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. 

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