Tituba tells the story of her birth. Her mother Abena was an Ashanti woman who was captured, enslaved, and brought from West Africa to Barbados on a slave ship. While on board the ship, Abena was raped by a white English sailor. Tituba reflects that she was “born from this act of aggression.” But though eventually Abena would give birth, her pregnancy was not showing by the time she landed in Barbados.
By beginning her narrative in this way, Tituba shows that no chapter in her life (even the very beginning) can be separated from the horror of enslavement. Moreover, as she focuses in on this “act of aggression,” Tituba links the twin evils of white supremacy and patriarchy—and amplifies the historical fact that enslaved Black women were often the targets of white men’s sexual violence.
Once on the island, Abena is sold to a brutal slaveholder named Darnell Davis. Initially, Darnell assigns Abena to be his wife Jennifer’s companion—and because Jennifer is similarly young and similarly terrified of Darnell, the two women become friends. But after it becomes clear that Abena is pregnant, Darnell flies into a rage. He then sends Abena to go live with Yao, another Ashanti enslaved man.
The friendship between Abena and Jennifer foreshadows the (deeply compromised) bond that will later form between Tituba and Elizabeth, another sickly white woman who resents her husband. And though Darnell is only a minor character, it is critical to note his sense of immense power over the lives of others; in particular, Darnell’s anger over Abena’s pregnancy demonstrates the extent to which white slaveholders tried to snatch bodily agency from enslaved Black men and women.
Fortunately, as soon as Abena steps into Yao’s cabin, she realizes that they are old friends. Yao has tried to kill himself many times, preferring death to the horror of a life in slavery. But Yao and Abena find courage in each other, and Yao agrees to raise Abena’s baby (Tituba) as his own. Initially, the pair feels a familial bond, but over time they become lovers. Four months later, Tituba is born.
This passage begins to ask one of the novel’s key questions: since slavery as an institution deforms every aspect of daily life, is survival under slavery always preferable to death? At the same time, however, this passage also shows that family—like the kind Yao and Abena form with each other—can provide deep meaning and solace even within the constraints of enslavement.
Yao is overjoyed by his new daughter—but Abena is upset that her baby is a girl, because she feels that women are so much more vulnerable than men. Instead of naming the child a standard Ashanti name, Yao invents the name of “Tituba”; Tituba feels that her names signals that she is “the daughter of [Yao’s] will and imagination.” Though the first years of Tituba’s life are happy, as she learns to walk and talk, she begins to understand her family’s enslavement.
Abena’s concern again reflects the narrative’s intersectional lens: Tituba is both Black and a woman, and the intersection of those two identities carries with it a whole new slate of dangers (particularly the white sexual violence that Abena has already experienced). It is also worth noting the origin story of Tituba’s name. More than once, Tituba and her loved ones will gain strength from imagining an alternative future, in which slavery no longer exists; now and in these later moments, “will and imagination” are crucial keys to endurance.
Tituba also comes to terms with her mother’s lack of affection—because Tituba reminds Abena of the man who assaulted her, it is hard for Abena to show her daughter love. Still, Yao is deeply caring, teaching Tituba to love her environment and to use tropical plants to feed and heal herself. As Tituba matures, she sees moments of joy and rebellion among the slaves, but she also witnesses terrifying scenes of slaveholders’ brutality.
There are several important ideas here. First, the complex relationship between Tituba and her mother shows how pervasive white violence can impact even the most familial relationships—Abena’s trauma makes it difficult for her to connect with her daughter. Second, Yao’s use of tropical plants to care for Tituba paints the natural world as a source of love and care. And finally, Tituba begins to understand the remarkable creativity and tenacity of people in enslaved communities, able to find joy despite near-constant violence.
One day, while Tituba is walking with her mother, Darnell stops Abena in her tracks and tries to rape her. Abena instructs her daughter to hand her a cutlass, which Tituba does. Abena stabs Darnell—but he does not die. Instead, a few weeks later, he hangs Abena in front of all of the enslaved people on his plantation, including Tituba. Darnell also tries to sell Yao to a neighboring planter, but this time, Yao’s suicide attempt is successful.
Abena is still deeply scarred by what happened on the ship, so when another white man attempts to assault her, it re-traumatizes her; the fact that she is hanged for fighting back is the ultimate injustice. Moreover, Yao’s suicide, in addition to being an expression of his pain over losing Abena, can also be seen as a form of protest against a profoundly awful system.
A deeply traumatized Tituba, only seven years old, is driven off the plantation. She goes to live with a formerly enslaved Nago woman named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya watched her husband and children be tortured to death, and so she has cultivated an ability to communicate with the dead. She tells young Tituba that “you will suffer during your life. A lot. A lot […] But you will survive.”
Mama Yaya will become one of Tituba’s most important mentors, in part because she, too, has experienced great familial loss. But because death has been such a part of Mama Yaya’s life, she has figured out how to blur the boundary between the living and the dead. And so when Mama Yaya affirms Tituba’s ability to “survive,” she is also giving her the framework to do so—to maintain contact with her loved ones even after death separates her from them.
Mama Yaya teaches Tituba to use herbs and tropical plants to heal and change others’ behavior; she also teaches her how to sacrifice animals for the two essential liquids, “blood and milk.” Soon after, Tituba dreams that her mother has come back to life. When she tells Mama Yaya, Mama Yaya assures Tituba that it was not a dream after all; instead, it was Abena’s way of reaching out to her still-living daughter.
Again, nature (and particularly the lush, tropical nature of Barbados) is a healing force. It is especially crucial that “blood and milk”—the two liquids most associated with femininity—are also, in Mama Yaya’s teaching, the most essential healing substances.
Mama Yaya explains that “the dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them […] and if we kneel down to regularly commune with them.” From that point on, Yao and Abena become regular fixtures in Tituba’s life. Mama Yaya also shows Tituba how to change form and how to make sacrifices. When Tituba is 14, Mama Yaya dies, but her spirit continues to act as a guide.
This passage marks a critical turning point in the novel—from here on out, Tituba is never fully alone, as she is always guided by the spirits of Yao, Abena, and Mama Yaya. This guidance reflects one of the most important concepts in the novel: that memory and love can preserve the dead in a meaningful way, even if they cannot return in physical form.
Around this time, Darnell’s wife dies—and his infant son, despite being tenderly nursed by an enslaved woman, seems destined for a similar fate. In a panic, Darnell sells the plantation, which results in all of the various enslaved families being separated. In Darnell’s absence, Tituba builds herself a “cabin on stilts” at the edge of a river. She gardens, raises animals, and continues to make drugs and potions. Later, she will realize that this was the happiest time of her life, in part because she was “far from men, and especially white men.”
Family separation was another horrific facet of slavery; at any moment, slaveholders could exercise their brutal power by separating parents from children or husbands from wives. Darnell’s return to England demonstrates his complete disregard for the lives of other people, a complete contrast to Tituba, who values every person, plant, and animal she comes into contact with.
After a few years, Tituba encounters a group of enslaved men and is surprised to learn that she is viewed with fear all over the island. Out of a need to be loved instead of feared, Tituba starts visiting the plantations, offering to heal the enslaved people working on them.
Not for the last time, Tituba wants to do good things and to be loved for doing them—and not for the last time, this desire, while admirable, will bring her away from safety and towards danger.