Photo Credit Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia
I read a short children's book about the poet Phillis Wheatley this weekend, and it had me thinking. I thought about her use of writing as a tool to prevail in spite of trauma. Please allow me to share a brief, bulleted exploration of some of the things we can pick up from Phillis Wheatley's short life.
1. God gives the ability to exceed human expectations.
People could hardly believe that an enslaved African girl could write poetry capable of global fame. And the first African American, first enslaved person and only second American woman to publish in the Americas, no less. (See Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773.) This was way beyond people's frame of reference.
2. They'll call you what they will. You be who you "be."
The name Phillis/Phyllis was given to this young lady to erase her identity and give her one that suited her oppressors. We don’t have record of her given/birth name. In my research it says that she was named after the slave ship that transported her here. If that's not something! That name was given in a pre-emptive move to own her identity. Yet the Greek meaning of it is "greenery"--life, vitality. She was able to be and to live just that, in spite of the original intention. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
3. Sometimes our writing is for and about us; often, it's bigger.
My research said that Phillis wrote many poems about the goings-on of her time, and spoke to issues bigger than herself. She rarely wrote about herself. This, I believe, is part of why her work is enduring to this day.
4. Disbelief may follow you. Create anyway.
People were so incredulous that a young "slave girl" could produce poetry of her caliber that she had to appear in the equivalent of court to prove or have attestation to the authorship of her works. People were so committed to the narrative created to serve the oppressive system someone white and powerful had to vouch for her works. She created anyway...
5. Sometimes we are writing into the freedom of others that we don't yet enjoy. Though this is sacrificial ministry and is noble, it should not be our norm.
Lastly, I read that Ms. Wheatley- Peters (married surname) was controversial for supporting the newly formed American government, even though it endorsed slavery and even though the British army was offering freedom to Black people who fought for them. She used her arts to support the colonial government, even while enslaved by it. Think on that. We stay doing that as Black women, don't we?--Fighting for freedoms others will enjoy that we only one day hope to. I won't fall on a side either way about it, but it's worth noting.
So all in all, this standout poet’s story really is about a celebration of 3 things:
She used what she had
She created impactful work, despite the challenges
Her life was short, but her WORDS live on!
Salute to Ms. Phillis today, and all we who walk in her legacy just by deciding to put our words in the world...