Two hundred and fifty-nine years ago this July, a girl captured somewhere between present-day Gambia and Ghana stepped off the Phillis, a slave ship, and onto the docks of Boston Harbor. The only existing account of this day records that she was thought to be "about seven years old, at this time, from the circumstance of shedding her front teeth." Wrapped in nothing more than "a quantity of dirty carpet," she was taken to the city's slave market, where Mrs. Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant, was in search of a faithful servant for her old age. Though there were "several robust, healthy females" on display, Mrs. Wheatley selected the seven-year-old, "influenced to this decision by the humble and modest demeanor and interesting features of the little stranger." Why the girl should have been there at all is a bit of a mystery. The slave trader who owned the Phillis had instructed his crew, "You'll Observe to get as few Girl Slaves as Possible & as many Prime Boys as you Can."
The gap-toothed girl in the dirty carpet would become an international literary celebrity. She would be held up as evidence of Black people's innate equality, at a time when David Hume was declaring them a different species and Immanuel Kant was ordering the "nations" with Africans at the bottom. In centuries to come, she would be recognized as the mother of the African-American literary tradition. But her name, whatever it was, was obliterated by her abduction. The Wheatleys called her Phillis, after the ship that took her from her home.
By the age of twelve, Phillis had written a four-line elegy, which was recently discovered and published in a new edition of " The Writings of Phillis Wheatley ," from Oxford University Press. Around fifteen, she wrote " On Being Brought from Africa to America ," her most anthologized poem, which begins by expressing gratitude for her Christian redemption: "'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." Seeing the poem as a theological justification for slavery, some later readers denounced Phillis as a race traitor. But the poem turns, using Christian values to hold white Christians to judgment. "Some view our sable race with scornful eye," the poet notes, before urging them, "Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain , / May be refin'd, and join th'angelic train."
As a teen-ager, Phillis began using her verse to comment on transatlantic issues, like the Stamp Act crisis and the Boston Massacre. In 1770, her elegy for the English evangelist George Whitefield earned her international acclaim. Two years later, in 1772, seeking to publish a book of poems, she was "examined" by eighteen of Boston's most eminent thinkers and politicians, who signed a letter "to the Publick" attesting that the enslaved girl was, indeed, capable of poetry. Armed with the letter, the twenty-year-old Phillis traveled to London under the supervision of her mistress's son, Nathaniel Wheatley, to publish " Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral "; she was credited as "Phillis Wheatley, negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston." One poem alluded to her capture, accusing slaveholders—including, implicitly, her own master and mistress—of "tyrannic sway":
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
The book was received with great fanfare, and Phillis quickly became the most celebrated enslaved person in the British Empire. (The political poems that would have offended a British readership were astutely omitted.) Britons were concerned, however, by the poet's state of bondage. The previous year had seen the Mansfield ruling, which found that no enslaved person brought to England from the colonies could be forced to return to them as a slave. One commentator, noting that "the people of Boston boast themselves chiefly on their principles of liberty," suggested that "the purchase of her freedom would, in our opinion, have done them more honour than hanging a thousand trees with ribbons and emblems."
But Phillis cut her trip short, returning to Boston when Susanna Wheatley fell ill—a show of loyalty that, for years, troubled readers and critics, and encouraged perceptions that she suffered from Uncle Tom syndrome. Just a month later, though, in a letter from October 18, 1773, Phillis wrote that she had been freed. In his introduction to "The Writings," the scholar Vincent Carretta suggests that Phillis likely returned to Boston only on the condition that the Wheatleys would free her. ("As a businessman engaged in transatlantic commerce, Nathaniel Wheatley's word was his bond," Carretta writes.) In fact, earlier that summer, the Pennsylvania Chronicle had speculated that the chance to obtain her freedom may have been what motivated Phillis to publish her book in London, instead of Boston, in the first place. The Phillis that Carretta finds is savvy—actively pursuing her freedom, marketing her work, and even autographing copies to avoid the loss of profits to pirated editions.
After her manumission and the death of Susanna Wheatley, in 1774, Phillis became more vocal in expressing her antislavery views. In a letter to the Native American minister Samson Occom, published in the Connecticut Gazette , she condemned slave owners as "modern Egyptians," drawing a parallel between enslaved Africans and the Hebrews of the Old Testament. "In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom," she wrote. "It is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our Modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us."
Phillis wrote those words in the midst of the American Revolution, and she was hopeful that freedom for the colonies would lead to freedom for the enslaved. In 1775, she addressed a poem to George Washington aligning herself with the cause. ("Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.") Though complimentary to the slave-holding general, the poem also established Phillis's claim to her status as, to use Carretta's phrase, "the unofficial poet laureate of the new nation-in-the-making," and she would come to feel conflicted about that nation's character. In a 1778 poem on the death of General David Wooster, Phillis castigated the hypocrisy of fighting for the freedom to enslave others:
But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
On Thanksgiving Day, 1778, some months after the death of her former master, Phillis married John Peters, a free Black man who owned a Boston grocery. In her subsequent letters and her 1779 proposal for a second book of poems, which made front-page news in the Boston Evening Post , she would identify herself as "Phillis Peters," shedding her master's name. After 1780, however, the documentary record on the poet goes largely silent. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, the colonies sank into a severe depression, and efforts by commercial creditors to collect prewar debts led to a wave of business failures. John Peters was prosecuted for debt, and Carretta suggests that the couple fled Boston. In 1784, Peters resurfaced, petitioning town officials to allow him to sell liquor at his shop "for the purpose of supporting himself & Family." He was incarcerated for debt and likely in jail when Phillis died, at about thirty-one, on December 5, 1784. Her second book of poems was never published.
Though Phillis left a rich paper trail of poems and letters, she never recorded her own account of her life, and, in her writings, which brim with her spiritual and political ideas, biographical details are sparse. For those, scholars have had to rely on a memoir published in 1834, fifty years after the poet's death, by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a white woman who claimed to be a "collateral descendant" of Susanna Wheatley. Odell is the source, for instance, of the slave-market scene, describing the "poor, naked child" with the "modest, unassuming demeanor, which first won the heart of her mistress." Odell's narrative, as the scholar Eileen Razzari Elrod has observed, reads like a sentimental novel. Phillis goes from a vulnerable orphan "beguiled"—not abducted or enslaved—"from the hut of her mother" to a submissive protegée redeemed by Christian kindness and her "benevolent mistress," and then to a fallen woman seduced by an evil Black man.
Odell neglects to mention the horrors of Phillis's transatlantic journey, and she finds no fault with the Wheatleys' treatment of those they enslaved. (Phillis was separated from the rest of the family's slaves, and told not to associate with them.) And Odell's Phillis is distinctly lacking in agency. She seeks neither publication—her poems are simply "given to the world"—nor manumission. "The chains which bound her to her master and mistress were the golden links of love, and the silken bands of gratitude," Odell writes. In this telling, Phillis's enslavement is an idyllic period—a rescue, even—and her freedom, the result of familial loss, brings with it the most dangerous, oppressive circumstances of her life. After the Wheatleys' deaths, she is "left utterly desolate," vulnerable to the charms of John Peters, who "quite acted out 'the gentleman,' " and who is "both too proud and too indolent to apply himself to any occupation below his fancied dignity." Phillis, Odell asserts, never took his name. She claims that Peters abandoned his wife and children in "squalid poverty," and that, after their deaths, he moved to the South. (In fact, public records show that he stayed in Boston—and, after digging himself out of debt, he may even have been the same John Peters in Suffolk County who ran for senator in 1798.)
Odell's many errors were repeated for decades, shaping receptions of Phillis through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But a new book, " The Age of Phillis ," by the poet and professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, presents a different story. Jeffers suggests that Odell's memoir created a "pesky 'House Negro' narrative" that framed Phillis Wheatley as domestic, apolitical, and acquiescent. Frustrated that literary history entrusted the story of America's first Black poet to a white woman, Jeffers spent years hunting through Massachusetts archives. When she came across the census record showing Peters in Boston after Phillis's death, she had a realization: "Maybe he hadn't abandoned her. Maybe Odell had misrepresented their relationship." And if Odell had misrepresented the relationship between Phillis and her husband, maybe she had misrepresented the relationship between Phillis and her owners. "Maybe," Jeffers writes in her afterword, "I should have been viewing Odell's biography with skepticism."
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