Phillis WheatleyMay’s hottie (just in the nick of time) is Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784), an eighteenth-century African-American woman who was a slave and a poet. While PJ and I were in Boston last week, we saw the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue, a series of three statues of Bostonian women: Wheatley, Abigail Adams, and Lucy Stone.

Wheatley was the first black American to be published. She is also credited with originating the genres of African-American poetry and African-American women’s literature. She was born in Africa and kidnapped and sold into slavery when she was about 7-years-old. She was purchased by a Boston tailor and quickly learned English and how to read and write.

Her poems, which were mostly about religious subjects, were first published in England, since no one in America was willing to print them. In fact, Americans initially doubted that a slave woman could have written these poems, and so Wheatley was subjected to an interrogation by several prominent Bostonian men to determine whether she did indeed write them. They concluded that she did.

This poem, which gives a taste of her work, is inscribed on the memorial:

Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

As eighteenth-century British literature scholars and teachers attempt to diversify our canon, Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano have begun being included in anthologies of British literature. While her work (and Equiano’s autobiography) is admirable for its literary achievement and historical significance, it seems a bit of a stretch to include her in an eighteenth-century British literature course.

Wheatley died young: she was only about 31-years-old. Despite her acclaim as a poet, she died in poverty while working as a scullery maid in a boarding house. Not only is she an important figure in American history and literature, but she is now also May’s hottie of the month!

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