Phillis Wheatley: The Slave Girl `Favored by the Muses’
By Bonnie James
America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding FathersHenry Louis Gates, Jr.Basic Civitas Books, 2003, 129 pages
Phillis Wheatley is perhaps the most fascinating and thought-provoking American you never heard of.
She arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761, at about age 7, but not in the ordinary way that immigrants were coming to the New World at that time. She was brought here alone, “a slender frail female child,” from the West Coast of Africa, or perhaps the islands off the coast of Guinea, aboard a slave schooner, the Phillis, and soon after, was purchased by Mrs. Susanna Wheatley, whose husband John was a prosperous tailor and merchant. Mrs. Wheatley was shopping for a house servant. The girl-child she selected was described as “naked” but for “a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a filibeg.” Yet, over the course of her brief life, Phillis would come to know and be recognized by some of the most exalted personages of the Revolutionary period.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, begins his account of this extraordinary individual with a gripping rendition of her interrogation by Boston’s most stellar citizens, in October of 1772, about 11 years after she had arrived. As Gates notes, the details of the event were either not recorded, or have been lost to history, so he imagines how it might have unfolded. As he tells the story: