Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

Chasing Phillis Wheatley

Uncovering other possibilities from the past.

Tara A. Bynum

Foreground: Portrait of Phillis Wheatley (c.1753–1784) by Scipio Moorhead (?) (active 1760–1775), from her Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Moral, 1773; Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy Stock Photo; background: Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, 1774, The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

I don’t catch Phillis Wheatley’s joke at first. I miss it because I don’t know yet to read for her humor. I only know to read her poems and letters on their various eighteenth-century subjects for what I’m looking for, and I’m looking for an easy-to-spot simple and familiar story of a young woman’s enslavement and subsequent freedom. I’m reading for a girl—with an unknown birthdate and from somewhere in West Africa—who, in her insufferable living, can only long for freedom. She doesn’t have much of anything in my version of her story. There’s no family or friends (or maybe just one friend, Obour Tanner), no love or joy, and certainly, no jokes; I’ve limited her living to the difficult reality of her enslavement and the burden of—what I understood to be—a profoundly lonely life. I’ve imagined the stoic girl of her poetry volume’s frontispiece as ennobled by this single-minded, long-suffering pursuit of legal freedom. I still trust—to a fault—that her quest is what gave way to an entire literary tradition. What I’ve learned of this tradition privileges a particular kind of “real” and racialized experience. I understand its literature to represent and document a historical and othered way of living that pursues truth telling, authenticity, and the certainty of resistance as the proper response to suffering. I’m looking for what’s “real” and true in Wheatley’s writing. So I can’t read yet for the possibility or the certainty of her laughter in her writing because I still think her life was too hard and too heavy to live fully or freely.

On this particular day in an uncertain year, what I’m reading is Wheatley’s lengthy October 30, 1774, letter to John Thornton, Esq.11xPhillis Wheatley, “Phillis Wheatley to John Thornton Esqr Merchant London, 30 October 1774,” [letter], in Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York, NY: Penguin, 2001), 158–60. I’ve learned I don’t like Phillis Wheatley’s poetry as much as her letters; and it’s not her fault. The letters allow me to glimpse the young woman as she imagines herself in her own handwriting; led by her cursive, I get to sit with her differently.22xSpecial thanks to Alexis Pauline Gumbs for pointing out Wheatley’s penmanship and the utility or pleasures of its beauty. Because I’m new enough to Wheatley’s letters, I’m reading this one again (and again). This is one of several extant letters between the Boston-based poet and the English merchant. Their correspondence takes place over several years, from 1772 to 1775. While Boston weathers the consequences of a bloody massacre, a tea party, and Britain’s spiteful legislation, Wheatley writes often enough to the merchant-philanthropist about all sorts of matters: God and Christian faith, what books to read, personal health matters, and family concerns.

This letter has quite a bit of everyday news. After the necessary pleasantries, the twentysomething Wheatley mourns the death of Susanna Wheatley. The woman had been her “mistress” since early childhood, and after battling an unnamed illness for a while, she has died. Wheatley’s mourning gives way to a celebration of her manumission. She is no longer enslaved to the Wheatley family. And, even as she celebrates her new status, she is sure to remind Thornton that her greatest and “most perfect freedom” is as a “Servant of Christ.”33x“Phillis Wheatley to John Thornton Esqr,” 159. What follows Wheatley’s memorial to this deceased woman and her declaration of freedom is a response to a request from Thornton.

It seems Thornton has invited Wheatley to join a missionary trip to Cape Coast, West Africa. It’s the site of an Anglican church led by Reverend Philip Quaque, the first African man to be ordained by the Church of England. Quaque is working steadily to Christianize the neighboring local community, but his efforts are proving fruitless and he has few resources to spare.44xVincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 139–71; Vincent Carretta, Life and Letters of Philip Quaque: The First African Anglican Missionary (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011); Adélèké Adéèkó, “Writing Africa under the Shadow of Slavery: Quaque, Wheatley, and Crowther,” Research in African Literatures 40, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 1–24; Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 187–221. He is disappointed and frustrated by his lack of resources and by local resistance to religious conversion. Thornton’s invitation to Wheatley—not long after her manumission and Susannah Wheatley’s death—is part of a larger effort to support Quaque’s work. This isn’t the first time Wheatley has heard of this plan. Reverend Samuel Hopkins has already sent Wheatley an invitation. Hopkins, much like Thornton, corresponds with Wheatley with some regularity. He is pastor of the First Congregational Church, in Newport, Rhode Island, and together with Reverend Ezra Stiles, pastor of the town’s Second Congregational Church, has organized this trip. Thornton and Hopkins have encouraged Wheatley to join in this proposed missionary work with two men (originally, from nearby parts of West Africa), John Quamine and Bristol Yamma.55xWilliam D. Johnston, Slavery in Rhode Island, 1755–1776 (Providence, RI: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1894); Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine in Rhode Island,” Rhode Island History 73 (Winter/Spring 2015): 4–30; Ezra Stiles, Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter (New York, NY: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 363–65; Samuel Hopkins, The Works of Samuel Hopkins, with a Memoir of His Life and Character (Boston, MA: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1852), 130–38. Yamma and Quamine reside and are enslaved (or were recently freed) in Newport, where both men are well known and active in the area’s various church-related communities.66xBamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine”; Andrews, Native Apostles, 187–221; Sheryl Kujawa, “‘The Path of Duty Plain’: Samuel Hopkins, Sarah Osborn, and Revolutionary Newport,” Rhode Island History 58, no. 3 (August 2000): 75–90. Both have been baptized by Hopkins’s predecessor at First Congregational, and Stiles baptizes two of Quamine’s children.77xBamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine”; Andrews, Native Apostles; Kujawa, “‘The Path of Duty Plain.’” In an interesting twist of fate, Yamma and Quamine purchase a winning lottery ticket in 1773.88xSamuel Hopkins, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn, Who Died at Newport, Rhode Island, on the Second Day of August 1796 (Worcester, MA: Leonard Worcester, 1799), 78–80; Andrews, Native Apostles, 194. Quamine’s lotto winnings buy his freedom, and Yamma sets aside monies to purchase his freedom, too.99xAndrews, Native Apostles. According to Stiles, Quamine is eager to serve God in West Africa.1010xStiles, Literary Diary, 198. The plan is to send Yamma and Quamine to West Africa after they’ve taken the necessary courses at the College of New Jersey under the tutelage of the college’s president, John Witherspoon. Hopkins’s letters have kept Wheatley abreast of this plan as well as events and happenings at Quaque’s mission. In his letter, Thornton seems to urge Wheatley to join these efforts, and also—it’s been said—to marry Yamma or Quamine.1111xG. Barker-Benfield, Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom: History, Poetry, and the Ideals of the American Revolution (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2018), 126–53. Simply put, Wheatley refuses with a laugh:

You propose my returning to Africa with Bristol yamma and John Quamine if either of them upon Strict enquiry is Such, as I dare give my heart and hand to, I believe they are either of them good enough if not too good for me, or they would not be fit for missionaries; but why do you hon’d Sir, wish those poor men so much trouble as to carry me So long a voyage? 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 Annamaboe. Now to be Serious, This undertaking appears too hazardous, and not sufficiently Eligible, to go—and leave my British & American friends—I am also unacquainted with those Missionaries in Person. The reverend gentleman who unde[r] [ta]kes their Education has repeatedly informd me by Letters of their pro[gress] in Learning also an Account of John Quamine’s family and Kingdo[m]. But be that as it will I resign it all to God’s all wise governance; I thank you heartily for your generous Offer—With Sincerity. I am hond. Sir.1212x“Phillis Wheatley to John Thornton Esqr,” 159–60.

Indeed, it seems that Wheatley scoffs at the very idea, and admits her concerns about the offer to Thornton.1313xBamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine”; Barker-Benfield, Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom, 126–53. She is certain the trip is too long. She doesn’t know the local language, even if John Quamine and Bristol Yamma may, and she doesn’t know Yamma or Quamine well enough either.1414xAndrews, Native Apostles, 189; Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 164. She doesn’t want to leave her American life or her friends. It’s clear Wheatley has no interest in this venture. It’s funny to think that in my earliest readings of this letter I can hear her indifference with ease; I expect it. My interest in what Wheatley will not do—her refusal or resistance—leads me to read past her quip to Thornton, “Now to be Serious.” It takes me a while (maybe too long) to understand fully what Wheatley is saying. It takes me even longer to hear her laughter. See, if she is “Serious” now, then she wasn’t before. It’s not just that Wheatley is refusing Thornton’s offer. She thinks it’s absurd. She mocks it. Wheatley has nothing but jokes about Thornton’s idea, and the joke is on Thornton because he thinks Wheatley can speak the language and because he thinks she might consider heading back eastward. Thornton must be a fool to think Wheatley would actually want to do missionary work in West Africa or even—as has been said—to marry John Quamine or Bristol Yamma.1515xBamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine”; Barker-Benfield, Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom, 126–53. (It seems worth noting that both men are already married.1616xBamberg, “Bristol Yamma and John Quamine”; Barker-Benfield, Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom.) She is on her “own footing” by 1774 and the author of a popular book of poems.1717xPhillis Wheatley, “Phillis Wheatley to Col. David Worcester in New Haven, Connecticut, 18 October 1773” [letter], in Complete Writings, 146–47. Her books of poetry are selling well enough in spite of Boston’s increasing struggles with the British government. Quaque has limited resources, and the colonial conflict and its various blockades and sieges are soon to limit the monies of Hopkins, Stiles, and Thornton, too. It’s a bad idea and Wheatley is right to think so, because Quamine and Yamma never make it to Cape Coast. Despite the fundraising efforts of Hopkins and Stiles, the two men’s time at the College of New Jersey is cut short, and there’s the ever-present certainty of war.1818xCatherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 289–315; Hopkins, The Works of Samuel Hopkins, 130–38. It seems the joke is on everyone but Wheatley.

And, the joke seems to be on me, too, because I pass by her humor. I don’t get it or expect it. I’ve never expected Wheatley to be funny. I’ve never imagined her with a sense of humor. But when I read her “Now to be Serious” this time, I realize my mistake. I’ve misread Wheatley, and I’ve missed what she’s saying. I’ve missed her laughter—because, I’ve assumed that Wheatley is writing for me, for my expectations of her. What I expect is for her life to be miserable, to be overburdened by slavery. I’ve bet on her to write what’s familiar to me, and what’s familiar—I realize too, right then—looks like evidence of her “resistance” to enslavement or proof of her commitment to freedom. If she shows this resistance, then she earns her spot as a “first” in this literary tradition. This kind of resistance looks solemn, feels burdensome, and is easy to pick out, much a like a protest march. There is no laughter in my version of Wheatley’s “resistance.” There is only me and my refusal to see Wheatley as she is; she is a young, formerly enslaved woman who laughs, tells jokes, and is, by 1774, living through the making of a war. What I’ve missed is actually a young woman, laughing at John Thornton, and at me, too.

I told a colleague once that Wheatley is funny. We were making small talk at a conference in a middling New England town, likely not too far from where Wheatley’s friend, Obour Tanner, settled for a time—while her hometown was occupied by British soldiers—in 1778 and 1779. I saw my colleague’s surprise. I told her about Thornton’s absurd request and Wheatley’s joke. With a bit of concern, she asked me, “How do you know that it’s funny? How do you know Wheatley is joking? Maybe she’s articulating a kind of anxiety.” Because I didn’t have Thornton’s letter handy and couldn’t show her Wheatley’s “Now to be Serious,” I responded with my own questions: “Since when are anxiety and humor mutually exclusive? Aren’t some of the funniest people anxious?” We were left at an impasse. She was left with the implausibility of a funny Wheatley, and I was left with a nagging question: Why can’t we imagine that a twenty-one-year-old woman would tell jokes? The answer, I now suspect, is that it’s in part because of our dependency on Wheatley’s poetry. Her poems offer readers what they know to expect—references to Africa, enslavement, or even complicity and complacency, and at times, resistance. Her letters don’t. They aren’t extraordinary or unique. They don’t recount an escape, and they don’t always tell a compelling story. They do share in very quotidian ways what might annoy her, what she might love, and what makes her laugh.

There’s no letter immediately following Wheatley’s October 30, 1774, letter to Thornton. By 1775, Wheatley will flee Boston—as one of the war’s refugees—for Providence, Rhode Island. And on an evening in February 1776, she’ll enjoy a pleasant evening walk with John Quamine.1919xCarretta, Phillis Wheatley, 164. I don’t know how many jokes Wheatley tells, but what I do know is that she does tell them. They aren’t easy to miss if the reader remembers that her life matters. It can be enjoyable at times and maybe sometimes insufferable. The joke will always be on us if we limit her to a story that privileges and pursues her suffering. Even if she must be a “first,” what she births includes laughter, jokes, and, sometimes, “no,” too.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Ethel V. Locks, who died, along with the countless women, men, and children, from COVID-19. This essay would not have been possible without generous intellectual engagement and inspiration from my 2021 Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture “table crew” and the participants in my June 2021 “Six Degrees of Phillis Wheatley” Rare Book School course at the University of Virginia.