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The Age of Phillis

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Notes From Black Reads

A stunning way to honor the extraordinary life of Phillis Wheatley. Unlike a typical biography, Jeffers uses poetry to give us the details of Wheatley’s life and experiences—a poet honoring another poet through verse. Jeffers’ words are more rich than any painting. They are more heartfelt than a narrative. They create a picture that helps us hear the words “please do not forget me.”

Poems imagine the life and times of Phillis Wheatley Peters

NAACP Image Award Winner for Outstanding Literary Work for Poetry
2020 National Book Award for Poetr
y, Longlist
2020 LA Times Book Award Finalist

In 1773, a young, African American woman named Phillis Wheatley Peters published a book of poetry that challenged Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Based on fifteen years of archival research, The Age of Phillis, by award-winning writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, imagines the life and times of Wheatley: her childhood in the Gambia, West Africa, her life with her white American owners, her friendship with Obour Tanner, and her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters. Woven throughout are poems about Wheatley's "age"—the era that encompassed political, philosophical, and religious upheaval, as well as the transatlantic slave trade. For the first time in verse, Wheatley's relationship to black people and their individual "mercies" is foregrounded, and here we see her as not simply a racial or literary symbol, but a human being who lived and loved while making her indelible mark on history.

mothering #1
Yaay, Someplace in the Gambia, c. 1753

the after-birth
is delivered
the mother stops
holding her breath
the mid-wife gives
what came before
her just-washed pain
her insanity pain
an undeserved pain
a God-given pain
oh oh oh pain
drum-talking pain
witnessing pain
a mother offers
You this gift
prays You find
it acceptable
her living pain
her creature pain
her pretty-little-baby

ISBN-13: 9780819579508

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Publication Date: 03-01-2022

Pages: 232

Product Dimensions: 8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series

HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS is a poet whose work examines culture, religion, history, and family. She is the author of four other books of poetry, including The Glory Gets, and the recipient of the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. An elected member of the American Antiquarian Society, she teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma where she is a professor of English.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"There are few historically consequential poets whose lives are rooted so deeply beneath the bloody red sea and the bloody red, white, and blue shores of America as that of Phillis Wheatley. The excavation and the telling of her complicated tremendous life, that has everything to do with how we have come to know each other, eye to eye, in this 21st century, would take a lifetime of research and the courageous delicate use of every light-filled exacting tool a poet could hold in her hand. The work of a lifetime is exactly what Honoree Jeffers, poet extraordinaire of her time, has accomplished in The Age of Phillis, a poetry book that gentles to the page the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, America's first published Black woman poet. It is a book teeming and timeless with the long-overlooked, the sparkling unknown, the ancillary biographical, the nuanced historical, the mighty minutiae, and the critical antidotal. We need this Genius Child reader in our open hands right now."—Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split: Poems

"With passion and epic precision, Honorée Jeffers renders Phillis Wheatley's unprecedented predicament and genius in rich and kaleidoscopic fashion. It was Phillis Wheatley's task, as both poet and American slave, to limn the dream of freedom and to move toward it with her whole being. While remaining alive to the racial labyrinths and justice-cries of the present, Jeffers reminds us that our enslaved ancestors continue to speak to us and through us. This masterful book is a fountain of spirited dedication and lucid reclamation, and contemporary American poetry is richer for it."—Cyrus Cassells, author of The Gospel according to Wild Indigo

"Jeffers delivers history with a gut-punch in her sweeping overview of the late eighteenth century, the Atlantic slave trade, and the life of Phillis Wheatley. Empathy, deep research, and a keen intellect expand every poem. Diamond-faceted, Jeffers' poems go beyond mere facts and drive the imagination into searing truth."—Janice. N. Harrington, author of Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin

"We have worried about Phillis for so long. Pitied her. Puzzled over her. But only Honorée Jeffers had the wisdom, patience, and power to go get her, to put the girl-poet-woman between her knees, comb out the knots, and anoint her head with pain and glory. The Age of Phillis is the finest work on early African-American life I've ever read. More than that, it is a bold rewriting and righting of American history as a story of little girls stolen and grown women determined to gather them in to homes made of out of words, love, loss, beauty, courage, and cunning. This is a book to be taught, studied, held, absorbed, and treasured."—Joanna Brooks, PhD, award-winning author or editor of ten books on American race, religion, and colonialism, including American Lazarus and Why We Left

Table of Contents


Prolouge: Mother/Muse

"An Issue of Mercy #1"

Book: Before

"mothering #1"

"Fathering #1"

"Dafa Rafet"

"First-Time Prayer"

"Before the Taking of Goonay"

"Baay's Moan with Chorus"

"Entreaty: Yaay"

"An Issue of Mercy #2"

Muse: Vessel


Book: Journey

"Point of No Return"

"The Transatlantic Progress of Sugar in the Eighteenth Century"

"Illustration of "Stowage of the British Slave Ship 'Brookes' Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788"

"According to the Testimony to the Grand Jury of Newport, Rhode Island by the Sailor John Cranston, After Throwing a Negro Woman (Referred to as Wench) into the Sea, James D'Wolfe, the Captain of the Slave Ship Polly, Mourned the Loss of the Good Chair to Which He Had Strapped His Victim"

List: Water

"slave mutiny aboar the jolly bachelor"

Blues: Odysseus

Muse: Memory

"The Lady Mneme"

Book: After

"Still Life with God #1"

"Mothering #2"

"Fathering #2"

"Lost Letter #1: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to Susannah Wheatley, Boston Desk of Mary Wheatley, Where She Might Have Taught the Child Phillis to Read"

"Phillis Wheatley Tends to the Child Phillis in Her Asthmatic Suffering"

Muse: Embodiment

"The Definitions of Hagar Blackmore"

Book: Awakening

"The Reverend George Whitefield, Prominent Minister of What Will Be Known as the First Great Awakening, Accepts a Gift of Slaves in the Colony of Georgia"

"the mistress attempts to instruct her slave in writing a poem"

"Susannah and Phillis Wheatley Arrive at the Home of Ruth Barrell Andrews for a Discussion and Recitation of Poems"

"Lost Letter #4: "Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to Mary Wheatley Lathrop, Boston Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church"

"Lost Letter#5: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to Obour Tanner, Newport"

"Lost Letter# 6: Samson Occom, Mohegan, to Samson Wheatley, Boston"

"Lost Letter #7: Susannah Wheatley, Boston, to Samson Occom, Mohegan"

"Lost Letter #8: Obour Tanner, Newport, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"Christian Sermon Translated in Juba"

Muse: Affirmation

"The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman"

Book: Enlightenment

"Blues: Offspring Follows Belly"

"The Reverend Cotton Mather's Enslaved Servant Onesimus, a Coromantee, Teaches His Master about Smallpox Inoculation, a Practice of His Tribe in His Former Homeland"

"The African-German Philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo Returns to His Home in West Africa to Become a Sage and (Possibly) a Goldsmith"

"Petrus Camper Takes the Measure of the Skull of a Dead Negro for the Purposes of Scientific Discovery"

"the beautiful and the sublime"

"Three Cases Decided by William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield and Chief Justice of the King's Bench"

"Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, Free Mulatto, and Her White Cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray, Both Great-Nieces of William Murray, Lord Mansfield"

"Found Poem: Racism"

"Lost Letter #9: Olaudah Equiano, London to Queen-Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Windsor Castle"

Muse: Covening

"Chorus of the Mothers-Griotte"

Book: Astral

"Thomas Woolridge Demands that Phillis Wheatley Instantly Compose a Poem in Honor of His Friend, the Right Honorable Earl of Dartmouth"

"Lost Letter #10: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to Obour Tannerm Newport"

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

"Found Poem: Attestation"

"Bon Voyage"

"Phillis Wheatley in London Town"

"A Mungo Macaroni, or, Illustration of a Well-Dressed Black Englishman"

"Lost letter #11: Mary Wheatley Lathrop, Boston, to Phillis Wheatley, London"

"Lost Letter #12: Phillis Wheatley, London, to Obour Tanner, Newport"

"Lost Letter #13: Phillis Wheatley, London, to Susanna Wheatley, Boston"

"Lost Letter #14: Nathaniel Wheatley, London, to Susannah Wheatley, Boston"

Muse: Plenty

"The Journey of Ona Judge, Enslaved Servant of Martha, Wife of President George Washington"

Book: Love

"Portrait of the Female Negro Artist as a Free African Woman"

"Lost Letter #15: John Peters, Boston, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"Lost Letter #16: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to John Peters, Boston"

"Lost Letter #17: Susannah Wheatley, Boston, to Phillis Wheatley"

"Lost Letter #18: John Thornton, London, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"Lost Letter #19: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to John Peters, Boston"

"Lost Letter #20: John Thornton, London, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"The Poet Jupiter Hammon rejects the Need for the Revolutionary War"

Book: Revolution

"(Original) Black Lives Matter"

" Blues: Harpsichord, or, the Boston Massacre"

"Felix (of Unknown Last Name) Writes to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in Boston, Asking for the Freedom of All Slaves"

"Lemuel Haynes, Son of an Englishwoman and an African, Future Minister, and Former Indentured Servitude, Joins the Minutemen"

"Fragment #1 of a First Letter Draft: Abigail Adams, Boston, to John Adams, Philadelphia"

"Salem Poor Fights at the Battle of Bunker Hill"

" Fragment #2 of a First Letter Draft: Phillis Wheatley, Providence, to George Washington"

"Lord Dunmore Decides to Offer Freedom to Slaves To Fight on the Loyalist Side in the Rebellion Against His Majesty, King George III"

"General George Washington Reads a Poem and Letter He Received from Phillis Wheatley"

"General George Washington Allows the Enlistment of Free (though Not Enslaved) Negros in the Continental Army"

"Smallpox Decimates the Ranks of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Loyalist Regiment, Camped on Land and Sea by the Rebellious Colony of Virginia"

"An Issue of Mercy #3"

"Harry Washington, a Negro Runaway of General George Washington, Reports to Sir Guy Carleton, Commander-in-Chief of the Loyalist Forces and Recorder of the Book of Negros"

"The Death of Former President George Washington"

"black sortue: a redoublé, a remix"

Muse: Blessing/Curse

"For the First of Several Times, Belinda Sutton, Former Slave of the House of Isaac Royall, Petitions the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a Pension in her Old Age"

Book: Liberty

"Prince Hall Speaks of Holy Secrets"

" Lost Letter #21: John Peters, Boston, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"Lost Letter #22: Phillis Wheatley, Boston, to Obour Tanner, Newport"

"Still Life with God #2"

"Lost Letter #23: Obour Tanner, Newport, to Phillis Wheatley, Boston"

"After Living Together for Several Months, Phillis Wheatley and Her Betrothed John Peters Finally Marry"

"Phillis Peters Prepares a Proposal to Publish Another Book of Poetry"

"Lost Letter #24: Obour Tanner, Newport to Phillis Peters, Boston"

"Lost Letter #25: From Phillis Peters, Boston, to Obour Tanner in Newport"

"Lost Letter #26: Phillis Peters, Boston, to Hohn Peters, Boston-Gaol"

"Lost Letter #27: John Peters, Boston-Gaol, to Phillis Peters, Boston"

"Found Poem: Intergration"

Epilogue: Mother {Muse} Daughter

"Homegoing, or , the Crossing Over of Goonay, Lately Known as Phillis Wheatley Peters"

Acknowledgemnts and Dedications

Selected Bibliography