The Visionary Poetry of
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
For many, Phillis Wheatley Peters is well known as a poet, but not as a woman. She is mainly remembered as a literary prodigy and enslaved girl in 18th century Boston who became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry.
Poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers sought to revive and expand our collective memory of Phillis through her award-winning book The Age of Phillis. Jeffers’s evocative work calls on us to imagine Phillis through her other identities: a daughter of Africa, a friend, a wife, a mother, and an author who spoke to the historical moment of the American Revolution.
250th Anniversary of Phillis Wheatley’s Baptism
Hear reflections from four different Black women leaders on the enduring legacy of her writing, her faith, and her voice.
Revolutionary Spaces commissioned a short film series called Imagining the Age of Phillis to bring a selection of the poems from Jeffers’s book to life. Directed by John Oluwole ADEkoje and produced by Patrick Gabridge of Plays in Place, the series was filmed on location in Boston at our two sites — Old South Meeting House, where Phillis was a member of the congregation, and the Old State House, down the road from the Wheatley family home.
We hope Jeffers’s work and these films inspire you to dig deeper into the history. With each short film, we’ve included a variety of resources that offer opportunities to expand your understanding of Phillis Wheatley Peters and the time in which she lived.
Watch the Films
- 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 →
A Brief Timeline of the Life of Phillis Wheatley Peters
On July 11, 1761, a young enslaved girl, aged around 7 or 8, landed in Boston after a grueling journey from West Africa. Sickly and frail, she was named Phillis for the schooner that brought her to North America, and given the last name Wheatley, for the family that purchased her. John Wheatley, a prominent merchant, and Susanna Wheatley, his wife, lived on busy King Street at the heart of Boston’s social, economic, and political life. It was in the Wheatley home that this child prodigy honed her literary skills, fed by the intellectual activity at the center of town and by deep connections with religion and the church.
Phillis Wheatley composed her first known writings at the young age of about 12, and throughout 1765-1773, she continued to craft lyrical letters, eulogies, and poems on religion, colonial politics, and the classics that were published in colonial newspapers and shared in drawing rooms around Boston. In 1772, she sought to publish her first book of collected poems. At the time, authors were often the driving force in the publication of their work, and had to secure financial commitments from a group of individual subscribers to convince a publisher to print the work. Despite multiple advertisements in the Boston Censor in early 1772, she was not able to reach the 300 subscriber threshold needed to get the book into print.
Susanna and Phillis Wheatley then turned their attention overseas. Phillis Wheatley traveled to London to visit various English elites from June to July 1773, accompanied by Nathaniel, Susanna and John Wheatley’s son. While they intended to meet Phillis Wheatley’s publishing patroness, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, the two would unfortunately never connect; Wheatley left London toward the end of July 1773, purportedly due to Susanna Wheatley’s failing health.
Still, the trip likely reaped some rewards for Wheatley. Throughout 1773-1774, copies of Phillis Wheatley’s poems were published in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and a London-based publisher printed her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in the fall of 1773, officially making her the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry.
By October 1773, Phillis Wheatley was back in Boston, where she was now a free woman waiting ardently for copies of her books to arrive. “Since my return to America, my Master has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom,” she writes to Colonel David Wooster. In an odd coincidence, her books arrived in December 1773 on the Dartmouth, one of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party.
In early 1774, Susanna Wheatley passed. Phillis Wheatley continued to work in the Wheatley household until 1778, when John Wheatley and his daughter Mary both died. In November 1778, she married John Peters, a free Black man. Information about Peters is woefully fragmented. Like many at the time, the couple experienced consistent financial hardship in the wake of the post-Revolutionary War economic depression. Records show that John Peters was in debt and Phillis failed to secure subscribers for a second book of poetry in both 1779 and 1784. It is speculated that the couple had children, all of whom predeceased them.
Wheatley Peters passed away due to unknown causes at the end of 1784. An obituary from December of that year reads: “Phillis Peters formerly Phillis Wheatley aged 31, known to the literary world by her celebrated miscellaneous poems. Her funeral is to be this afternoon…” The manuscript for her second volume of poems was lost and never published. Though Phillis was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is lost to history, her words and legacy are forever remembered and interpreted by scholars and writers.
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