Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston Massacre

In Context | Primary Sources | In Phillis’s Words | Artist Insights | Further Reading

We think of the Boston Massacre as the start of the American Revolution. In Jeffers’s hands, it becomes a moment to call out the hypocrisy of white colonists in comfortable circumstances who protested their “enslavement” by the British even as they held Blacks in bondage. The poem also reflects on the harsh realities of street protests and the continual sacrifice of Black men, including Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native descent who was the first to fall at the Massacre. This piece was filmed in front of the Old State House in Boston, just across the street from where the Massacre took place in 1770.

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In Context


On March 5, 1770, Boston was rocked by the “Bloody Massacre on King Street,” later immortalized as the Boston Massacre, an event viewed today as a turning point on the road to the American Revolution. The deadly incident was the culmination of an overwhelming British military occupation of Boston and “imposed” taxation that prompted disgruntled, heated protests from Massachusetts colonists. One of the more immediate factors that helped to precipitate the Massacre was the death of 11-year old Christopher Snider (or Seider), who was killed at the end of February by Ebeneezer Richardson, Customs House official and Loyalist. Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem about Snider’s death, which had provoked a widespread outpouring of anger on the part of the colonists.

Five men lost their lives in the skirmish between civilians and British soldiers that night, including Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native descent. Accounts of Attucks’s life are fragmented -- if sources are correct, he grew up in the Framingham area, escaped slavery as a young man, and spent his adult life working at sea. On that fateful, snowy March evening, Attucks marched toward the Old State House to confront the British troops on King Street and fell after two musket balls pierced his chest. Generations of African Americans have called on the memory of Attucks as the “first martyr of liberty” to advocate for civil rights.

Primary Sources

Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.

Revolutionary Spaces, Reproduction of the Original Coroner’s Report, dated March 6, 1770
This report indicates that “Michael Johnson” died of two musket balls to the chest. Within days, newspapers in Philadelphia and Boston identified Michael Johnson as Crispus Attucks. The alias was likely used by Attucks to avoid re-enslavement.
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The Boston Gazette, Reproduction by Revolutionary Spaces of a Runaway Slave Advertisement that offers a reward for slave “Crispas”
It is not known if “Crispas” was ever found. He may have fled to Boston, where a large number of African-descended people lived.
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The Boston Gazette, Digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society
A newspaper article describing the “barbarous murder” of 11-year old Christopher Snider (Seider).
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Autobiography of John Adams
The page includes Adams’s accounts of Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre. He writes, “the year of 1770 was memorable the evening on the fifth of March...On the street we were informed that the British soldiers had fired…”
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In Phillis’s Words

Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.

“In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed
To clear the country of the hated brood
He whet his courage for the common good…”
“...Be Richardson for ever banish’d here
The grand Usurpers bravely vaunted Heir.
We bring the body from the wat’ry bower
To lodge it where it shall remove no more
Snider behold with what Majestic Love
The Illustrious retinue begins to move
With Secret rage fair freedoms foes beneath
See in thy corse ev’n Majesty in Death”

Artist Insights

“Reading Blues: Harpsichord, or, Boston Massacre made me emotional. I visualized every bit of it during our recording process and it hurt my heart. We walk through this world carrying so much of the residual pain of our ancestors and negotiating the systemic injustices that continue to this day. But the session also made me feel strong. How gorgeous we are. How much they have taken from us yet we survive, and we thrive.

These past weeks, our Indigenous community has been in collective grief with the confirmation of unmarked and mass graves of thousands of Indigenous babies and children. We all knew of these hidden truths but the reality has been most unbearable. We mourn our stolen and murdered, and those relatives who have survived incredible trauma. It is important in these times to remember and acknowledge our strength and our continuance, and to work fiercely toward making a better world for our children.”
Tailinh Agoyo, Female Voice in Blues: Harpsichord, or, Boston Massacre

BRANDON G. GREEN (Man) is Boston-based artist and educator from Selma, AL. Recent stage credits: Sweat (Chris) with Huntington Theatre Company, Black Odyssey: Boston (Ulysses) with Front Porch Arts Collective, and Nat Turner In Jerusalem (Nat) with Actors Shakespeare Project. Recipient of the Elliot Norton Award for Best Actor for Company One/Arts Emerson's production of An Octoroon and Best Ensemble for Black Odyssey Boston and Sweat. Voice Over: "The Ordinary Epic" as Marcus/Benedict; "The 54th in '22" as Greg. The product of a village of educators, Brandon has proudly taught at various high schools and universities throughout the Boston area. All love to Actor 6. Alabama State University - BA. Brandeis University - MFA. ILYLG.

TAILINH AGOYO (Voice in "Boston Massacre") is co-founder and director of We Are the Seeds of Culture Trust, a non-profit organization committed to uplifting and amplifying Indigenous voices through the arts. Tailinh has worked as an actor in film and television for over 30 years. She is a proud mom to four beautiful children.

HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS (Poet) is the author of five poetry books, including The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan 2020), long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award and winner of the 2021 NAACP Image Award in Poetry. In addition, Jeffers has authored one forthcoming novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper 2021).  She has received fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. Currently, she is the 2021 USA Mellon Fellow in Writing.  Jeffers is Professor of English at University of Oklahoma.

JOHN OLUWOLE ADEKOJE (Director) is a national award winner of The Kennedy Center's ACTF Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for the play Street Hawker; as well as a recipient of The Roxbury International Film Festival's Emerging Local Filmmaker Award for the documentary Street Soldiers, which also showed at the Pan African Film Festival in Cannes, France, The World Film Festival-Montreal, and the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta. ADEkoje has received the Brother Thomas Fellowship Award and he is a playwriting Fellow at the Huntington Theater Company. Most recently, he was awarded the Emerging Filmmaker Award for Knockaround Kids, his narrative feature, at the Roxbury International Film Festival which all showed at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. Knockaround Kids can be found on Tubi, Amazon prime, Google Play, Apple and other film platforms. ADEkoje is the co-director and director of photography for the digital version of Hype Man (Company One/American Repertory Theatre) as well as the writer, director and projection/art designer for the Triggered Life Project (Portland Playhouse). He teaches film production and theatre at Boston Arts Academy.

PATRICK GABRIDGE (Producer) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter whose work has been read and produced around the world. With his company Plays in Place he creates new site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites, including Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston’s Old State House, Old South Meeting House, and Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.

Further Reading

Links to additional resources.

Other Films

  • Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church
    Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church
    Jeffers imagines Wheatley Peters’ thoughts at the moment of her baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans.
    Read more →
  • Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner
    Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner
    In this pairing of poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley. The two women shared the traumatic experience of enslavement and the perilous Middle Passage, and the challenge of holding on to their identities as African women even as their masters demanded that they build new lives in New ...
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  • How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men...
    How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men…
    As Phillis Wheatley sought to publish her first book, there were many who doubted that an enslaved Black woman was capable of such an accomplishment. Jeffers here imagines the courage it likely took 20-year-old Wheatley to face down their judgment and manage the balancing act of intellect and subservience that was likely required to secure ...
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  • The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)
    The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)
    Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781. In this poem, Jeffers imagines her speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word ...
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  • "Lost Letters": Phillis Wheatley and John Peters
    “Lost Letters”: Phillis Wheatley and John Peters
    After she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship.
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  • Blues:  Harpsichord, or Boston Massacre
    Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston Massacre
    We think of the Boston Massacre as the start of the American Revolution. In Jeffers’s hands, it becomes a moment to call out the hypocrisy of white colonists in comfortable circumstances who protested their “enslavement” by the British even as they held Blacks in bondage.
    Read more →