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.
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.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
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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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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A newspaper article describing the “barbarous murder” of 11-year old Christopher Snider (Seider).
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The page includes Adams’s accounts of Christopher Seider and the Boston Massacre. He writes, “the year of 1770 was memorable enough...in 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”
“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
Links to additional resources.
- The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin
- The City-State of Boston by Mark Peterson
- Reflecting Attucks by Revolutionary Spaces
- My Eyes never beheld such a funeral by J.L. Bell
- Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South ChurchJeffers 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 TannerIn 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 ...Read more →
- 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 ...Read more →
- 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 ...Read more →
- “Lost Letters”: Phillis Wheatley and John PetersAfter 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.Read more →
- Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston MassacreWe 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 →