed out of my historically accurate costume and into jeans, a t-shirt, or a sweater and headed back to campus, thinking about the real Tituba and wondering about her experience as a Black person in a predominately white space. Was she labeled as something that she wasn’t because of her skin? I knew so little about who she was and what Salem had been like for her. And yet, hundreds of years later, the tourists of Salem gave me her name, and saw me as her.
A week before Halloween, I stopped correcting tourists when they called me Tituba. I stopped smiling in the pictures they snapped. I was tired of constantly being made aware of the color of my skin by white strangers. When they called me a witch, I said nothing. I let them believe what they wanted. I let them believe I was her. I realized that no matter how many times I told them the truth, the truth wasn’t what they wanted to hear. They wanted the Black Witch of Salem, and I fit the part.
Growing up in a nearly all-white town in suburban Pennsylvania, I had learned at an early age that tokenism is hard to shake. In Salem, I tried to combat the pressure of the tourists’ demands to identify as Tituba, but in the end, I failed. Just as I had been so many times before, I was pushed into a role I didn’t want to play. I wasn’t able to challenge their limited imaginations, or encourage them to conjure up narratives that fell outside historical tropes. Whether I was Zipporah the servant girl, the infamous Tituba, or myself, I was different from Old Woman Hutchins, and the apothecary’s daughter, and the blacksmith’s apprentice. I was darker. I was Black.
Dianca London is a blogger and follower of the fictive craft. She is the prose editor of LIT Magazine and is currently earning her MFA in Fiction from the New School. Her work has been featured in New Wave Vomit, Apiary Magazine, xoJane, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. She currently resides and Brooklyn and tweets at @dianca_london.