Phyllis Wheatley, poetess

For day 11 of black history month, let’s recall Phyllis Wheatley, the first african american female poet. George Washington was a fan. So was Voltaire. I’m not; in general I don’t like early American poetry, to such an extent that I can’t say whether Wheatley’s was a particularly good or bad example.

However, her life story is a great (by which I mean upsetting) example of things that make sense to terribly racist people but are hard to comprehend for anyone else.

Phyllis was kidnapped from West Africa when she was at most eight. Eight years old. Somebody thought, “there’s a kid who still has her baby teeth, let’s chain her to a ship and sell her if she survives.” She did survive and was sold in Boston to people who named her “Phyllis” after the slave ship. To recap, the Wheatleys (1) thought it was a cool idea to purchase an eight-year-old (2) instead of asking her name decided to use the name of the slave ship. Congrats, you’re now Phyllis.

The Wheatleys were “progressive,” so they taught Phyllis to read and write, in between her still needing to do a bunch of domestic labor to I guess earn her keep, as victims of kidnapping should all do, don’t you agree. She was also taught Christianity and to thank God for getting to be a Christian slave as opposed to being damned in Africa – not that I’m guessing they had any idea what her life was or wasn’t like in Africa, I mean they didn’t even want to know her name and showed no concern over the fact that she had a mom somewhere who might want to know whether she was ok.

Turns out Phyllis was some kind of genius, so the Wheatleys showed off her poetry and got it published and introduced her to famous people, and in general were very proud and wanted her to be successful. But still a slave, though. Still definitely their unpaid maid with no freedom whatsoever, even though they excused her from a lot of her domestic duties and paid for her education. Like a daugher! Like a member of the household. But not for real though haha she’s black.

They did free her eventually, when Mr. Wheatley died. When he DIED. “In my will, I leave my actual children some money, and I leave you…yourself. But with no savings or anything because how were you going to accrue that while you were a slave? Cannot happen. What’s your plan to transition to supporting yourself? Who knows. Somebody’s dead, goodbye. Ain’t freedom grand. You are surely not owed anything for all your years of unpaid labor, or in recognition of your being kidnapped when you were eight.”

(It is NOT clear to me who exactly was making money off her writing while she was a slave, because none of the short bios I’ve read have thought this point was significant enough to mention. Speaking as a poet who likes to be paid, I find this question VERY SIGNIFICANT. My assumption is, not Phyllis.)

So hooray she was horribly poor and all her patrons from when she was a slave were no longer interested in purchasing stuff from a free black because that’s obviously problematic, what would that imply. I mean, it’s one thing, a genius slave, but a genius human being whoa let’s not get hasty, this is a black person. (Obviously there had already been many “well this must have been written by somebody else” scandals, such that there was a formal investigation by the governor of Massachusetts to see whether she was a fraud.)

So, in “freedom,” she worked as a maid paid next to nothing, had three babies who all died because what do you think is going to happen when there’s no money for food or medicine or for your mom to stay with you, and then died herself age 31.

What.

In summary, I’m sure the wealth gap between the average black household in the US and the average white household in the US is a result of an inferior culture and not working hard enough.


Note that English presumably wouldn’t have been her first language. Wrote good enough poetry to be published internationally (1) while black and a slave (2) in a language that was not her mother tongue.

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