This short piece was written to a prompt in an AWA class.
I have come, unwilling, afraid. A sticky heat. An unmooring. A destruction. A pale lady pats my cheek, making bird sounds. “Ooh! Ooh!” She turns to a man, the colors of his jacket, a glaring affront after the dark hold, the grey sea.
“Susanna, no! Be reasonable, my dear.” He clomps along the dock, pats another on the head. “Like her. What about her?”
But Pale Lady kneels. Now my chin is in her hands. I clutch the carpet scrap around my shoulders. It is filthy. Whether she chooses me for good or for ill, is impossible to know.
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The man with the bag of coins approaches. He knows a buyer when he sees one. “She’s yours for a trifle,” he announces and husband hands over a few bob. It’s likely he, the seller, thought the girl about to die. Any money was better than none. And then Susanna Wheatley, her husband, and the newly purchased girl clambered aboard a carriage to take them the few blocks from the wharf to Boston manse.
The enthusiasm his wife exhibits puzzles John Wheatley until he realizes that the dark-skinned skinny girl looks to be just the age their Sarah was when she died. Seven years old. This girl is missing her front teeth, just as Sarah had been. Their poor, dear Sarah, taken by the pox before even her grown teeth came in. So this vanity purchase — what else to call it? — driven by a grief-soaked nostalgia, would have to be tolerated.
“Mary will teach her Latin,” Susanna gushed on the ride home. Her husband tucked his chin down to dissemble, the enthusiastic plan striking him as pathetic, absurd.
“We shall call her Phillis,” he said. “After the ship.”
A thriving servant. They refused the moniker, ‘slave’ — as if to do so made a difference. She, the slave Phillis, took to words like a duck to water. John Wheatley’s tolerance, a state he expected to be brittle and difficult to maintain, transformed into pride. The little darkie had something of genius about her and how well the white ruffles of her cotton lawn cap framed that Senegambian face! Her teeth grew in. She mastered English and not just Latin, but Greek as well. So proud, so possessive but willing to share were the Wheatleys, that they found a printer on State Street who rolled plates with ink, plates with their Phillis’s words on them and he, the printer, printed them. Poems.
A council was convened. John Hancock, a short man with a bit of bluster (to put it nicely), the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, Samuel Mather, others — their one purpose to determine the authorship of the folio. Surely, it could not be her? A slave! A collection of precise poems filled with lofty and literary images, language suitable for the illustrious poets of the age.
But, never mind all that for now! After gently, reverently nodding to Toni and Maya in the shadows, let us call forth that skinny black girl with a gift of the tongue — Phillis Wheatley — for she, too, must be on the Capitol steps today, beaming with pride.
Look at how this current orator’s yellow coat glows with promise! See how the red satin head band across her crown and the beads elegantly tucked among her braids, speak to the past that she calls upon us to repair. She, Amanda Gorman, can certainly speak with authority about the ‘belly of the beast’ — just as Phillis could have (but didn’t) lament the belly of the slave trading ship, the Phillis. Imagine being named after the vessel that ruptured and destroyed your former life! Imagine being poked with that perpetual reminder. “Phillis! Oh, Phillis! Come here!” “Phillis! Say it again, more slowly this time.”
If a ‘skinny black girl descended from slaves’ can position herself on the side of hope and mercy, surely we comfortable white people can do the same? Certainly, we must do better than we have done? We’ve all suffered these long-lasting four years, ‘bruised but whole,’ as the young poet says, a twenty-two year old who might as well be descended from Phillis Wheatley, herself. Seek harm to none she, Amanda, sang and: repair the past.
On a day we stumblers of the 21st century thought would never come, at this tattered end of a vulgar destruction that wrecked even the experience of time, let us take the words of the young poet into our hearts! Let us honor her lineage and what she says about the future! And then let us take her words back out onto the streets and continue the fight because as she, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, pointed out in incandescent glory — we are unfinished.
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* references: Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi; The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, America’s First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.;a history docent in Lexington, Mass. who characterized John Hancock as “an asshole;” as well, of course: the inaugural reading by Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb.
** It is not true that Wheatley was published in Boston. No one dared touch her work. She had to go to England to find a printer.