Phillis Wheatley came into my life pressed between the pages of a rather lack luster anthology. I was twenty-one when I first sat down in my American Literature class ready to be thoroughly educated. My professor was young and handsome. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches and I knew that we would have great discussions that would change my life. I was right. My interactions with him would change my life.
The only Wheatley poem my anthology contained was the short but controversial,
‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought now knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
I read the poem with understandable concern. My white Gen-X background in no way prepared me for a woman who spoke with gratitude on having been taken from her family at the age of 7, sold into slavery at age 8 and then named after the slave ship which transported her. How she ever survived the long voyage aboard “The Phillis,” no one knows.
I sat in shock listening to my professor discuss the hardships of her life in blasé tones. He furthered the insult by saying that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. My indignation was instant. Nowhere in her words could I detect irony. I heard a fragile voice, as gentle as moonlight, singing out an ideology forced on her through hardship, a new and vengeful God coupled with the tortuous cruelty of slavery. Surely, no one with a heart could read this poem and honestly believe that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. Slowly I raised my hand, stated my case and flatly refused to back down.
My professor believed that his word was the last word on all subjects literary. My refusal to understand that Wheatley’s poem was ironic angered him so much that he began yelling “ironic” at me every time our paths crossed: In the hall, out on the green, in the parking lot. My reply to each and every one of his attacks was to simply say, “sincere.”
At the end of quarter, after turning in every paper, after aceing every quiz and test I received a D-. The girl who sat opposite me never turned in her papers, missed tests and didn’t read the assigned texts but was shocked to receive an A. I approached my professor, I stated that he’d switched the grades and he replied, “How very ironic?” Yes it was ironic that I should fail this simple class with my strong English background. Yes it was ironic that I should fight for a defenseless black poetess, and yes it was ironic that I, a woman, was forced to defend my belief before an empowered white male. I went to the Dean, I filed my complaint and nobody listened.
So this is what Phillis Wheatley taught me. She taught me that even when you’ve been bullied, brainwashed, stomped on and threatened you have to keep on speaking what your heart tells you is right. Since failing American Lit. I have become a lover of Wheatley’s poetry. In her words I find sweetness, beauty, and a refinement not of this world. Her voice is more tangible to me now than any grade. My soul is strengthened by her poem On Virtue. My love of art grows in her poem To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works. My favorite of her poems is simply entitled,
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Phillis is one of the reasons why I write about silenced women. Her history is part of why I will always take up a cause my heart recognizes as pure. Phillis could not speak out against slavery when she herself was enslaved but read again On being brought from Africa to America and notice how gently she presses the truth that we all have the right to find grace.