As anyone who has had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes knows, I am writing a book of poems on the 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, imagining her life and times in colonial New England.
What some folks don’t know is why I started writing the book in the first place, why I thought Miss Phillis would be someone that I would dedicate years researching and writing about. And yes, it has been three years now. That’s just how much I love her and her world.
Just last week, I published an essay about my journey to Miss Phillis in Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:
As a student at two historically African American colleges during the early 1980s, I was taught Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, but my professors’ implicit message was that black folks had the responsibility to read her because of her historical status as an African American “first.” Not one of my professors ever mentioned we should read Wheatley because of her artistic merit as a poet. It was stressed to me that Wheatley was neither a political revolutionary nor a “real” poet with any recognizable talent. And frankly, I agreed; based upon my reading of Wheatley’s most well-known poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” and its then-troubling first line—”‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land”—I dismissed her poetry for over twenty years.
Now, I hear y’all saying, “Why would I want to read an essay? That’s, like, completely boring.”
Well, y’all know me: I always stir the pot and start some controversy wherever I go. I don’t know why I’m such a troublemaker. I really, really try to be well-behaved, but it never ends up that way. In the essay, I start a little trouble, and also, I reveal a piece of never-before published information concerning Phillis Wheatley research as well. And you KNOW you want to know what info is!
You can read some poems, too from the manuscript in progress. Even if you don’t like poetry, you know you’re nosy enough to want to see whether I’ve got skills or not.:-) So click this link to read the brand new Phillis Wheatley poems, too. I hope y’all like them. If you don’t, let me know and why in the comments section. I may not follow your advice on the poetry, but this work isn’t set in stone yet and I am always open to criticism.