Bringing the Middle Passage Home: The Schooner Phillis

Detail of Figure III in Brooks slave ship diagram. From “The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe or A Survey of the Bloody Commerce Called the Slave Trade”, by Thomas Clarkson, circa 1821. Special Collections, Leeds University Library.

Most of y’all know that I am writing a book of poetry on Phillis Wheatley. I’ve been talking about it forever, and I’m furiously working on it right now, along with my novel.

Wondering how I am working actively on not one but two books and giving both my all? Caffeine! I’m not playing with y’all. I rise early in the morning on most days, drink some black tea, power down to green tea for noon, and then I get it going until I pass out in the mid-afternoon.  It’s going well, believe it or now, but now, I’m wearing my hair in a ponytail every day and my house is looking like Who Shot John. And who has time to fold laundry and commune with the Muse at the same time?  Not this Miss Lady.

Anyway, four years ago this summer, I read letters between Timothy Fitch, the owner of the slave ship Schooner Phillis and Peter Gwinn, the captain of the ship, which is assumed to be the ship that brought the child who would be Phillis Wheatley into Boston Harbor; the letters were on the Medford (Massachusetts) Historical Society website.

Here’s a link to the letter that sent me on this four-year journey to write a full poetry book on the life and times of Phillis Wheatley.  (After I had been writing poems on her already for a previous four years. You do the math!) 

I have my personal, sweet angel, a librarian at the American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts to thank for pulling this slave trade letter up–just like that!—on my laptop back in 2009. She’s a genius.

As I finish up this book–God willing–I’ll be sharing little tidbits on the blog from my journey of writing about this time, which has been very educational and even more emotional–lots of tears, because you can’t write about black folks and the eighteenth century and not write about the Middle Passage and the horror of slavery.

But now, the good news is that in the middle of those tears, I met my husband in Senegal while doing research for this book, and let me tell you, this man has provided a sturdy shoulder for me to cry on when the research for the book has led me to some painful, ancestral places.

By the way, there is no known illustration of the Schooner Phillis. The picture that I have included above is of the Brookes slave ship. (It is spelled both with an “e” and without in historical writings.) There are several other illustrations of the Brookes that were used by eighteenth-century British abolitionists to bring home the human atrocities of slavery. Here is the most well-known and commonly used illustration of that ship.  

Now you know what you were wearing on your t-shirt back in the day. Don’t you feel good knowing?!–And don’t worry, I’ll talk a bit about the Brookes at a later date.

This Is For the Lover In You: Lots of FREE Black Literary Swag!

Booker T. Washington

Not only is February Black History Month/Afropalooza, it also contains Valentine’s Day, the favorite day for people who love to cuddle and kiss and guess who else? People who like to read. And there is no easier and greater way to get next to your favorite Black Library Girl (or Guy) on Valentine’s Day than to get her a book.

Sidebar: Jewelry counts, too, I will not lie. No, money can’t buy you real love, but you can sure put some on layaway with a reasonably priced gift from Tiffany’s.

But guess what? If you don’t have large or even medium-sized money, being smart gets you plenty of cool points with a smart woman. And a smart man will know I love books because in order for me to want a man romantically, he’s got to love books, too.

Call me classist or whatever you want to call me, just don’t call me if you don’t like to read.  Assume that I don’t have a telephone—landline or mobile– if you are not literate.

I don’t care how fine you are. You gets no you-know-what round these parts if you don’t read books. And Dr. Seuss does not count, okay, so get yourself out of the children’s section of the bookstore, because not only do you need to step up your literacy game, you’re looking a little creepy reading Hop on Pop unless you’ve got a toddler attached to your hip.  I’m trying to tell you what I know.

Anyway, I’m about to hook you up with some FREE Black History Month literary swag to please your nerdy sweetie! Here’s how.

Many nerds nowadays (of any complexion or background) own a reading device, like a Kindle, Nook, or a combo Tablet/RD like an Ipad. You can sneak and download these books (below) for your sweetie on her RD yourself. If not, just get up early the morning of Valentine’s Day and send your sweetie an email with all the links (below). Then he or she can download it all in under five minutes. It’s so easy!

Below are some of the links to get some of my favorite classic Black books.


Amazon Kindle

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

Iola Leroy Shadows Lifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The Narrative of Sojouner Truth

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or the escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery by Ellen Craft



Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass

The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar 

Fifty Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson

Mule Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral  By Phillis Wheatley

The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells Barnett

Our Nig, or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson


Barnes and Noble Nook

An African Treasury by Langston Hughes

Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral by Jessie Fauset

Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay

Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee

Meditations From the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart


And just as a little extra something, here’s one of my favorite songs from back in the day by Shalamar. This is the best song, ever. This is on my Personal Love Mixtape, y’all.


“Remember, Christians, Negros Black as Cain”: The (Ongoing) Need to Defend Black Poetry

In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then leader of the colonial Revolutionary forces. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary their own right; given the social status of Black folks in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record—a Black woman as a lady.

Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of Wheatley’s poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that Black women engage in bestiality:

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white.. preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their White counterparts. By placing Africans in the monkey’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.

Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on Black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African American poetry, but also, on “canonical” Black poets, in particular those who are revered in the Black community.


In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks Selected Poems in New York Herald Tribune Book Week.  Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent Black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of Black humanity. It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’ importance to Black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general , for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body:

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.

He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of Black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.

Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember of African American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson:

I am glad to see my review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems reprinted because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight…I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.

Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably Black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of Black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African American poetry should be taken in the same way.


A few days ago, Helen Vendler published a review in The New York Review of Books  on Rita Dove’s anthology, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. After Brooks, Dove was only the second African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks), and thus, holds honored status in Black literary circles.

We are now in the twenty-first century, and so, in the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on internet social media (such as Facebook) discussing Vendler’s revew and Rita Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it.  Many, if not most, of the White poets that have discussed Vendler’s review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most Black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a ceturies-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.

All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view him- or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Helen Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Rita Dove includes a few poets of color —what she calls “minority” poets– in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the White poets.

Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Rita Dove. In times past, she has been a champion of Dove’s work, as when she included positive assessments of Rita Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Refinition (1995). However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology Vendler moveed from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.

First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then Vendler proceeds to tally up pages given White—all male—poets versus Black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when Vendler moves from page counts to an attack on Rita Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following:

How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that Black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two Black poets who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?

But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Helen Vendler.

And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetry Body:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.

In other words, the best Black poets can’t ever tangle with the best White ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that–especially another Black poet.


There’s been a lot talk this year among poets about “race” in poetry—“race” meaning “black people” or “people of color.” I’ve talked about this issue on my blog, that “race” is a concept, going back to the eighteenth century. Thus, when I write about black people, I’m not writing about race. I’m writing about full participants in humanity—and I’m writing about this humanity as a given, which is something Phillis Wheatley couldn’t take for granted.

And the obvious question is why does no one say that White folks are writing about “race” when they write about themselves? (No one except Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, of course.) No, when White folks write about themselves, they are writing about America. They are writing about unraced universal experience. They are writing about the ultimate human existence.

This condescending critical assessment of Black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen, and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly/intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that Black folks aren’t human; only the meanest White person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.

In Rita Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Helen Vendler, for if Blacks and other poets of color are not included in Dove’s anthology because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past. And Helen Vendler and others like her are terrified of that prospect.

* The title of this essay is a line taken from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” in Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Annie Allen. New York, Harper and Row, 1949.

—. Selected Poems. New York, Harper and Row, 1963.

Dove, Rita. “Defending an Anthology: Rita Dove in Reply to Helen Vendler.” New York Review of Books 22 December 2011.

—. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York, Penguin, 2011.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Query XIV: Laws.” Notes on the State of Virginia.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John

T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Simpson, Louis. “Taking the Poem by the Horns.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, 27 October 1963, 27.  Rpt in Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (Under Discussion) Edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen.  “Are These the Poems to Remember?”  New York Review of Books 24 November 2011.

—.  The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Washington, George. Letter to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776. Writings Vol. 4 Edited by John Kilpatrick. (1931).

Wheatley, Phillis. Letter to George Washington on October 26, 1775. Phillis Wheatley: The Complete Writings.  Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Join me TODAY at 1:30pm EST on Left of Black!

A few weeks back, I taped an episode of Left of Black. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this show, this is the weekly webcast hosted by the fabulous and splendid Dr. Mark Anthony Neal (aka Dr. MAN) of Duke University and produced by the John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke.

Guess what? Today, my episode of Left of Black is airing on Duke University’s UStream at 1:30PM EST!  I’m so excited!

I’ll be talking about my Phillis Wheatley poetry project, The Age of Phillis—that’s when I make nice—and then, I’ll be talking about some more controversial subjects, like Slutwalk and Touré’s controversial article on Michael Vick, which I sliced and diced a while back on this blog. Y’all know me. I like to cause plenty trouble. (And you know you like it.)

You can catch the episode STREAMING TODAY at 1:30pm EST on the Duke University Ustream. Here’s the link. 

In addition to me, Dr. MAN will be joined by E. Patrick Johnson, author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a minute, so this is my opportunity to get a bit of a preview. I know I won’t be disappointed, because I’ve heard wonderful things about this timely, important book. And I’m a southerner, so I’m definitely interested in reading Sweet Tea.

So, join Dr. MAN, E. Patrick Johnson, and me TODAY at 1:30pm EST on Left of Black!

If you miss the streaming episode, you can always see the recorded episode. Go to either Mark Anthony Neal’s Twitter page (click here)   OR you can go to Left of Black’s Twitter Page (click here).

And if you aren’t following me (Honorée Fanonne Jeffers) on Twitter, you know you want to! Here I am.



Why I Love Phillis Wheatley's Word

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.