Enslaved in the Gambia or Senegal,
scholars surmise, she survived the nauseous
and violent bottom line of the
Triangular Trade to be bought aged eight
as a maid for his wife by John Wheatley,
merchant and tailor of British-ruled Boston,
a known progressive in education.
She was christened ‘Phillis’ after the slave ship
that took her childhood. She was prodigious
and was removed from domestic duties.
Tutored by his daughter, at twelve she knew
Latin, Greek, the Bible and, later,
became a genius of Augustan
couplets – their wit, their beat, their certainty.
With her master’s son, she went to London,
where her poems were published to some acclaim.
Her encomium to George Washington
was re-published by Thomas Paine. ‘Proceed…
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.’
Ah, how we tolerate unflinchingly,
unthinkingly absurd and absolute
contradictions – freedom and servitude,
enlightenment and doctrinal dogma!
‘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.’
On Wheatley’s death she was freed – all that his will
left her: liberty without means. She married
a free black grocer. They lived in poverty.
Two infant children died. And yet she wrote –
but without white, male or titled patrons
was unpublished. Her husband was jailed for debt.
She supported herself and her sickly son
as a scullery maid. One December day
they died in squalor, were laid in unmarked graves.
What did she choose to remember of the seas
pounding against the timbers and the cries
and the chains days after days after days?
Or the drums into the night; or the smoke
from the cooking fires at dawn; the bright clothes;
the songs; her mother’s voice?