About a year ago on a rainy day, I decided to visit Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston to find Ms. Phillis Wheatley’s headstone. I found nothing. I searched for about two hours, studying each old stone with faded words and broken corners, and at one point my eyes started to water. I was holding a single rose I purchased in a flower shop that morning. A year prior to this in 2017, I was a year out of college, really unmotivated to write poetry and feared to not ever be published. During that April, I attended a panel event featuring poets and scholars, Nicole Terez Dutton, L’Merchie Frazier, Regie Gibson, Barbara Lewis, and Askia Toure. At one point, Phillis Wheatley was brought up, and although I heard about her, I knew nothing about her story or her success as an enslaved black poet. This inspired me deeply, and I rushed to see her monument in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue, as part of the Boston Women’s Memorial. Back to the burying ground, my eyes watered because I didn’t want to believe that she was forgotten and unmarked. I felt like the monument just wasn’t enough. For Phillis Wheatley to be the pioneer of Black literature, publish her first and only book when she was around 20 years old and was known as the most famous “negro” at the time of 1773, she is not widely known and celebrated today. I want to change that.
The first time I heard about Phillis Wheatley was either my sophomore or freshman year of college. At the time, I was searching on Google for Black poets that were from Boston, and she was one of the first that popped up. If you don’t know, Wheatley is the first African-American poet and author, in general, to ever publish a book back in 1773. The craziest thing is the fact that she was enslaved while all of this happened. According to the book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta, she was brought to Boston when she was 7 or 8 years old, along with 70+ survived African people in a slave ship, ironically called the Phillis. John and Susanna Wheatley bought her soon after, and 12 years later she became a published author. It wasn’t easy though, Phillis actually had her book published in England because she couldn’t get it published in America, even after proving to 17 white politicians of her authorship.
Sadly, she does remain a mystery in a lot of ways, and that day at the burying ground hit me very hard. It is said in multiple sources that Phillis was poor, a free woman, and married at the time of her death — and within the last years of her life, she couldn’t find a way to publish more poems. I remember pacing from one side of the burying ground to the other, wondering how Alice Walker found Zora Neale Hurston’s grave that was unmarked. I wanted to find Phillis’ so bad, and I just imagined how her last days might have been. I have so many questions like: where was the Wheatley family? Can I meet a relative of that family today? Why didn’t she stay in England after her book of poems was published? Why didn’t anyone preserve her poems and items after her death? Did Boston value her as a free woman?
As she was known for her heavily religious-based poetry to politicians and members in her community, I often wonder what contemporary Black poets think of her. As a poet, I often feel the pressure to explain traumas and experiences as a Black woman, and for Phillis, I don’t think she would be published if she did that at a high level. However, her work is revolutionary. I will forever wonder what she wrote as a free woman, and how she envisioned her career to be. I want people to start talking about her, especially those who are writers and poets of color. In the year of 2019, which is about 246 years later after Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published, I think it’s time to dig into this poet and truly honor her in the way that she hasn’t been honored before.
Just two weeks ago, I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., and I found her exhibit. I was so happy. A few of my colleagues told me last year about her being a part of the history exhibit, and I was grateful to just stare at it for a good five minutes. It’s beautiful to know that she is not forgotten in museums, but I wish there was more I could do. One of my ideas is to see if she can have an honorable headstone at one of the burying grounds in Beacon Hill, or a plaque there in honor of her. It’s so important to me that there’s at least a place other than the Commonwealth, where people can pay their respects to this pioneer.
I currently own four books regarding Phillis, which are The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley , edited by John Shields, the biography I mentioned above by author Vincent Carretta, Wheatley’s full-length book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters by Henry Louis Gates Jr. I hope to document my discoveries and reflections on her over the course of this year and spread the word. She has opened the doors for Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Eve L. Ewing, and many other Black female authors to be taken seriously as a poet.
I’m on a mission to preserve her legacy in Boston, and as a poet, I thank her for inspiring me to not give up on my work or creativity.
An older version of this piece was published on Serina’s blog, The Rina Collective, on April 21, 2018.