Phillis Wheatley was born in 1754 in Africa, and arrived in Boston in 1761 aboard the slave ship “Phillis.” Barely eight years old, she was placed with other slaves on the auction block, and purchased by John and Susanna Wheatley, who named her after the ship. Her masters were more kind than many, however. Although Phillis served as a housemaid, the family’s daughter Mary befriended her and began to tutor her. Phillis did so well she soon learned not only English but Latin, religion, and literature. When she was just fourteen, she published her first poem, going on to publish a total of forty-six in her short lifetime. (She died at age 31.)
The appearance of Phillis’s first collection of poems met with so much skepticism that she consented to be cross-examined by a panel of Boston intellectuals (including the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, as well as John Hancock, then one of the wealthiest men in the Thirteen Colonies) on October 8, 1772. She was eighteen.
What the panel asked Phillis has not been recorded, but the signed conclusion of the panel has survived:
“We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”
(Nevertheless, even after this validation, no American would publish her work, so Susanna Wheatley asked British friends for help. Unfortunately, the overseas benefactors of Phillis cut her off after the American Revolution from Britain, especially because Phillis wrote poems in favor of independence.)
For a while however, Phillis achieved great success and was even invited to meet General George Washington after he received a letter and poem from her.
This book gives a brief introduction to who Phillis was, and then focuses entirely on the cross-examination she endured to prove that she, an African-born slave, actually was intelligent enough to write her own poems. The story is told as if from Phillis’s perspective, showing her bravery and determination.
The illustrations by Sean Qualls, using a creative combination of acrylic and collage, are lovely.
No poems are included in the text, which is not surprising if you read them! They are not very kid-friendly (although Phillis herself was a child when she wrote many of them), nor very compatible with current thinking. Take, for example, this poem, written when Phillis was around fourteen:
On Being Brought From Africa To America
“Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die,”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”
(Harvard literary historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who has written his own book on Phillis, observed: “This, it can be safely said, has been the most reviled poem in African American literature.” He further laments that “Too black to be taken seriously by white critics in the eighteenth century, Wheatley [is] now considered too white to interest black critics in the twentieth.”)
None of this controversy is recounted in this book, however. Rather, it is a celebration of one girl’s pluck in the face of a particular trial in which there were enormous odds against her.
Evaluation: While this book doesn’t tell much of Phillis’s story, it should create enough interest in the subject to inspire young readers to find out more about this remarkable girl from the early years of the American nation.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
Reading level: Ages 6 and up
Hardcover: 32 pages