Boston trembles with the spirit of patriotic rebellion against Britain’s tyranny. In the “cradle of liberty” one autumn day, 17 men of character–the city’s elite, old white men all–gather. Their enterprise: to “examine” a slave girl named Phyllis Wheatley.
That is not the name she was given in West Africa. The slave ship that transported the 7-year-old girl to Boston in 1761 was named Phyllis. The name Wheatley belonged to the family that bought her. Susannah Wheatley, the mistress, and Mary, her daughter, have, entirely against the grain of colonial culture, educated the child.
By 1773, Phyllis, not yet 20 years old, has become a poet. She needs, in the manner of the day, subscribers, people who will pay in advance for a volume’s publication. But none is forthcoming. Most people do not believe it possible that a “Negro,” “a barbarian,” could actually have produced literature by herself. She must be “an imposter.”
To prove she is no imposter, the Wheatleys, presumably, have gathered one of the most interesting inquisitions in history. Unfortunately, there is no record of what transpired, but the “people of note” included John Hancock, first signer of the Declaration of Independence; Thomas Hutchinson, the colony’s governor; and two close relatives of the Puritan Cotton Mather. A majority are Harvard men. And slave holders themselves.
The committee found her to be true. Phyllis Wheatley was capable of producing the poetry that bore her name.
But that conclusion carried little weight among potential subscribers and publishers–perhaps distracted by the growing rebellion–and the poems would not be published until four years later, and not in Boston but London. The volume carried as its preface an “attestation” by the 17 men and a note of similar verification from Phyllis Wheatley’s master.
Publication brought neither fame nor riches nor even freedom. The death of her “masters” in 1778 left Phyllis Wheatley unbonded, but also unable to make a living. She married a free black man who failed economically. She had three children and died in 1784, poor and unknown.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” To contact her, send an e-mail to [email protected] and we will forward it.
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