I’ve been writing about Phillis Wheatley, the eighteenth century slave poet from Boston who published her one (and only) book of poems at the age of nineteen. She was the first African American woman, indeed the first African American, to publish a book. She was a celebrity in Boston, and lionized by the aristocracy in London. She met Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, who praised her “great Poetical talents.”
Wheatley was educated by her owners. She also learned the social graces of a proper white girl, became a devout Christian, and remembered virtually nothing of Africa where she was captured and enslaved at age seven. Phillis Wheatley was freed when she was nineteen, but still lived at the Wheatley mansion.
Three weeks after her owner died, she married a bounder who abandoned her and their three babies (who all died in infancy.) Wheatley herself died in a squalid boardinghouse at age thirty. Many children’s biographies have been written about her and most of them focus on her triumphs. But in the world of adult scholarship, things aren’t so rosy.
Since her death in 1784, her reputation has waxed and waned. She and her poetry were praised in the sentimental nineteenth century. Twentieth century feminists championed her for writing at all (her poetry is hard to take today,) while black activists vilified her as an early Aunt Jemima. Now, in the twenty-first century I want to tell her story and talk about how history has treated her. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard scholar and no stranger to controversy, has laid out the territory in his Library of Congress Jefferson lecture, published as The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.
In telling her story I don’t shy away from her best-known, most-anthologized, and most-reviled poem, written when she was but fourteen.
On Being Brought From Africa to America.
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain,
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
It’s easy to see why she was called “a colonial handerchief head” and “utterly irrelevant to the identification and liberation of the black man[!].” But I see black pride in this poem too: black and white folks are equal before her God. Her gratitude for the “mercy” of slavery is harder to accept, especially when you look beyond her seat on the sofa in the Wheatley parlor. But hey, she was only fourteen. Later on, she wrote against her literal slavery, and called out her Boston neighbors who used the term as a metaphor.
So, tricky subject with a controversial history makes life for this biographer more complicated than for earlier hagiographical writers who ignored these thorny issues. But it’s more fun too.