Positives can be found in history’s negatives

By Jim Lee

Slavery did not confine itself to the South. Massachusetts, for example, tolerated slavery over 140 years. In 1641, it became the first colony to legally recognize slavery.
Some of the “founding fathers” at Plymouth Rock probably became slave owners. The city of Boston had a thriving slave market long before places like Atlanta or New Orleans. Yes, people came in bondage to the birthplace of abolition.
Why do I pick on Boston? Well, I’m not really picking on Boston. I’m not even trying to get negative. As a matter of fact, this setting is the locale of an inspiring story, the story of an individual who managed to make her brilliant mind and considerable talent shine through adversity we can only imagine.
The Boston slave market, possibly the slave ship itself, sold an 8-year-old girl to John and Susanna Wheatley in 1761. Wheatley was a well-to-do tailor and bought the child as an attendant for his wife. They decided to call her Phillis. Kidnapped by slave traders in Senegal or Gambia, here she was: a little girl in a totally alien environment surrounded by authority figures speaking a foreign language.
Not only did Phillis learn the language, she was reading and writing English within 16 months. Then she quickly immersed herself in reading the Bible. When not reading the Bible, she studied British literature, astronomy, geography, and history. By the time she was 12 she was reading the Greek and Latin classics. She could converse on equal footing (or higher) with educated colonials. Too sickly for menial labor, her charm made her more a household member than a servant, but she knew her “place.” The Wheatleys forbade her associating with other slaves but allowed her to visit with their friends, an unusual “place” for a slave.
From the extensive reading, and from educating herself well past the level of most educated whites, Phillis developed an interest in writing poetry. She eventually became one of the most well-known poets in America. Her first publication was at the age of 14. A few years later a collection of 39 of her poems was published as a book (”Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”) She found her publisher in London — Boston publishers turned her down because of her skin color.
She did not write about racial injustice, excluding a poem containing these lines: “Some view our sable race with scornful eye,/Their color is a diabolic dye./Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,/May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.”
The Wheatleys eventually freed her and, in 1778, she married John Peters, a freed slave who was a lawyer and businessman. They had three children. Unable to support his family, Peters abandoned them. Working as a scullery maid because black female poets and writers were not wanted, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty (some say of starvation) at age 31. Her youngest child died the same day. They were buried together in an unmarked grave.
I don’t mean to pick on Boston or solely concentrate on racism. On the contrary, rather than seeing only the negative, we can find inspiration here. A fellow human being achieved greatness in the face of certain defeat. Nothing negative about that. As we close Black History Month for this year, pause and reflect on the contribution of Phillis Wheatley to the culture and pride of all Americans.
Greatness deserves remembrance.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: