Poetic Research Department

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Phillis Wheatley's Word

As a student at two historically African American colleges during the early 1980s, I was taught Phillis Wheatley's poetry, but my professors' implicit message was that black folks had the responsibility to read her because of her historical status as an African American "first." Not one of my professors ever mentioned we should read Wheatley because of her artistic merit as a poet. It was stressed to me that Wheatley was neither a political revolutionary nor a "real" poet with any recognizable talent. And frankly, I agreed; based upon my reading of Wheatley's most well-known poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," and its then-troubling first line—"'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land"—I dismissed her poetry for over twenty years.

But in 2003, I read an article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The New Yorker entitled "Phillis Wheatley on Trial," an excerpt from his full-length The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, which addresses Wheatley's early life and times and the reception of her only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Gates's point is that because of eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideas of race and Reason, it was difficult for some white New Englanders to imagine Wheatley as a person, much less someone capable of writing poetry. Thus, they focused on Wheatley's proving her literacy and her humanity and less, Gates implies, on her actual skills at writing poetry. Gates makes an intriguing social argument in his book, so intriguing that I bought the book (in expensive hardback), and once I finished it, I reread Wheatley's poems, collected in Vincent Carretta's Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (2001). I also reread Wheatley's Poems online—in a digital edition so that I could see the way the poems had looked on the page originally.

And then, I got hooked on Phillis Wheatley—even though I still wasn't sure whether I liked her poetry or not. That word "mercy" kept bothering me, with its bland happiness. I kept coming back to "mercy" because, by that time, I had a feeling Phillis Wheatley was trying to tell me something important, something I was missing but that I would get if I would only stop and pay attention to her.

I wondered if anyone else kept returning to "mercy" as well, so I started looking for other Wheatley secondary sources and encountered Katherine Clay Bassard's Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing (1999). I can say with complete confidence that if I had never read Bassard's book I would not have embarked on my current poetry project on Phillis Wheatley, for Bassard places Wheatley's work within a racially gendered perspective—not just black or woman, but both—something that male scholars, white or black, had not done. Bassard analyzes Wheatley's work in terms of Wheatley's acknowledgement, not dismissal, of her traumatic experience of the Middle Passage.

After I read Bassard's book, I started paying closer attention to Wheatley's poetry. For example, in "To The Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth" Wheatley writes, "I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate / Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat," while in "To the University of Cambridge, in New England," a poem addressed to the students at Harvard, she writes, "Father of mercy, 'twas thy gracious hand / Brought me in safety from those dark abodes." In the first poem, the word "snatch'd" is violent, while in the second poem, Wheatley presents the word "mercy" in a slightly different context than in her other, more well-known poem ("On Being Brought from Africa to America"). In "To the University of Cambridge," this particular "mercy" is not what causes Wheatley's kidnapping, but one that allows her survival in transit, a journey not just from Africa but the journey she survived in "safety." Thus, "dark abodes" seems to refer to the Middle Passage, and not Africa. Most striking in both poems is Wheatley's daring, her addressing white males and telling them about her slavery, her trauma. This claiming of voice is an act of incredible courage on the part of an eighteenth-century black woman who was still a slave at the time, and who had no literary forbears in her racially gendered context.

"You white men did this to me," Wheatley essentially says in these two poems. "You made me a slave when I was free. You took me away from the only home I ever knew, from my parents and my childhood. It hurt me and it still hurts. And not only am I going to raise my voice and talk about how it hurts, you're going to listen to me talk about how it hurts."

And suddenly—just like that—I saw the brilliance of Phillis Wheatley's poetry.

When my epiphany took place, I was a college professor and the author of my own three books of poetry. I decided to write a few poems about Wheatley, this woman who had made my own life as a black female poet possible, but I knew I needed to find out more about her. I was lucky enough to secure a 2009 Baron Artist Fellowship to the American Antiquarian Society in order to conduct research on Wheatley. When I arrived at the AAS, I was advised to start my research with William H. Robinson's germinal biography, Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings (1984), out of print and not available at my own university library, as well as the Black Biographical Dictionaries, 1790-1950 (1987), edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Randall K. Burkett, and Nancy Hall Burkett. I quickly discovered that all secondary Wheatley sources pointed to the nineteenth-century text Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave (1834) by Margaretta Matilda Odell, and all the secondary sources largely relied upon Odell's Memoir for the primary documentation about Wheatley's early life. Odell describes herself as a "collateral descendant" of Susanna Wheeler Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley's former mistress; however, I could not find a family link between Odell and Susanna Wheatley in any of my research. Although some of the later histories of Phillis Wheatley provide bits and pieces of documentation for Odell's claims about Wheatley's life in Memoir, there remain huge gaps in the research, and further, Odell's book was written fifty years after Wheatley's death, and every immediate adult member of Wheatley's "white family" (John, Susanna, Mary, and Nathaniel) had died even before Phillis Wheatley did.

There are some truths in Odell's Memoir. According to Marriages in Boston, 1700-1809, Phillis Wheatley did marry John Peters (on April 1, 1778); both are listed as "free negroes." Odell maintains that Peters was still alive after Wheatley died in 1784 and that he demanded his dead wife's papers from white friends who were in possession of them. In July 2009, when I visited the Northeast Division of the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts, I found a "John Peters" listed on the Boston, Massachusetts, 1790 census; this John Peters was a "free man of color" and there is no other African American John Peters anywhere in Boston in that census year. However, the documented truth in Odell's Memoir is mixed in with unproven statements. For example, there is no published record of Peters's selling his dead wife's papers to cover his debts or moving "South" after her death as Odell asserts; further, given the racial climate of the U.S. South during the late eighteenth century, to say nothing of the prevalence of slavery there, relocating to this area would have been an extremely strange move for a free black man. There are no primary birth, baptismal, or death records for any—let alone three—children born to Phillis Wheatley and John Peters. In the notices published in New England newspapers that provide Wheatley's death date as on (or very close to) Sunday, December 5, 1784, no child is mentioned as dying with or being buried alongside her.

Given the lack of documentation for Odell's family link to the white Wheatleys and the lack of proof for most of her assertions about Wheatley's life, it is distressing that, in 176 years, scholars have not questioned Odell's right to speak for Phillis Wheatley. This blind trust continues the disturbing historical trend of African Americans, and black women in particular, needing white benefactors to justify their lives and history. In this case, Odell provides no documentation for her portrait of Phillis Wheatley's life, yet her unproven word has been reproduced by the most renowned Wheatley scholars in the world, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Vincent Carretta.

Within a few short days into my fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society and my encountering the issues surrounding Odell's Memoir, I was seized with self-doubt about my poetry project. Once I found out that I couldn't take what I thought I knew about Wheatley for granted, I wondered if I should continue; before arriving at the AAS, I had already written some poems about her, based upon Odell's book. Though mine wasn't a conventional history project, I wanted to take what was true and make some emotional leaps with those facts. Now, I realized, I didn't really know much. I was heartbroken and, frankly, very angry. Then, I decided to try to document all that I could find about Phillis Wheatley and was encouraged to do so by the librarians and researchers at the AAS (especially Caroline Sloat and Elizabeth Pope). Using Odell's Memoir as a guide, I started the tedious yet exhilarating work of primary documentation, so that I could write the poems I now wanted—needed—to write. I am still in the process of attempting full primary documentation.

A year later, my planned, short series of poems on Wheatley has become a book-length project-in-progress entitled The Age of Phillis, which not only imagines Wheatley's life and times, but also the era of the American Revolution in Massachusetts. After rereading Wheatley's poetry, what strikes me is her preoccupation with spirituality, motherhood, race, and her own contemporary politics. And although Wheatley's "voice" certainly adheres to the poetic constraints—and feminine restraints—of her time, it is not an overstatement to locate Wheatley as a literary ancestor of the contemporary black poet Lucille Clifton, who one would characterize as a feminist poet in full command of artistic agency. As scholar Joanna Brooks observes, Wheatley was "conscripted into emotional labor… She grew an audience, developed a network of supporters, published a remarkable first book, and engineered her own manumission." Thus, the overarching narrative that runs through The Age of Phillis is that of an unfree woman in search of her agency, one whose work is concerned with the actual death of children (prematurely torn from their mothers) as a means of mirroring her own figurative death and traumatic separation from her African mother/land. Framing this narrative is the political era of the American Revolution and the ironic colonial preoccupation with liberty from England in the midst of the horrific yet lucrative slave trade.

Surely, Wheatley's work is "young"—what first book of poetry isn't young, with its flaws and missteps? If one were to unearth early versions of the poems of Wheatley's white contemporaries, I'm sure we could find similar flaws and missteps. While I don't believe that Wheatley should be given a pass with her poetry, neither do I feel as if she should be held to a higher artistic standard than other poets who happen to be white and/or male. And I would strongly dispute anyone who argues that Wheatley's work is essentially juvenilia. By finishing this project imagining the life and times of this brilliant and complex woman, I hope to make it impossible for anyone approaching the work of Phillis Wheatley to ever again dismiss her courageous artistry.

Further reading

Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) is her only book of poetry; however, see Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings edited by Vincent Carretta (New York, 2001) for the latest collection of all extant Wheatley writings; also, see The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Revised and Enlarged Edition) edited by Julian Mason (Chapel Hill, 1989); and see The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley edited by John C. Shields (New York, 1988).

John Wheatley's statement in Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral recounts her earliest biography; see also Margaretta Matilda Odell's Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans (Boston, 1834). William H. Robinson's Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings (New York, 1984) provides a bio-bibliography of Phillis Wheatley. See Marriages in Boston, 1700-1809 (http://www.AmericanAncestors.org) for information about Phillis Wheatley's 1778 marriage to John Peters. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Randall K. Burkett, and Nancy Hall Burkett, Black Biographical Dictionaries, 1790-1950 (Alexandria, Virginia, 1987) for historical context on late eighteenth-century African American women.

Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York, 2004) provides an excellent and comprehensive history of the Transatlantic slave trade and an exploration of Middle Passage trauma. See Vincent Carretta's "Introduction" in Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (New York, 2001) for a discussion of slavery themes in Wheatley's poetry; also see Will Harris, "Phillis Wheatley, Diasporic Subjectivity, and the African American Canon," MELUS 33.3 (2008): 27-43. For an examination of Wheatley's poetry and her racially gendered identity as an unfree person, see June Jordan's "The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley," Massachusetts Review 27.2 (Summer 1986): 252-262. For a discussion of Phillis Wheatley's Middle Passage trauma and its connection to spiritual utterance in her poetry, see Katherine Clay Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing (Princeton, N.J., 1999). See Joanna Brooks's American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African American and Native American Literatures (New York, 2003) for a discussion of Christian themes in Wheatley's poetry.

For a discussion of Phillis Wheatley's elegies and their connection to literary patronage of her work, see Joanna Brooks, "Our Phillis, Ourselves," American Literature 82.1 (March 2010): 1-28. Frances Smith Foster's Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892 (Bloomington, Indiana, 1993) provides a discussion of eighteenth-century African American women writers and their literary context. For critical reception of Wheatley's poetry over two centuries see John C. Shields's Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation, Backgrounds and Contexts (Knoxville, 2008). For eighteenth-century Enlightenment theory and its connection to critical reception of Wheatley's poetry see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "Phillis Wheatley on Trial," The New Yorker (January 20, 2003): 82; also see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (New York, 2003); and see Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). For Enlightenment theory and its ordering of the races, see David Hume, "Of National Characters" in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (London, 1753); also see Immanuel Kant, "Of National Characteristics, So Far As They Depend Upon the Distinct Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime" in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, translated by John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley, 1981). For a multidisciplinary discussion of the development of race theory, see C. Loring Brace, Race is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept (New York, 2005).

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