The address of this blog comes from something I wrote a couple of years ago, about black poets: “We’re living Phillis’s life remastered.” The “Phillis,” of course, refers to Phillis Wheatley, the eighteenth-century American poet and really, the mother of African American literature. She was kidnapped from Africa as a child, and was a child prodigy. In 1773, she published her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. When that happened, as Henry Louis Gates said in his book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, she was the Oprah of her time.
Phills Wheatley is someone I’ve been thinking about for the past two years. Believe it or not, I started the journey of writing a book-length series of poetry about her because of Don Imus. Remember him, the shriveled-up, rude geezer who referred to the members of the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball team of “nappy-headed hoes”? I do! And most of the sisters I know remember, too. It was as if Imus had snatched off the last screen of modesty we had, exposing our shame to the world. And we were ashamed, even though we really shouldn’t have been. (Why is it the person being called something nasty feels the shame, when the name-caller is the one who should bear it?)
I strongly believed then (and now), as many black women believed (and still believe), that Imus found his nerve to talk about us from observing some of our own men. That’s right, the brothers, black men, whatever you want to call them. The men in the African American community. Not all of them, mind you, but a significant number. Many of our fathers, brothers, lovers, and sons had been referring to us as “bitches” and “hoes” for so long in their records or, if they weren’t musicians, they were buying and listening to those records. Meanwhile, the sisters had been trying to ignore it. We had been trying to be better ladies so we wouldn’t be the “bitches” or “hoes” the hip hop artists were referring to in their songs.
Side bar: have you ever been at a party and had one of those woman-dogging songs come on and seen any sister raise her hand and say, “That’s me! I’m it! I’m that bitch and hoe you’re talking about! And thank you for recognizing me for what I am! Thank you so much!”
Anyway, when what I like to call the “nappy-headed hoes debacle” occurred, there was Snoop Dogg, rapper extraodinaire and paragon of black intelligentsia, trying to defend rap music, all while toting his pimp cup around:
“It’s a completely different scenario…[Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing sh–, that’s trying to get a n—a for his money. These are two separate things.”
Okay, Snoop, you know what? Next time, please don’t defend me, Baby. I got this.
Others—historians, cultural critics, talking heads on TV, and a bunch of others in the African American community—didn’t exactly defend hip hop, but they did remind us: this hasn’t been the first time black women have been called out of their names, remember? When black women got off the slave ship, they were called “wenches,” which is the archaic equivalent of “whores.”
So let’s recap: Don Imus was just upgrading an archaic term to contemporary times, bless his racist, sexist, shriveled-up little heart.
What I’m saying isn’t new. All the issues I’m raising about hiphop’s misogyny—or in plain speak, just breaking fool—toward black women have been talked about over and over for the past couple of years. But that last bit, about the slave ship, now that gave me pause. Which started me to reading, and the more I read, the more I had to keep coming back to America and Europe in the eighteenth century, the slave trade, the Age of Enlightenment, and how black women fit into it all. It’s a lot of stuff to think about, and I can’t do it all in one blog post.
So, as a black woman who also happens to be a poet who also happens to be interested in the origins of race- and gender-based hatred and discrimination, there’s no way I could ignore the eighteenth century, what I call the “Age of Phillis Wheatley.” That’s how I started the journey of writing a book based on her life and times.
In the process, I’ve started thinking about how she connects with me. She was a poet, a black woman, a woman very interested in the political goings-on and upheavals of her time. She was interested in spreading love and humanity, and she was a deeply spiritual person. Sometimes, she felt alone in the world, but she kept reaching out to people through her creative work. I’d like to imagine that she and I would be friends if we met now, although I’m sure she’d be just a little bit more classy than I am.
Miss Phillis believed in connections. I became a writer, first a poet, and now, also a fiction writer, because I wanted to connect with people, to say something beyond my own insulated world. And I’ve made my voice heard a little, and that’s been a great thing. A real blessing.
Something happened to me along the years, though: I discovered that I don’t want to just keep having the same conversations with all the same people: with only formally educated people, or only college professors, or only professional writers, or only people my own age, or even only with people who only look like me. This is the reason I’ve started this blog.
I don’t believe that I’ll change the world with a blog, but I do know that I want to connect with people outside of my own insulated world, just like Miss Phillis.
Sometimes, I’ll blog about gender or race or both—because I’m black and a woman, not either/or. Sometimes, I’ll blog about writing or music or art, a bit of beauty I found in the world. Sometimes, I’ll give advice to young writers about getting their hustles on in the writing world, the way the older writers did with me back in the day. Sometimes, I’ll lead the reader to another blogger, who can say something better than I can. Sometimes, I’ll just speak my piece about something that’s getting on my last, damned nerve.
And if you’re feeling what I have to say—or even if you’re not—in the tradition of the African American church, just go on and give me a witness, from time to time: leave a comment for me below.