The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys through American Slavery and Independence 
by David Waldstreicher.
Farrar, Straus, 480 pp., £24, March 2023, 978 0 8090 9824 8
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The name​ given to Phillis Wheatley by her family is lost. She may have been born in modern-day Senegal or Gambia, and was called ‘Phillis’ after the ship in which she was forcibly transported to Boston in 1761. Wheatley was the name of the prosperous merchant family who purchased her ‘for a trifle’ – ‘a slender, frail, female child, supposed to have been about seven years old, at this time, from the circumstances of shedding her front teeth’, and dressed in ‘a quantity of dirty carpet’, according to Margaretta Odell, an unreliable Victorian descendant of the Wheatleys. Phillis was so ill on arrival that ‘the Captain had fears of her dropping off his hands, without Emolument by death.’ Susanna Wheatley had recently lost a daughter of around Phillis’s age; there’s some speculation that she imagined the child as a replacement.

In an essay of 1983, Alice Walker writes of her grief for ‘this sickly, frail Black girl’ whose ‘loyalties were completely divided, as was, without question, her mind’. Walker ridicules Wheatley’s ‘bewildered tongue’, the ‘stiff, struggling, ambivalent lines’ of her verse. But she also offers understanding to the child who brought in the milk while imagining Liberty as a golden-haired goddess. For Walker, Wheatley ‘kept alive, in so many of our ancestors, the notion of song’. Her poetry may cling to the conventional verse forms that Walker associates with whiteness, but she also hears in it an echo of the songs Wheatley’s mother might have sung to her.

Efforts have been made to trace in Wheatley’s verse residues of African spiritual practices and memories of her birthplace. John Shields has argued that her elegies are compatible with African animist traditions, and proposes that her background was with the Fula people. Odell said Phillis described her mother pouring water ‘before the sun at his rising’, which has led some to suggest she had Muslim heritage. But the references to her past or to Africa in Wheatley’s work are often generic. When she writes about ‘pleasing Gambia’ in a poem to a British naval officer, she represents it as a locus amoenus where

With native grace in spring’s luxuriant reign,
Smiles the gay mead, and Eden blooms again,
The various bower, the tuneful flowing stream,
The soft retreats, the lovers golden dream,
Her soil spontaneous, yields exhaustless stores;
For phoebus revels on her verdant shores.

This Gambia is an idealised abstraction unmarked by the violence of the slave trade or by any particularity. When invited to journey as a missionary (or missionary’s wife) to Africa in 1774, Wheatley refused: ‘Upon my arrival, how like a Barbarian Should I look to the Natives; I can promise that my tongue shall be quiet for a strong reason indeed being an utter stranger to the Language of Anamaboe.’

Other memories may be scattered across her poetry, however. Wheatley’s verse is haunted by perilous sea voyages and chained figures. The ‘lash for horrid crimes’ endured by a dead infant, the ‘iron hand of pain’, ‘lengthen’d chain’ of life and ‘heavy fetters’ of death in her elegies are reminiscent of the horrors of the Middle Passage. She often writes about the pain of separation, particularly of children from their parents. In a poem on the appointment of William Legge, earl of Dartmouth, as secretary of state with responsibility for the American colonies, she recounts her abduction. If Dartmouth wonders why she loves freedom so deeply, he need look no further than her own past:

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Wheatley is strategic in making reference to her Blackness. Following the conventions of modesty that were typical of the time, she apologises for her limitations: her verse is the product of an ‘untutor’d African’ and ‘groveling mind’. ‘African’ was becoming a distinct identity in this period, in large part due to the slave trade. Wheatley came to enjoy the rhetorical authority that being ‘African’ gave her in addressing people of higher status. ‘Must Ethiopians be employ’d for you?’ she asks in ‘An Address to the Deist’, underscoring the urgency of her moral critique with a nod to her lowly ‘employment’. In ‘America’, Wheatley rejoices that Liberty ‘makes strong the weak/And (wond’rous instinct) Ethiopians speak’. Elsewhere she invokes Terence, ‘an African by birth’, and calls herself a ‘vent’rous Afric’ or an ‘Ethiop’, using ‘sable’ to refer to her skin colour and the word ‘negro’ only once.

A short poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, directly addresses her status as an enslaved person. Wheatley says it was ‘mercy brought me from my Pagan land’: the fortunate fall from her African paradise gave her ‘benighted soul’ a chance ‘to understand/That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too.’ Slavery enabled Christian redemption. But the poem criticises white people who ‘view our sable race with scornful eye’ and who refuse to extend the promise of redemption to people of colour, seeing in them the curse of Ham and mark of Cain. Wheatley reminds them: ‘Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.’ Rhyming Cain’s sin with the angel’s glory, Wheatley promises an alchemical transformation of those who are elevated by grace. The paratactic arrangement of the nouns asserts that Negros can be Christians – and that Christians can also be marked by a diabolic dye of sin. Is this ‘artful whiteface mockery of pious racists’? In his new biography of Wheatley, David Waldstreicher encourages us to think so, and to read the lines in a ‘mocking or satirical instead of a beseeching voice’, so that we can hear Wheatley ‘become the organic intellectual of the enslaved’.

The poem shows Wheatley working within narrow limits to offer a subtle critique of racialisation. Sable becomes the Blackness of Cain through white scorn: this racecraft is a vicious inversion of the transformation of the darkness of sin into angelic light that the poem anticipates. To access that transformation, Wheatley needs to prove in her writing and her life that she is virtuous, marked in Calvinist terms not by Cain’s infamy but by the signs of election.

That need is what makes ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, in Walker’s terms, ‘sickly’. Henry Louis Gates Jr called it ‘the most reviled poem in African American literature’. It contributed to the view of readers in the 1960s and 1970s who, informed by Black nationalism and the Black Arts Movement, found nothing in Wheatley’s poetry but ‘self-hatred’ and a refusal to engage with the ‘liberation of the Black man’. Amiri Baraka said Wheatley’s ‘pleasant imitations of 18th-century English poetry are … ludicrous departures from the huge Black voices that splintered southern nights with their hollers, chants, arwhoolies and ballits’. Alain Locke said she was an example of ‘the Old Negro from whom one must turn away’. For June Jordan, she assimilated all sorts of ‘iniquitous nonsense found in white literature’. Listening not to the vital music of her African contemporaries, but to the dumb drawing-room tinkling of the white bourgeoisie, the argument goes, Wheatley composed verses as weak as she was.

Wheatley’s reception in her own time was mixed. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison held her up as an example of Black intellectual perfectibility and recommended keeping Wheatley’s poems at hand ‘so we might have some conception of the amount of genius that slavery is murdering’. But Thomas Jefferson compared her to a parrot and thought her poems ‘below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of The Dunciad are to her as Hercules to the author of that poem.’ In a context where figures including Kant and Hume used aesthetics to confirm racist claims about the abilities of people of African descent to think and reflect, Wheatley’s poetry was both lauded and ridiculed. Some white readers were filled with admiration for her ‘pure, unassisted genius’; others saw her poetic inventions as nothing more than a talent for mimicry. Francis Williams, a Black Jamaican slave owner, praised her verse in assimilationist terms: ‘Thy body’s white, tho’ clad in sable vest.’ A reader sneered in 1788 that ‘an ourang outang has composed an ode.’ This is why, for Gates, Wheatley was not only trying to prove that she was a good poet, but ‘auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people’.

A collection of Wheatley’s verse was first proposed in the winter of 1772. The advertisement for the book stressed her youth and genius: ‘being but a few Years since she came to this Town an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’. It also included an authentication by ‘the most respectable Characters in Boston’ that she was indeed the author of her work. Her poems had been ‘seen and read by the best Judges, who think them well worthy of the Publick View; and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.’ Gates is one of several critics who work backwards from this statement to the assumption that some kind of ‘trial’ of Wheatley’s authenticity had taken place. For Gates this ‘was the primal scene of African American letters’.

There was no trial, but the witness statements of Boston’s worthies set a precedent for the framing of Black-authored works that persisted long into the 19th century (and in some cases beyond). They were deemed necessary for Wheatley not just because of her Blackness, but also because of the prodigious nature of her learning. Within sixteen months of her abduction, she had ‘attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her’. Her first recorded poems are from 1765, when she was eleven or twelve; her first published work, a poem about two sailors caught in a storm, appeared in the Newport Mercury in 1767, when she was thirteen. She had no formal schooling, but was taught to read and write by Susanna Wheatley and her daughter Mary.

Wheatley’s precociousness is evident in a poem written when she was about fifteen, addressed to students at Harvard. Her audacity is striking: she cites Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, warns the students against sin and gives her own synopsis of their learning. The same ‘Powerfull hand’ of God that had ‘Brought me in Safety from the dark abode’ of Africa gave the students knowledge of ‘the ethereal Space/And glorious Systems of revolving worlds’. She warns them to ‘Improve your privileges while they stay:/Caress, redeem each moment,’ eschewing the ‘sable monster’ of vice.

According to the Wheatleys, Phillis began writing out of ‘curiosity’ and acquired small Latin. She knew Homer in Pope’s translations, and her poetry indicates some learning in geography and history. She continued writing in her ‘leisure Moments’ without any intention of publishing, or so the preface to her book later claimed. She was gentle, affectionate, without any sign of literary vanity and ‘never indulged her muse in any fits of sullenness or caprice’, according to Odell. ‘She was at all times accessible.’ The Wheatleys insisted that they asked little of their frail ‘servant’ (a euphemism often used for enslaved people in colonial America) beyond light domestic duties, but she waited on her mistress and acted as her companion until Susanna’s death in 1774. Wheatley referred to her as ‘my best friend’. After Susanna died, she wrote: ‘I feel like One forsaken by her parent in a desolate wilderness.’ Vincent Carretta and others suggest that in mourning her mistress Wheatley was really grieving the loss of her own mother many years earlier. The family was eager to promote this affective tie, claiming that she was bound to them by ‘the golden links of love and the silken bands of gratitude’. This image of softened fetters recurs in Wheatley’s own work.

In fact she enjoyed little freedom or leisure time. She was called on to exhibit her talents for the Wheatleys’ guests and several poems were written in response to their challenges. ‘Recollection’ was suggested by ‘some young ladies’, who recorded that ‘the African (so let me call her, for so in fact she is) took the hint, went home to her master’s, and soon sent what follows.’ In addition to occasional poems prompted by political events or local deaths, Wheatley wrote a number of abstract odes – ‘On Virtue’, ‘On Friendship’, ‘On Imagination’ – in which the language of ‘Fancy’ allows her to escape the constraints of enslaved life, to traverse ‘the unbounded regions of the mind’.

But while Wheatley took pleasure in allowing her ideas to ‘range/Licentious and unbounded o’er the plains’, she was conscious that the liberation was only ever temporary. ‘On Imagination’ may celebrate the power ‘Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,/And soft captivity involves the mind’ – the same sensual power that supposedly bound her to the Wheatleys’ service – but the pleasures of this version of captivity are short-lived. The poem crashes back to earth, into a wintery seascape frozen in ‘iron bands’ that ‘may’ relent eventually to imagination’s warming powers. For now: ‘Winter austere forbids me to aspire,/And northern tempests damp the rising fire.’

Wheatley​ did not only engage in a poetics of escape. She also developed networks of white and Black friends and supporters. Waldstreicher estimates that in the late 18th century Boston’s population was around 10 per cent Black. Although their social lives were controlled, and sale threatened to break their bonds to one another, Black people found solace and community together. Wheatley and other people of colour, including Zingo Stevens, Bristol Yamma and John Quamine, shared stories of their pasts. Several of the men were members of the Newport Free African Union Society, founded in 1780. Wheatley sustained a long friendship with Obour Tanner, an enslaved woman who lived in Newport and may also have been shipped aboard the Phillis. Together they formed what Katherine Clay Bassard has called the ‘earliest Black women’s writing community’.

At the same time, Wheatley was beginning to draw power from her singularity as an African writer. ‘She becomes a colonial informant,’ as Waldstreicher puts it, ‘a highly visible expert on tyranny, liberty and slavery.’ In the Wheatley home on King Street, she had a front-row view of protests against the Stamp Act, whose repeal she celebrated in a poem. While her early works declare loyalty to the paternal King George, she later used parent-child metaphors to depict the colonies as suffering from cruel discipline and neglect. By 1770 she was prepared to write an ‘arch-patriot’ elegy for a child killed in an affray, joining the ‘illustrious retinue’ at his funeral. According to Waldstreicher, ‘it’s the only instance in Wheatley’s surviving oeuvre where she depicts herself as part of a crowd.’

Navigating the hazardous political terrain of 18th-century America, Wheatley offers praise and blame in her commentaries on the progress of revolution. She articulates colonial grievances while flattering the British administrators who might assuage them. In an early draft of her poem on Dartmouth’s appointment, she hopes he will ensure that ‘No more, of Grievance unredress’d complain,/Or injur’d Rights, or groan beneath the Chain,/Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless Hand,/Made to enslave, O Liberty!, thy Land.’ The language of chains and slavery is typical of Whig polemics from this period, and was also used by Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft to lament the predicament of women.

Wheatley was among many writers who pointed to the hypocrisy of patriots who decried the enslavement of white colonial subjects while ignoring the plight of enslaved Africans. In ‘On the Death of General Wooster’ from 1778, Wheatley argues that it is ‘presumptuous’ for American patriots to anticipate heavenly acceptance while the nation continues to ‘disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race’. As a ballad writer put it,

The same men maintaining that all human kind
Are, have been, and shall be, as free as the wind;
Yet impaling and burning their slaves for believing
The truth of the lessons they’re constantly giving.

One formerly enslaved man in Massachusetts implored the patriots in 1774: ‘Would you desire the preservation of your own liberty? As the first step let the oppressed Africans be liberated; then, and not till then, may you with confidence and consistency of conduct, look to Heaven for a blessing on your endeavours to knock the shackles … from your own feet.’

A similar sentiment can be found in Wheatley’s 1774 letter to the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom. She agrees with Occom’s ‘Vindication of [the] Natural Rights’ of Black people. She rejoices that ‘the divine Light’ of Christianity ‘is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa’. But she notes that political and religious freedom are bound up together; and that ‘in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; 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.’ There is some audacity in her association of the African diaspora with God’s chosen people. She prays for divine judgment on those who ‘forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures’, that they too may be enlightened and come to understand ‘the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree – I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.’

Wheatley may have taken inspiration from the godly republicanism of Milton. Her blank verse poems frequently echo his epic invocations and biblical allusions. In an epyllion on David and Goliath, for example, Wheatley calls in Miltonic cadences on ‘Ye martial powers, and all ye tuneful nine’ to ‘Inspire my song and aid my high design.’ But her poetry was also informed by Pope’s worldly wit and finely balanced heroic couplets. In describing these influences, Waldstreicher sometimes tries a little too hard: Pope was ‘a literary rock star’, couplets were the ‘tweets’ of the 18th century, ‘Americans’ became a ‘meme’ in 1764-65, Wheatley’s subtleties are a form of ‘trolling’. But his close readings attend with enormous care to the possibilities of Wheatley’s verse. A line from ‘America’ is central to his appraisal of her work: ‘Sometimes by Simile, a victory’s won.’ This is ‘a one-liner so modest yet so powerful, and so trippingly seductive with assonance and internal rhyme, that it gets away with introducing a complex, almost counterintuitive idea’: that there is a likeness between African and British Americans’ struggle for freedom. ‘Writing is fighting by other means.’

Although her political verse may now be of most interest to readers, Wheatley was a profoundly religious writer, influenced by the Great Awakening and the evangelical Christianity of the Old South Church. Her career and poetic education were shaped by ministers and their wives. Waldstreicher suggests that it was Susanna Wheatley and Susannah Kelly Wooldridge, the wife of Dartmouth’s factor, Thomas Wooldridge, who ‘cooked up the occasion’ for Wheatley’s address to Lord Dartmouth. The poem was a turning point in Wheatley’s efforts to gather her poetry in a book. After the first proposal of 1772 came to nothing, the Wheatleys took a different approach. The family collected testimonies, shared poems in manuscript and print, and undertook a trip to London to drum up support, preserving Phillis’s modesty by claiming that it was a sea voyage to promote her health.

On her arrival in the metropolis, Wheatley wrote a bold letter of introduction – the wax sealed with her initials – to Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. Huntingdon was the patron of a network of Methodist preachers and chapels whose evangelism ‘bridged classes and reached out to natives and Africans’. She was also a friend of George Whitefield, a charismatic revivalist and accommodationist on matters of slavery who had preached to Wheatley’s congregation just before his sudden death in 1770. Wheatley’s elegy for him was published as a broadside with black funereal borders, the author described as ‘a Negro Girl, in Boston’. It celebrates Whitefield’s sympathies with America’s suffering and ventriloquises one of his sermons: ‘Take HIM, “my dear AMERICANS”, he said,/Be your complaints in his kind bosom laid:/Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you,/Impartial SAVIOUR is his title due:/If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,/You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.’ This promise of equality wasn’t fulfilled in Whitefield’s lifetime. Huntingdon inherited his fifty enslaved people and four thousand acres in Georgia when he died.

Huntingdon had patronised the publication of A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (1772), one of the earliest slave narratives in English. Impressed by this ‘luminous and sepulchral’ girl, she offered to support the publication of Wheatley’s work and requested that a portrait of her be commissioned for use as a frontispiece. The painting, probably by Scipio Moorhead, an African artist enslaved by the Wheatleys’ friends John and Sarah Moorhead, depicts Wheatley in thoughtful repose. She is simply dressed, her throat encircled by a black ribbon that faintly suggests her chattel status. In gratitude, Wheatley wrote a poem to Scipio anticipating their reunion in heaven.

In London, Wheatley paid her respects to the evangelical network that helped her publishing initiative, but cast her net wide to secure more secular patrons. She was ‘conversed with by many of the principal Nobility and Gentry of this Country’, including the earl of Dartmouth, who gave her money to purchase a folio edition of Pope’s Works. She visited the new British Museum, as well as Westminster Abbey and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. There was an awkward meeting with Benjamin Franklin, but for the most part she was treated with ‘complaisance’ by her British hosts. She accompanied the anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp to the Tower of London, where they viewed ‘Lions, Panthers, Tigers etc’ in their cages. Sharp had recently been engaged in the Somerset decision, which declared that forcibly removing an enslaved person from Britain was an illegal ‘act of high dominion’. Wheatley understood the importance of the case. Having travelled to London under the guardianship of her enslaver’s son Nathaniel, she could not be compelled to return.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in September 1773. On being presented with a copy, Ignatius Sancho noted that ‘these good great folks – all know – and perhaps admired – nay, praised Genius in bondage – and then, like the Priests and the Levites in sacred writ, passed by – not one good Samaritan among them.’ Wheatley’s reception was in part predicated on her status as an enslaved person. Nonetheless, she returned to Boston with a copy of the manumission papers she had left with her agent in London. She specified in a letter that ‘the Instrument is drawn, so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the Exectutrs, administrators etc of my master, & secure whatsoever should be given me as my Own.’

The negotiations over her emancipation are not documented, though Waldstreicher offers several possible scenarios. Perhaps the profits on book sales paid for her freedom, or public opinion and her new friends demanded it, or the Wheatleys were shamed into it, or Wheatley herself insisted on it as the condition of her return. Either way, the book was key to her emancipation. As she wrote in October 1773, ‘I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine, & it is the Chief I have to depend upon.’ When she returned to Boston, Susanna was dying and Wheatley’s own status was precarious. Delivery of the printed copies of her book on the Dartmouth was delayed when patriots objected to the chests of tea in its hold.

As Boston hunkered down under the British blockade, Wheatley’s poetic production quietened; no poems by her from 1774 or early 1775 have been found. In October, she wrote two flirtatious ones to the Royal Navy lieutenants John Rochfort and John Greaves. Waldstreicher attributes to her a very different anonymous poem, ‘Thoughts on Tyranny’, which considers British history up to the time of Charles I. Like most Bostonians, Wheatley was displaced by the War of Independence, leaving the city to stay with friends in Providence. She addressed a tribute to George Washington, who replied in 1776, at a moment when he was deliberating over whether to allow free and indentured Black soldiers to enlist in his new army. She had plans to publish another volume, which was advertised in 1779 but came to nothing.

Wheatley may have begun experimenting with more agonistic forms of poetic address. In January 1778 a splenetic, racist poem called ‘The Constitution’ was published anonymously in Boston’s Independent Chronicle. A response to it appeared in the same newspaper a month later, and Waldstreicher believes it was written by Wheatley. ‘Reply to “The Constitution”’, composed in tetrameter, sets out to ‘answer scorn with scorn’, accuses the author of the original poem of scurrilous race-baiting and condemns him to ‘dark oblivion’s sable deep’. This would be Wheatley’s first real satire, and ‘a key work in her oeuvre, a culmination of her development as a politically engaged anti-slavery writer’ – that is, if she wrote it.

A poem addressing white supremacy directly would be a fitting climax to Waldstreicher’s story of Wheatley’s evolution. His biography could perhaps have attended more explicitly to the intersection of gender and race in Wheatley’s life, and to the elements of misogynoir that influenced her public reception and representation. These elements come to the fore in the underexplored history of her life after emancipation, to which Waldstreicher’s book makes an important contribution.

Wheatley​ is now often cited as Phillis Wheatley Peters, the name she took on marrying the free Black grocer John Peters in 1778. The Wheatley family had reason to portray her married life as one of penury and suffering and to malign her husband. Alice Walker had her own for portraying Wheatley as burdened ‘not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children … she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.’ But Waldstreicher shows that the Peters family struggled in ordinary ways. Conditions in the commonwealth were difficult. John tried to protect his wife from hard domestic labour; but his businesses failed and he was briefly consigned to a debtors’ prison. Wheatley proposed a new edition of her book, but died in December 1784 before it could be realised.

For her contemporaries, Wheatley’s poetry presented a problem and an opportunity. Her writing was the supposed product of her leisure time rather than her enslaved labour. She imitated white aesthetics while drawing attention to her Blackness in ways that mixed humility with boldness. She was held up as a prodigy who merited exceptional liberation and as proof that all people had an inalienable right to freedom.

Readers today remain divided over whether Wheatley fawned on her white masters and denied her Blackness; or wrote poems that rejected slavery and racialisation with almost miraculous prescience. Her work is ripe for revisionist readings that look beyond her habits of accommodation and flattery to her willingness to confront her century’s disasters. The flattery is still there, in the allusions and prosody of a verse culture from which we have been largely alienated by Romanticism. But for many writers of colour Wheatley has become a symbol of resistance and survival, of Black artistry, and a voice for the millions destroyed in the Middle Passage. A conference at Jackson State University in 1973 celebrated Wheatley as an example of ‘the creativity of the Black woman kept alive, year after year’, as Alice Walker put it. Walker, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and others came together to honour Wheatley as the mother of Black American poetry. Clifton remembered them ‘holding hands and singing cause/you such a good mama we/got to be good girls’.

Several recent works help to fill in some of the gaps in Wheatley’s biography. In her second collection of poems, A Half-Red Sea (2006), Evie Shockley imagines Wheatley and Sally Hemings downing whiskeys together in the ‘halls of the ancestors’ and signifyin’ on the legacies of their mutual nemesis, Thomas Jefferson. The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, published in 2020, considers the relationship between Wheatley and Obour Tanner, with Tanner addressing Wheatley: ‘My Dearest Sister:/Spell me how you wish, for you have saved me./Before your letter, no one gave a care for my name.’ This concern for one’s name is also present in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016), in which Wheatley is invoked on seeing a photograph of a little Haitian girl with the word ‘ship’ taped to her forehead:

When I look at this photograph I see a young girl, to quote Jordan on Phillis Wheatley, ‘a delicate body, a young, surely terrified face’ … It occurs to me that the person who affixed that word Ship to her forehead emerges as another kind of underwriter, here, whose naming operates within the logics and arithmetics that would also render her a meagre child, as in one who occupies less space in the hold of a ship.

Drea Brown’s Dear Girl: A Reckoning (2015) includes a concrete poem shaped as a cross section of ‘the schooner phillis’. The poem’s inventory of deck, body, sugar, molasses, rum, pickled mackerel and turpentine floats on a sea of indigo, waves and bodies. The shape is taken from a 1789 engraving of the slave ship Brookes; here the outlines of the human cargo are replaced with words. Such works have contributed to the reassessment of Wheatley’s work; but the archive itself may have more to reveal. An elegy recently discovered in a Quaker commonplace book suggests that Wheatley spent some of her early years in Nantucket, on ‘loan’ to the Rotch family. The biographies will need updating.

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