“Imagination! who can sing thy force?” a sermon by Nancy S. Taylor, Senior Minister
(The title is a line from Wheatley’s poem, On Imagination)
Note: it was on thus Sunday, during worship, that we presented the Open Door Award to Adrian Walker, long-time metro columnist for the Boston Globe and member of the Spotlight Team that produced Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.
In December of 2017 – just five months ago – the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team produced a seven-part series entitled: Boston. Racism. Image. Reality. The Globe’s promotional materials promised that The Spotlight Team would take on one of Boston’s most vexing issues – racism – asking: does Boston deserve our national image as a place unwelcoming to black people?
The series got the town talking and thinking afresh about race. The series served as a unifying springboard and platform for a renewed city-wide conversation. The series is both spotlight and mirror. Spotlight: shining a bright light on an area of our common life that is difficult and painful and fraught. And Mirror: forcing us to see ourselves more clearly than perhaps we would like to.
We are honored that a member of that Spotlight Team, a long-time columnist for the Globe, Adrian Walker is with us today. We will celebrate and thank him for his body of work in a few minutes.
Nearly 250 years ago, there was another publication that got this town talking about race… another publication that served as both spotlight and mirror.
In the fall of the year 1770, following the death of the controversial, yet wildly popular evangelist, the Rev George Whitefield (of the Great Awakening). Following the evangelists’ sudden death, a poem was published, entitled: An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield.
The Rev. George Whitefield was a celebrity before that word really meant anything. He was his own P.R. and marketing firm and he did a really good job of promoting himself. And, he was every bit the spectacular speaker he claimed to be.
Because church meetinghouses were too small to contain the crowds he drew, he often preached out-of-doors, in great fields, on the Boston Common, to enormous audiences. Moreover, the audiences drawn to Whitfield and his preaching did not, otherwise, attend church. His audiences were composed of the poor, the illiterate, the uneducated, including both white and black, enslaved and free.
George Whitefield preached that enslaved persons and free blacks were equal brothers and sisters in Christ with white folk. Which is to say, George Whitefield and his Great Awakening, named racism as an undeniably Christian problem, a spiritual and moral problem…a problem for which the church will one day have to answer to God.
The poem – An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield – published just after the death of Whitefield, brought fame to its young, unlikely author.
The poem is a stirring eulogy to the great preacher. Written in Victorian-era rhyming verse, the poem shows great facility and fluency with the English language, as well as facility and fluency with biblical and classical literature. In this poem the author dares to claim that the Savior to whom she had been introduced by George Whitefield, shows no partiality between American and African, slave and free. This was Good News indeed!
The author, of course, was African. A girl of seventeen, a child really, black and enslaved. She was an author, moreover, for whom English was a second language, who had no formal schooling.
Phillis Wheatley's poem on the death of the eminent divine, George Whitefield was first published in Boston as a broadside. But it soon found its ways to newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, Newport (RI), Portsmouth (NH), and New London (CT).
Phillis Wheatley’s poem got this town – and this church, her church – talking, thinking, and arguing, and learning about race.
The poem served in its day, in 1770, as both spotlight (illuminating an enormous moral problem festering in the heart of Boston—the problem of slavery) and as a mirror (forcing Bostonians and Christians and our freedom-loving, freedom fighting patriots) to see with some clarity what they had not seen or not wanted to see before.
As Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, wrote about Phillis Wheatley: “… If she had indeed written her own poem” – and, make no mistake about it, there were some who claimed this was not her poem – “then this would demonstrate that Africans were human beings and should be liberated from slavery … Essentially, she was auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people.”
A few years later, due to Phillis Wheatley’s voyage to London and the release, in 1773, of her book of poems, she became for a time the most famous African …known and read and argued about throughout North America and England.
Truth be told Phillis Wheatley’s poetry was not universally applauded. While some scoffed at the possibility that an African girl could write such extraordinary verse … others, ironically, scoffed that it was too awful, too trifling even to qualify as poetry. Which is what happens when you have the temerity to speak into and to write about matters that matter, matters close to the bone, and deeply subversive of society’s status quo.
Mr. Adrian Walker, I have, on occasion, summoned the resolve to read the comments in response to some of your pieces; for instance, the comments written in response to your piece on the naming of Yawkey Way. The comments in the Boston Globe can be vile, mean, crude, rude, and unaccountably sarcastic. It is painful and discouraging to read them. I think you know something about what it feels like to have your work, your writing, your opinions dismissed out of hand or condemned.
So, here is what I say to you today, Mr. Walker: when those comments appear, maybe you will remember that the church of Phillis Wheatley –poet Laurette of the American Revolution, whose body of literary work is the genesis of African American literature – honored you. When the going gets tough and the racists emerge with their ugly bile, maybe you will remember that the church of Samuel Sewall (who in 1700 penned and published the first anti-slavery tract on this soil) and the church of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and the Boston Tea Party, lauded and thanked you, honored and feted you for your courage and insight in facing into one of the thorniest, most intransigent and potent issues before us.
A final word about Phillis Wheatley. As an artist and poet, she is drawn into the world of imagination … of imagining that which is not yet, but might be. However, for Phillis Wheatley, imagination is not primarily an artistic undertaking. It is, first and foremost a profoundly Christian undertaking. She is a devout Congregationalist, a pious Puritan. Phillis Wheatley speaks and writes into a thoroughly Christian world. She holds the church, this church (her own church) and the wider church, as well as the town of Boston and all its freedom-loving patriots accountable to the faith they proclaim, the faith they profess … a biblical faith that, in God’s name, cannot abide slavery; that, in God’s name, renders all God’s children equal.
In the 1770’s and 1780’s Phillis Wheatley wrote poetry to save the soul of the church and to save the soul of the nation. She wrote with the hope and the belief that we were capable of bringing into closer alliance, our image of ourselves and our reality.
c. 1753—December 5, 1784
Poet Laureate of the American Revolution
Birth. Wheatley was likely born in Gambia, Senegal around 1753.
Stolen. At about age 7 she was kidnapped, stolen from her family and her country, suffered the Middle Passage, and arrived in Boston aboard a slaver name The Phillis. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston.
Literacy. By the age of 12, Wheatley was fluent in English and reading Greek and Latin classics as well as difficult passages from the Bible. Influenced heavily by the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, her studies and her writing gravitated toward poetry.
Trial. When white men of the time questioned that this female child from Africa was capable of writing poetry, Wheatley was forced to defend her literary knowledge and ability. She did so successfully. In 1772 a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Rev Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver signed an attestation confirming her authorship. It was included in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Published in London, the book arrived here on the Dartmouth, one of the three ships held up by the Boston Tea Party.
Old South Church. Rather than join the Wheatley’s church, Wheatley asserted her independence and became a member of this church on August 17, 1771 (age 18).
Family. Wheatley married John Peters, a grocer. There is evidence that she was predeceased by two children. Her third child, an infant son, died only hours after her own death. She died at age 31, on December 5, 1784. It is likely that her remains were buried in the Old Granary Burial Grounds in an unmarked grave.
Recognition and legacy: With the publication of her book Wheatley became the most famous African of her time. She was the first African American woman to publish a book and the first to make a living from her writing. Her book generated the genre of African American literature. Voltaire wrote that Wheatley proved that black people could write poetry, while John Paul Jones asked a friend to deliver some personal writings to "Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo”. She was honored by many of America's founding fathers, including George Washington.
There is a building named in Wheatley’s honor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and many more buildings and schools around the country. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed her among the 100 Greatest African Americans. In 2002 Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. featured her story and contributions in the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
Wheatley, alongside Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, is featured in the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall (dedicated on Oct. 25, 2003). Instead of standing on their pedestals, each women ingeniously employs her pedestal for a greater good.