tv African American Poet Phillis Wheatley CSPAN June 17, 2017 9:10pm-10:01pm EDT
treatment of slaves, and phillis wheatley's standing in her masters household. the boston public library and boston literary district cohosted this event. it is about 50 minutes. barbara: it is truly a pleasure to be with you this evening. usticularly since so many of understand that this is the birthday of phillis wheatley. we cannot say for sure that it is the birthday, because no one knows exactly when she was born. believe,radition and this day has been designated to celebrate her coming to earth. let me say a little bit about how this arose. as mentioned, i am affiliated
with the theater. ayear or so ago there was play set in africa, about a who was seriously committed to religion. as i thought about the play, it seemed to me she was an african alion.eon -- pygm someone who would been transformed by her experience. but, the transformation it seemed, was more beneficial perhaps to those who had transformed her, then it was to her herself. that got me to thinking more about phillis wheatley. we have a building named the wheatley building. boston anding about
the flickering history it has had. it has had this history where, at some point, its connection to african-american history has seemed hazardous. has seemed positive, and other times when it has not. that flickering change in character fascinated me. it invited me to look more deeply at the history of phillis wheatley. maybe it is even an addiction to history. i love history, it fascinates me. i like reading about it, thinking about it, i like treating it like water, through which i swim. this, to me, this historical look at phillis wheatley,
that hass a subject lots to show us. i hope i can be someone who brings that perspective to bear this evening. i start with saying phillis wheatley had a signature. she could read, she could write. imagine, create. she would write for her own time and future generations her experiences and insights. and her connection to the world around her, she belongs to and symbolizes a transitional time, when boston and the commonwealth served a pivotal position in the nation.
she was there when the country was being formed and her life was tied into that process to which she provides a fundamental comments. now, ato start with and lot of attention has been paid recently to the wall street statue of a little girl confronting able -- a bull. --ee that as a symbol of of power andbol greed and insatiable appetite. the little girl with her hands on her hips and arching back seems to be telling the bull of the past that she has power, too, and can stand her ground. for me, the little girl symbolizes an enduring, undying phillis wheatley, who stands for and represents a world much
bigger and older than herself. now, we proceeding to an american genesis. a pivotal atlantic crossing. arab30, a ship named the ella came to what we know is boston. op envisioned a future of freedom he and his puritans would have. together, they would create a new, splendid, exemplary city. seven years after the puritans put their feet on the ground, they had waged war with the result that they were able to support -- import slaves to the caribbean. from which, they could never return. the year after that, a shipment of african bodies arrived in boston on a ship named of the
desire, which was a specially built in 1636, to traffic in slaves. harvard was founded in 1636. the same year the slave trade became a shipping enterprise in the commonwealth. saw the desire arriving from his window and noticed that event in his diary. writing it down, recording it is real and is a fact of history. we can conjecture what happened to several of the individuals purchased off of the desire. they were split apart. more than likely, samuel maverick, a large landowner, bought them. we new england bound, learned maverick ordered his his female to rape slaves so he could increase his
stock of bodies. victim wasthe rape not happy. of protestvoice started early, the same year as -- landed.ed, not agreeing her womb was a man's property, she spoke to an englishman who wrote about her displeasure. alsoanonymous woman, because slavery cut out her name and personhood, enters history with a strong, undeniable voice. and that was also what phillis did more than a century later. winthrop, the puritans soon realized that they were going to dominate the land and extract wealth from it, they needed a laboring army that they
could force to there will and word. they negotiated and created in 1641 a set of laws governing their behavior. euphemistically called, the body of liberties. which stipulated they could take away the liberties of others, including wayward women, whose purpose it was to enrich them and there is into eternity. the first laws to secure slavery in what became the united states were passed not in the south, but in the, not -- the commonwealth of massachusetts. the transatlantic slave trade provided the wealth basis for the early commonwealth. it supported her life of culture, expansion, learning, and prosperity. all backed by religious and allowed beliefs, which for a life of ease and plenty.
for wealth, leisure, and educational platforms on which early new england stood. if freed up the time of the owning class to rapidly grow their holdings and enrich themselves intellectually and culturally. owning land and labor created wealth. plantations were few in new england, but northern merchants owned the ships that moved the slaves from one continent to the other. factoriesowned the that manufactured the clothing that slaves and others wore. distilleries, appeasing appetites with rum and spirits. an industry dependent on sugar, sugar cultivation. wherever profit could be made, they were there. gold and silver filled their coffers, day and night. they were sultans of industry.
some blacks also showed early anition, like mrs. atkins, african woman who did the unthinkable in 1670. she purchased a house. some funding likely came from who may have slave been on the desire and was rewarded for his heroism in saving richard bellingham, a governor, from drowning. mrs. atkins put down roots in the north end, then a black community. hill includes thousands of black burials, now largely forgotten. it is often erased. in the case of phillis wheatley, the historical evidence is undeniable. mrs. atkins may have been one of the first african children born in boston. that speculation is based on her
age, when she entered the historical record. if she was 30 in 1670, which is likely. she would've been born around 1640, two years after the desire arrived and a year before slavery became law in the commonwealth. s samuelewel andl cotton mather were contemporary judges. trial was the only salem judge to make an apology for his role. a reflectivebe sort. he took a separate stance, relative to slavery. dissenting from the notion that the bible condoned a slavery. there were slaves in the bible, so the slaves of the commonwealth were not seen as anathema.
they were viewed as items for purchase, which the puritans considered acceptable. sewall, who was a do unto others as you would have them do unto you, wrote "the selling of joseph." the controversial pamphlet reference to joseph, when hit with famine, they travel to egypt. joseph had risen from captivity to power and was kind to the brothers would been unkind to him. sewall began to think that enslaving members of the human family was wrong and he was influenced toward abolitionist thoughts by a slave who sued his owner for breach of contract. adam said he is a filled his contractual terms. john did not agree and he lambasted adam as surly and the
disobedient and not entitled to freedom. wife won adam with his their case in 1703.the sentry began with abolitionist debate. john --a pome by having a slave, a source of income and status he wrote less than flattering words about adam, calling his character into question. similar to the taunting and verbal diminishment of blacks today, which we just saw again what does it have to do with wheatley? phillis had a different relationship with her owners. they encouraged her talents and helped her promote them, unlike john saffin, who was dismissive
of adam. cotton mather returns to the story in relation to health. one of his slaves, a gift from his congregation, proved very useful. city, alsoa coastal introduced in the city by foreigners and travelers. was a serious danger. the slave shared knowledge from the south african home. he took infection from someone already stricken from the early in time, the disease the patient would recover and death would be averted. mather convinced the doctor
boylston to a nokia late several slaves and a few citizens. the result of this experiment, which the puritans railed against, the idea of poison and infection from one body put into another body, was the height of heathenism for them. boston'sesult was that death rate from the 1721 epidemic was much lower than it otherwise would have been. onesimus helped save the city. when phillis comes to boston, arriving on a dock in what is now chinatown, at the corner of beach and tyler, if you care to walk there, you will see a plaque commemorating her arrival. at the time, the city and country were in the midst of a awakening.
believing a man or woman of faith, including slaves, could speak to god directly. god was as close to them as their own heart. he was a loving parent who cared for them at all times and for every reason. george whitefield, an englishman, was the most popular preacher of the day. he could move thousands with his sermons. he was also a friend of susanna wheatley, often staying with the family when he visited boston. so phillis wheatley new him personally. when he died in 1770, she wrote c calm inat -- elegia his honor. she dedicated it to whitefield's english patroness. they had published her first volume of poetry. in whiche of phillis
she is not per trade as a slave shows an alternate face of the poetess, who managed to succeed a station into which she was cast. aparteatleys kept phillis from her other slaves. she was not to eat with them, she was different and special, a symbol of their status and largess. it was part of european and tradition to view pet slaves as accessories of their own importance. we often see portraits in royal museums in europe of well dressed slaves. whether phillis wheatley became an exponent of the high standing of the wheatley family that could afford to keep a literary slave, is a matter to be explored.
in 1773, phillis wheatley went to london, where she published a collection of her poems. wasimage on the front created by another enslaved boston african, who had artistic talent. per stay in london was cut short by the news her mistress, susanna wheatley, was ill. phillis wheatley vest returned immediately to boston to take up her office as handmaiden and servant. a status revert to twice on the introduction re-pages, encircling her image on the title page. being celebrated in london offered phillis wheatley perhaps the most exciting and exhilarating time in her life. a literary personality, she was sought-after. -- herty interrupted and
stay abroad. phillis wheatley died in 1784. she was only 31 years old. her life in the revolutionary era was sad and meager. the economy in the commonwealth suffered after the war. those who had been her friend had died or fallen away. now, there is no stone marking her grave. we have no idea where she is buried. that we do have a monument to her memory on commonwealth erecteddirected in -- in 2003. in a book, the author argues that wheatley deserves to be acknowledged as the poet
laureate of the american revolution. they lived on state street. looking out the window, phillis she had an up close and personal view of the theater of war. shipsrtmouth, one of the relieved of its shipment of tea in the boston tea party in 1773. and the revolution irreversibly changed her reality. in the last years of her life phillis wheatley was known as phillis peters, taking her husband's last name. man, mr.n-american peters was in and out of debtors prison. money was scarce and hard to come by after the american revolution and it took a long while for the economy to reestablish itself. mr. and mrs. peters may have had several children.
some writers say there were three. but none of them survived her. we also know that she continued to write, but was unable to publish a second volume of poetry, although she kept trying as long as she had breath. i and my presentation with a cursive letter that phillis wheatley wrote to another enslaved woman living in a newport with whom she corresponded for years. was one ofof newport the backers of what was now brown university, leaving his library to that institution. tanner was taught orread, as phillis was, taught herself, we do not know.
however she managed it, she was literate. she and wheatley exchanged letters, maintaining a friendship for years that was important and sustaining for both. tanner80's, obour entrusted her wheatley letters to harriet beecher stowe, believing she would recognize their worth and know how to preserve them for posterity. a few other letters from their correspondents have since been discovered. today in the 21st century we have about 20 letters in the hand of wheatley who lives on in national memory and consciousness by word and by deed. whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, the bull of history,
greed, and power cannot ignore the darren -- the daring and dark determined little girl that defined the odds and raised her voice in public protest -- poeti c protest while becoming a woman of immense intelligence and significant endurance. thank you. >> [applause] are there any questions? i invite you are, to come up to the microphone. thiseard earlier that presentation is being filmed. ms. lewis for the really informative presentation. i want to know if you can comment on how in the time when phillis wheatley arrived in the unusual it wasow
for slaveowners to teach their slaves how to read and write, and what motivated the wheatley 's in particular to do this. how much didstion, they call upon the intellectual community of boston in the old south meeting house to educate her? prof. lewis: you asked me how common it was at the time. it certainly was not common. it was very uncommon. was phillis'ey did own intelligence. when they purchased her she was somewhere between six or seven years old. she was very young. at the time she came to boston, the seven years war was going on, with france and england at each other.
the traffic in slavery was reduced. say -- thee to pickings were slim at that point in terms of slaves. phillis arrived as a very frail little girl. susanna wheatley went to the docks. they purchased the slaves off of the boats. she went to the docks with her husband because she wanted a little girl that she could train up as her nurse. she knew she was getting older and weaker. her own children were going to leave at some point when they started their own families. to wanted to be a short -- be assured of care. they took her home, and in very short order, she picked up chuck and -- picked up chalk and
started writing on walls. whatever she would hear, she would trace letters. she was insistent on learning. the wheatley's had two teenage children that were living, they were twins. one was mary, the other was nathaniel. mary fell in love with the little girl. she saw how eager she was to learn. she was also learning about time, so she shared her lessons with phillis. she was proud of her. she shared her successes with her parents. they too became excited. this was unusual how fascinated this little girl was, and how quickly she was learning. she was learning latin, she was learning great -- learning
greek, she was considering every book she could get her hands on. they realized they had something different, something special, and they wanted to cultivate it. susanna wheatley was a quite religious woman. she was part of a religious network that was international. i am speculating here, but i suspect something inside of her was touched, and she felt this child had a gift from god. definitely it was unusual, the idea that slaves could read and write was not something to be encouraged because it might lead them to want freedom. it might lead them to the unhappy with their station in life.
thatat time, my sense is there was no desire for revolt of any kind, no desire for dissent. the desire was for the status quo. >> thank you. prof. lewis: i hope i answered. >> oh no, that was great. the other thing i was curious about was the relationship of the wheatley's at the old south meeting house, and if they called upon intellectuals to help her or not. prof. lewis: my sense is that she did not need education outside of the house. i don't know if they called on other members of the old south meeting house. my understanding though is that they were very proud of her, and they displayed her knowledge whenever they could in social
gatherings. i don't know if they did it at the church. i have not done all the research that i want to do, but i believe that phillis might have had to sit in the slave gallery at the old sound charge -- old south church and would not have sat with the family. >> hi barbara. i am wondering if you would address the reaction of thomas jefferson to phillis wheatley and what it meant, particularly in correspondence with george washington and other great leaders in howard -- in our time. jefferson certainly was not happy to think that some person who was african and also intelligent
and accomplished, that was far beyond his frame of reference. jefferson continues to be enigmatic in his relationship and his treatment of african-americans. acently i was reading about polish nobleman whose name i -- he came over and he fought in the american revolution. slaves, some of whom got his attention. he fought the idea of slavery was a terrible, terrible mark. he left money for the freedom of slaves.
he had become friendly with thomas jefferson and he left thomas jefferson as the executor of his estate. jefferson ignored what he had will, and would not use the money to free slaves. i don't know how to characterize jefferson, other than that. i don't intend to scandalized anyone who loves jefferson. he was contradictory. he was totally contradictory. he seems to have been very committed to his own pleasures and desires and books and ideas. he was insatiable in his desire for knowledge. he was constantly building.
you are reminding me of another story i heard recently in a social gathering. there was someone who wants to to monticellowent and visited the house. he climbed up to the top of the dome of the house, and in that dome was soundly ending -- sally's bedroom. it was only accessible to jefferson. me, that is an architectural symbol of some of the contradictions he seems to have harbored at the same time. he took pleasure from the flesh of african-americans, both both carnal and -- pleasure and economic pleasure, but he would not allow that
african-americans could have intelligence, or had rights. his dismissive attitude toward phillis wheatley is not really a surprise. i just want to thank you for having this. apologies, because i have laryngitis. i wanted to ask -- there was something i read about an inquiry that phillis wheatley was subjected to prior to the publication of her book. i think benjamin franklin was there -- subject to this inquiry
hancock and the declaration of independence. i was wondering if you could talk about that. that seems to correspond with the idea of phillis living at a transitional point, a transitional point for her and her work. i believe there were 18 people brought into that room. it was kind of like, i would imagine, an oral defense for a dissertation. you had to prove that you wrote it, you had to prove that you had sufficient intelligence, you had to prove that you didn't plagiarize, you had to prove you are authentic. male minds of the
time were gathered in that room. they examined her. they wanted to know, was she capable of writing what she said she had written? the one contest we should look at is that this was the age of the enlightenment, and age of knowledge at a time when the gifts of the mind were celebrated. if youwere intelligent, could express yourself by get the if you could intellectual attention of aters, you were considered the top level of humidity. -- of humanity. for a very difficult
community, very difficult for a thate who had legislated anyone who's skin was dark did think,e the capacity to did not have the capacity to write, did not have the capacity to feel. there are even some treatises that say people from africa could not feel pain. the belief was that these individuals, this people, were subhuman. for phillis to be able to write, and to write in ways that were equal to some of the top minds thate time, it was an idea there was a great deal of energy behind to discount. tribunal was pulled
notther to test whether or she was what she said she was, which was a writer of intelligence, a writer of sensibility, a writer understood religion, a writer of morality. could you also comment on the position of the wheatley's when captain john wheatley escorted rial" beforeer "tira these male town leaders? men" thats a "speci was looked at as a point of pride in the family, was it not a challenge to the wheatley family that they doubted her writings were in fact her own,
and that captain wheatley had committed fraud by pretending it to the hers? -- to be hers? prof. lewis: are you the lady that emailed me? we will talk about that a little later. we will talk about -- i would talk about his accompaniment of phillis wheatley differently. i think he was absolutely convinced that phillis wheatley had the talent, the intelligence, and the capacity that was proclaimed publicly. wouldeve that he felt she do brilliantly in the tribunal. i don't feel that there was anything negative about him escorting her to the tribunal. what we corresponded
about in emails, what did you want to talk more presently? -- or did you want to talk more privately? about 2 days ago i got an email. it is fascinating working on this project, because perhaps about 10 people have messaged me with questions of different kinds. one of the more thrilling ones came from you. linealhat you are a descendent of susanna and john wheatley. as i said, that is thrilling. you have worked in the nursing department? you're on the faculty. you indicated you are not quite on campus as often as some of
the point, -- some other point, and you would prefer to engage with me at the talk. you had several questions, you said, about what has been puzzling you for a while about the relationship between susanna and john wheatley and phillis wheatley. oryou have other questions, was that the extent of it that you just asked? my questions lead to the -- because whether my family,y's were whether they were beneficent in part having contributed to her education, as well as reverend john lothrop, who she lived with
perhaps it is a dichotomy of the two -- whether they were slaveholders in the harshest sense of the word, which i don't believe they were. it kind of gets wound around the identity of my own family in the current era -- how do i look at my forefathers and mothers, and how does their identity as slaveowners, perhaps beneficent slaveowners, reflect on my current family's identity? i think it is churned up by the current black lives movement, and the horrendous treatment of people of color these days.
it is kind of wound up in that if that is something that makes sense. prof. lewis: it does. i am not sure the extent to which i can answer, but i will try. isanswer i have to say certainly personal. extent itow to what would need to coincide with yours. is an extremely convoluted history. what i am thinking now, maybe this is a glass full, glass empty kind of question, or it can be approached that way -- whether the wheatley's were more ?r less beneficent
we haveas human beings, goodness, but we have wrapped up in the same person. i think it is a question of percentages, and i think it may vary on different days. i have been puzzling with some .f those questions also i have been working on this on and off for a year. in terms of going deep into a culture and going deep into another time, a year is not long. questionsvery deep that would take a look of concentration and focus.
in the time i have spent thinking about phillis and her experience under slavery, certainly her experience was -- maybe i should not say her, i should say more -- experience was a more positive experience than a lot of people who suffered the same fate. and that positivity, to a great luck, ifomes from her we can call it that, and i think we can. her luck in being purchased by the wheatley's. i think if a frail little girl
not yet 10 has to be purchased by anyone and put under the yoke of slavery, it was her good fortune to be purchased by a tople who had the generosity encourage her natural proclivities. but on the other hand, slavery far from a kind institution. it was not. and i have begun to think in the last few weeks that slavery is america's original sin. on television this morning, condoleezza rice said it is america's birth defect.
other,t is one or the maybe it is both. that none ofdiment elsehite, black, whatever we may be -- none of us have fully gotten over it. none of us have fully addressed it. and your mention of black lives matter today is part in parcel of our inability to face the past as honestly and fully as we sides ofbringing both to lookision together, each other in the eye and be honest together. we have not yet done that. i think that the world that susanna and john wheatley played
makes it more possible for us to do that. i hope that answers your. -- answers you. others? yes. >> poetry question. [laughter] what do you like about wheatley 's poetry? what do we have to gain by studying wheatley as a public? -- as a poet? enhave been to the a -- happ to be a wheatley fan. prof. lewis: her work is kind of prismatic in the sense that different ages have interpreted her differently. some ages have said, oh my god, -- all thatlack religion stuff, alexander pope and all of that classic stuff, where is the blackness in that?
she totally divorced herself from her roots. your generations have said, have to look below the surface. her times were such that she had to conform to the times. one of the things that really struck me about phillis and her politically adept she was. it was like she was creating nut with a shell that was perfectly conformed to had ames, but different meat inside. i truly appreciate her ability incontinuing herself relation to what she understood as the politics of then. as time moves forward, her
poetry seems to change with the times too. you can interpret the poetry in different ways in different times. that is why i call it prismatic. it has different surfaces. the fact that she was able to do that just makes me bow down to her talent, her genius, because she is someone who fit in with that momentum, and she also, if we study her know, she fits in with now. it seems like you might be satisfied, which is a good way for us to end. unless there are questions from some folks who haven't yet asked anything? well, if not, give me a hand,
and let's end it. [laughter] >> [applause] prof. lewis: thank you. thank you very very much. >> you are watching american weekend, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation like us on facebook at c-span history. of2017 marks the centennial the u.s. entry into world war i. next on american history tv's reel america, home front 1917-19 19, war transforms american life. this 1965 encyclopaedia britannica