Why I Love Phillis Wheatley's Word

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As anyone who has had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes knows, I am writing a book of poems on the 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, imagining her life and times in colonial New England.

What some folks don’t know is why I started writing the book in the first place, why I thought Miss Phillis would be someone that I would dedicate years researching and writing about. And yes, it has been three years now. That’s just how much I love her and her world.

Just last week, I published an essay about my journey to Miss Phillis in Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:

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.

You can read the rest of the essay over at Common-Place by clicking this link.

Now, I hear y’all saying, “Why would I want to read an essay? That’s, like, completely boring.”

Well, y’all know me: I always stir the pot and start some controversy wherever I go. I don’t know why I’m such a troublemaker. I really, really try to be well-behaved, but it never ends up that way.  In the essay, I start a little trouble, and also, I reveal a piece of never-before published information concerning Phillis Wheatley research as well. And you KNOW you want to know what info is!

You can read some poems, too from the manuscript in progress. Even if you don’t like poetry, you know you’re nosy enough to want to see whether I’ve got skills or not.:-) So click this link to read the brand new Phillis Wheatley poems, too. I hope y’all like them. If you don’t, let me know and why in the comments section. I may not follow your advice on the poetry, but this work isn’t set in stone yet and I am always open to criticism.

6 thoughts on “Why I Love Phillis Wheatley's Word

  1. What a wonderful blog – – and those pink shoes are a killer!

    Did you see my entry on Phillis? I was involved in getting her into the Massachusetts Women’s Memorial in Boston.

    Marilyn Richardson

    1. Hey there! Yes I *did* read your entry on Phillis–I wish I had known about you before I went to Boston Summer 2009–I bet you’ve got all sorts of information that’s fabulous and useful! As a Black female poet whose artistic life was made possible by Miss Phillis, I want to thank you so much for your worthy work in getting her included in that memorial. It’s so beautiful.

      And it’s so good to be in touch with you! I hope it’s all right that I email you; I’m really interested in 18th century portraits of people of African descent.

      Take care,

  2. I still can not get over the fact that this African woman slave in the 1700’s was able to put pen to paper and bring us 250 years later, these still incredible poems. I guess to me she is somewhat of a miracle and at the same time a woman whom we would have like to have known. When I looked up her works on the computer, I marveled at her penmanship, her ability to write such fine letters, her words, her expressions, etc. Honoree, I can understand how she captured your heart.

    1. You know what I marvel at, Barbara? How your boundless stores of kindness always translate in your comments! Thank you so much for blessing me today with your kindness–and for understanding why I love Miss Phillis so much.

  3. I adore Phillis Wheatley’s work, and feel that she’s far too often dismissed as “derivative of Pope,” etc. To write–to assert an imaginative and expressive voice and self, and to sustain it over the length of a book–as she did, at the time that she did, and to done so despite all the odds, will always be remarkable to me, but the poetry stands on its own, especially when you look at the larger context of American poetry of this era.

    I guess I couldn’t stop after that first line, though, despite its implied message; I was so entranced by all the titles, the promise of the poetic gift they signified, and the poems that followed them, that I fell in love. And still am. I should add that I never fail to mention, whenever I am teaching a course in American or African-American literature, how important Wheatley is, not just as a black woman, but as a woman writing and publishing, despite all the odds, at a time when very few women did, or could. Without her, Lucy Terry, and the other pathblazers, where would we be?

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