How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval...

How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men of Boston to Publish Her Book of Poetry

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

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. It has been suggested that she was questioned in person by some of Boston’s most prominent men; it is undoubtedly true that her book contains a statement from prominent town leaders vouching for her work. 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 their approval. This poem was filmed in the Council Chamber at the Old State House, where two of the men who signed the statement — Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver — would have met with members of the Massachusetts legislature.

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In Context


In September 1773, a London-based advertisement for Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects featured an October 1772 “attestation,” a document signed by 18 “up-standing” gentlemen from the American colonies confirming that these poems were indeed written by a young African woman who was enslaved in Boston.

The attestation has fueled speculation in some quarters that Wheatley was subjected to an in-person, all-male inquisition. However, more recent scholarship theorizes that her poems indeed may have undergone a reading examination by “the best Judges who think them worth of the Publick View'' in February 1772 as part of a publication proposal to secure subscribers, but it is unlikely Phillis Wheatley herself was interrogated.

It is also likely that this attestation was a publisher’s marketing tool that connected the poet and her intellect to some of the most learned men in New England at the time. Historians have pointed out, however, that many names on the attestation are of those that are related by blood or marriage to the Wheatleys. Phillis Wheatley herself never wrote specifically addressing the attestation.

Primary Sources

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

Library of Congress, Copy of the Attestation dated October 1772 and published in September 1773
The attestation, though first printed as an advertisement, was included in the first publications of her book.
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Library of Congress, The Boston Censor dated February 29, 1772
This periodical provides judgement on Phillis Wheatley’s work. Though not currently digitized, however, it is available through the Library of Congress’s Microform Reader Services here.
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Phillis Wheatley’s Writing Desk, dated 1760
This is the desk where Phillis would have penned the same poems that were questioned and examined by these eighteen white men.
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In Phillis’s Words

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

“...Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?...
...But I reluctantly leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.”

Artist Insights

SABRINA VICTOR (Phillis Wheatley Peters) currently reigns as Miss Massachusetts USA 2020. She is an artist of many fields - actor, arts activist, model, content creator, social media influencer, and speaker. Theater credits include: The Donkey Show (American Repertory Theatre), School Girls, Or; The African Mean Girls Play (SpeakEasy Stage), and Miss You Like Hell(Company One). Sabrina graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with two undergraduate degrees in Theater and Journalism, a Multicultural Theater Certificate, and Commonwealth Honors.

CHERYL D. SINGLETON (Elizabeth Freeman / Female Voice in Approval) is very pleased to be working again with Plays in Place, having previously appeared in The America Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Cheryl is a professional actress and arts leader with stage, screen, television and voice-over experience. Some of her credits include performances with: Front Porch Arts; Theatre On Fire; Lyric Stage Co.; New Repertory Theatre; Wheelock Family Theater; Gloucester Stage; Boston Playwright’s Theater; Commonwealth Shakespeare; American Repertory Theatre & Zeitgeist Stage; as well as productions with Ryan Landry and The Gold Dust Orphans, Queer Soup and ImprovBoston. A proud member of Actors’ Equity and StageSource, Cheryl serves on three arts boards in the Boston community.

MARC PIERRE (John Peters / Male Voice in Approval) Most recent credits include Emmy  and Absolution (Skeleton Rep), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Huntington Theatre Company), Three Musketeers (Greater Boston Stage Company), Cardboard Piano (New Repertory Theatre), Fences (Florida Repertory Theatre), Gloria (Gamm Theatre), Brawler (Kitchen Theatre Company), Airness (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Milk Like Sugar (Huntington Theatre Company), When January Feels Like Summer (Central Square Theater), Peter and the Starcatcher (Lyric Stage Company), and The Flick (Gloucester Stage). Television and film credits include "Castle Rock" (Hulu) and Twelve (Radar Pictures). Mr. Pierre is a recipient of the Isabel Sanford Scholarship and holds a BFA from Emerson College.

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 ...
    Read more →
  • 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 ...
    Read more →
  • "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.
    Read more →
  • 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 →