In 1761, a young girl crossed the Atlantic on a slave ship. Captured in West Africa and transported to Boston, where she was enslaved by John and Susanna Wheatley. They named her Phillis, after the name of the slave ship that brought her to America. They taught Phillis to read and write, and by the age of 20, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry.
GBH's Executive Arts Editor and The Culture Show host Jared Bowen sat down with Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which recently acquired Wheatley's manuscripts, to discuss the poet's life and works.
Young, a poet himself and the poetry editor of The New Yorker, had particular insight on Wheatley's influence on American literature.
"I think she's a very important foremother," said Young. "I think she's the founding figure of American poetry writ large — African American poetry, perhaps, even larger."
Wheatley's work takes center stage in the anthology "African-American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song," which Young edited.
"[The anthology] has about 250 poets, it's almost a thousand pages, but I knew it had to begin with Wheatley. There were other poets who had published individual poems ... who had published in journals, but no one had ever done a book," said Young.
In 1773, Wheatley traveled to England to promote her book. On the way back to America, she wrote one of her most celebrated poems, "Ocean." That handwritten manuscript was part of the collection acquired by the Smithsonian.
Now muse divine, thy heav'nly aid impart,
The feast of Genius, and the play of Art.
From high Parnassus' radiant top repair,
Celestial Nine! propitious to my pray'r.
In vain my Eyes explore the wat'ry reign,
By you unaided with the flowing strain.Several lines from the poem "Ocean" by Phillis Wheatley
The trip to England was "really important for her," said Young. "I think if you can imagine, this person who was stolen across the ocean, enslaved, endured the Middle Passage, then became a poet in a whole other language, then traveled back across the Atlantic to see that book ... I think she's such a daunting, interesting, complicated figure and speaks to these kind of questions of freedom and enslavement that are really part and parcel of the founding of this country."
Wheatley's work takes on even greater meaning in the context of when she was writing.
In that era, poetry was "much more formal, much more metered. ... But there wasn't also an American tradition that she could lean into. And she, in fact, creates it," said Young. "I think a poem like 'Ocean' is one where she's trying to write about her feelings through these metaphors and through these allegories — that was very typical — but she's also trying to kind of create an epic. How do you create an epic of the self and a self that's enslaved?"
Some of Wheatley's poetry, particularly her poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America," has been subject to criticism, as some interpret it as defending slavery through the lens of Christianity. Young takes a more nuanced view.
"It's one of her younger poems, and in it, she's wrestling with this idea of original sin and Blackness, which were intimately tied and sort of the discourse of the time," said Young. "It's one piece of work in a larger body of work. She was, again, writing poems as an enslaved person. How do you write about this horror of being brought? I think there's something in the grammar and in the kind of condensation of the poem that she's trying to wrestle with these kinds of questions."
In her personal correspondence with other Black artists, such as the writer Jupiter Hammon and the artist Scipio Moorhead, she was far more "critical of enslavement," explained Young. "In public poetry, we can extract private emotions. When someone's writing about the enslaved or about Prometheus chained to a rock, they are expressing versions of their attitude towards enslavement ... in ways that I think are worth understanding and probing further."
Young wants people to experience the "fullness" of Wheatley's tragically short life.
"She had this full life, even despite her 31 years, which is our best guess of how old she was [when she died]. ... I think of that range she had — she had a second book of poems she didn't get published. And 'Ocean,' the manuscript we have, might have been very, very different. And because 'Ocean' is very different, it's very much a poem thinking about the freedom of the sea, the complexities of the waters around us that bind us but also separate nations ... and I think her influence, her power, her possibilities are oceanic."
You can listen to the entire interview with Kevin Young above.