Smithsonian Acquires Major Collection About Enslaved Poet

In September 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a young enslaved woman from Boston, boarded a ship home from London, where she had gone to promote her forthcoming book of poems — the first ever published by an American of African descent.

It was not the first time Wheatley had sailed to Boston. Twelve years earlier, she had arrived from Africa as a child captive and was sold to a prominent family, the Wheatleys, who named her after the slave ship.

But on this second voyage, Phillis — now a literary celebrity — picked up a pen and wrote “Ocean,” a 70-line ode full of dreaming, wonder and longing for freedom.

“Ocean” went unpublished and was seemingly lost until 1998, when the manuscript surfaced at an auction. Now it has been acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of what the museum says will be the largest collection of Wheatley material in public hands.

The 30-item collection includes newspapers and books from her lifetime that contain poems by Wheatley and references to her, as well as material documenting her literary afterlife.

Kevin Young, the museum’s director, called the “Ocean” manuscript — one of the few surviving Wheatley poems written in her own hand — “stunning.” But what really “blows me away,” he said, was seeing it alongside an issue of The Boston Evening-Post that noted her return from London.

“You’re seeing her handwriting, and seeing her write in this language she had fairly recently learned, and had become a champion of,” he said. “And here she is in this moment where she has traversed the ocean, which she had initially done in a horrible way, but was doing now as celebrated poet. I’ve always thought of that moment and what it might have been like for her.”

In the poem, Young said, Wheatley explores the ocean as “a space of genius,” for “creativity and the kind of freedom she’s found.”

A 1909 edition of Wheatley’s poems from A.M.E. Book Concern, a national supplier of African American books.Credit…Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
A page of the unpublished 1773 poem “Ocean,” in Wheatley’s hand, which surfaced in 1998.Credit…Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

But while looking at the newspaper report of her arrival, not long before the Boston Tea Party, he noticed something else: an advertisement for the return of a runaway slave, about Wheatley’s age, named Nancy.

“This is all the contradictions of this American moment,” Young said.

Wheatley is already represented in the museum’s core exhibit, where a statue of her stands in front of a wall inscribed with words from the Declaration of Independence, her quill poised as if to underline — or edit? — the paradox of liberty alongside slavery.

Nearby is a copy of her 1773 book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” with its famous frontispiece portrait attributed to Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved Black artist.

We tend to think of Wheatley — who corresponded with George Washington, met Benjamin Franklin and drew (scornful) attention from Thomas Jefferson — as a singular figure. “But she was part of this community of Black artists, including among the enslaved,” Young said.

Shortly after her book was published in December 1773, Wheatley was manumitted. In 1778, she married John Peters, a free Black grocer, and began planning a second book, which never appeared. Scholars believe she had three children who did not survive infancy. She died, impoverished, in 1784.

The museum’s acquisition, made mostly through the dealer James Cummins, includes six items dating to Wheatley’s lifetime (including “Ocean,” bought from the dealer Mark E. Mitchell). But there are also items that show her growing power as a symbol, like a 1930 pamphlet published by the Phillis Wheatley Club of Waycross, Ga., part of a network of women’s clubs named after her.

Young, a poet and critic, took particular wonkish delight in an early scholarly effort: “Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Peters): A Critical Attempt and a Bibliography of Her Writings,” from 1915 (and translated from German).

“I just love that,” he said.

During the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, Wheatley was disdained by some Black male intellectuals, who dismissed her as “an early Boston Aunt Jemima,” as one put it. Her poem “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” with its seemingly sycophantic gratitude, has been called perhaps the most reviled poem in American literature.

But in recent decades, Wheatley has inspired Black poets like Nikki Giovanni, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Amanda Gorman and Young, who have found subversive currents in her decorous neo-Classical verse.

Wheatley is also a touchstone in the museum’s current “Afrofuturism” show, which puts contemporary pop culture in the longer sweep of African American intellectual history.

The show, on view until August 2024, hopscotches across time, from the polymath inventor Benjamin Banneker’s 1793 almanac to Chadwick Boseman’s “Black Panther” costume.

There’s also a more sobering item: the flight suit worn at an aviation camp by Trayvon Martin, another young voyager, like Wheatley, but one whose explorations were violently cut short.

Wheatley, Young said, was writing at a time when poetry was not about personal feelings but public events, which can make her work hard to connect with. But time-traveling artifacts like those in the new collection can help.

“We can’t get close to her,” he said. “Except that here you have a poem written in her hand.”

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