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 starting with a sweetly imploring letter from Peters, who begs her to seriously consider his suit and wishes out loud that he could seek permission from her father to court her in the African way. The character of Phillis responds by teasingly calling him a pretty boy, questioning his work ethic, and wondering whether he can ever truly hold a candle to her father’s memory. The character of Phillis is filmed here in the balcony at the Old South Meeting House in a nod to John’s reference in the poem of admiring Phillis as she sat there, while the character of John speaks from a balcony on the building’s spire overlooking downtown Boston.
In 1778, amid the loss of employment as a result of the deaths of John Wheatley and his daughter Mary, Phillis Wheatley found herself truly on her own. A free woman, she married John Peters, a free Black man, in that same year. How or when the couple met is unclear. Historians speculate the two had children, and if they did, all of them predeceased the couple.
Accounts of John Peters as a “man of notoriety” are largely unsubstantiated, but have fueled interpretations of him as a villain in the poet’s life that led her to financial ruin. Those who have sought to cast him as such point to his imprisonment for debt on multiple occasions and his name appearing in various legal documents and court cases. However, these cannot serve as a true indication of his character. At this time, involvement in court cases was not unusual since legal petitions were the only recourse for recovering disputed monies or obtaining sales licenses. Moreover, it is highly likely that the Peterses, like so many others, were swept up in the financial depression that followed the American Revolution, a time when promises of payment for goods were indefinitely disrupted.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
In this letter, Phillis Wheatley asks Obour Tanner to send any correspondence to John Peters’s residence as, at this point in time, she was preparing to reside with Peters.
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The poet signs this letter Phillis Peters. Though she was an authoress who had published under Phillis Wheatley, she chose to adopt this married surname, the first time she would have been able to choose her name since arriving in Boston as an enslaved girl.
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In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“...Confess Iscarius, let they words be true
Nor let me find a faithless Bird in you...
Saw you not Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly scims the surface of the deep
With pompous form from Boston’s port she came
She flies, and London her resounding name…
And thus the victor takes my life away…”
Links to additional resources.
- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage By Vincent Caretta
- Was Phillis Wheatley’s husband a crook or dreamer? By Vincent Caretta
- How Phillis Wheatley was Recovered Through History By Elizabeth Winkler
- 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 →