A true story.
A girl is on trial. She is a teen-aged girl, small-boned, thin, petite, asthmatic. A wisp of a thing.
Across from her sit her judge and jury: a self-appointed judge and jury comprised of eighteen men. And not just any men: these are men at the full height of their physical and mental powers—men of means, men of stature, men of learning, men of consequence … men with degrees from Boston Latin and Harvard. They are statesmen, scholars, clergy, poets, merchants, and lawyers.
The girl is alone. Her parents, family and homeland are an ocean away … more than an ocean … they are worlds away. The girl doesn’t dare look at the eighteen men who are assembled to judge her. She looks down. She sits stiff and motionless, terrified.
The year: 1772. The town: Boston. Population: about 16,000. The room they are in? We cannot be sure, but perhaps in Boston’s Town Hall. It is likely they are assembled in the Governor’s Chambers.
The purpose of this trial? The crime of which she is accused? The girl has been accused of plagiarism … well, not so much accused as supposed. You see, there is no evidence to present. She claims to have written some poems. The men claim she cannot have.
On what to do these men base their supposition? On this:
That she is a girl who has not had the privilege of a single day of formal schooling.
That, although the poems are written in English, peppered with Latin and spiced with classical allusions, English and Latin are this girl’s second and third languages … neither of which she had heard or heard of for the first seven or eight years of her life.
Most of all, the suspicion and accusation that she could not possibly have written the poems she claims to have written hang on this: her skin is black. She is an African, an enslaved person … and supposed, by these men of learning, but a little higher than the animals, incapable of reflection.
At the time of this trial it is supposed by many people of light skin that people of dark skin are a lesser bread. Such was the judgment of Descartes. Such is the assessment of Kant and Hume, philosophers engaged in the vexing question of what sort of creature, what sort of species these Africans are. If they are subhuman, as these great philosophers suppose, then they are incapable of poetry.
That is what is at stake in this trial. It is not merely about this single, teen-aged girl. As Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, wrote about this trial:
“… If she had indeed written her own poems, 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.”2
Dr. Gates goes on to claim that this trial was “… one of the most dramatic contests over literacy, authenticity, and humanity in the history of race relations in this country.”
Phillis Wheatley, a young enslaved person, a member of Old South Church, is on trial. So is slavery. So are African people. And so, too, are their self-appointed masters on trial. For if this girl can read, write and reason, then these men are wrong, egregiously, shamefully, appallingly wrong.
But, let’s step back for a minute.
Who are these men, this judge and jury? I won’t go through the entire list. Let me name just a few.
His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of the Colony, present.
The Honorable Andrew Oliver, Lieutenant Governor, present.
The Hon. Thomas Hubbard, a deacon at Old South Church in Boston, present. Hubbard, by the way traffics in slaves. You can imagine where his sympathies lie.
The Hon. James Bowdoin, a published poet: present. A great friend of Benjamin Franklin, Bowdoin would become governor a decade hence.
John Hancock, Esq.: present. He is a member of a prominent Boston family. A patriot, he would serve as the third president of the Continental Congress. He would become a signer of the Declaration of Independence and would do two stints as governor.
Joseph Green, Esq.: present. Green is a merchant who owns one of the largest libraries in Boston. He is among Boston’s most erudite men of letters.
The Rev. Charles Chauncy, pastor at the First Church of Boston: present.
The Rev. Andrew Elliot, pastor at New-North Church in Boston: present. We can have some hope in him, for he at least is known for his anti-slavery views.
The Rev. Samuel Cooper, minister of Brattle Street Church: present. Known as “the silver-tongued preacher,” Cooper is Minister to no less than “one-fourth of Boston’s merchants and more than half of Boston’s selectmen. Cooper is at the center of an inner circle consisting of James Otis, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Adams …”3
The Rev. John Moorhead: present. Moorhead is pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.4
Mr. John Wheatley, Phillis’ so-called master: present. Mr. Wheatley is a merchant and businessman of Boston. He purchased the girl to be a domestic servant when she was but 7 or 8 years old.
Here is what Professor Gates says about this group: “What an astounding collection of people were gathered in the room that morning--relations and rivals, friends, and foes. Here truly was a full plenum of talent and privilege, cultivation and power. There were six staunch loyalists, and several signal figures in the battle for independence. Of these eighteen gentlemen, nearly all were Harvard graduates and a majority were slaveholders: one, Thomas Hubbard had actually been a dealer in slaves.”5 We only know of one among the eighteen who held firm anti-slavery views.
These eighteen men—armed as they are with the fulsome classical educations at their disposal—question the child who sits alone, her eyes down cast.
“Who was Apollo?”
“How did Zeus give birth to Athena?”
“Name the Nine Muses.”6
She names the Nine Muses.
“Name the three sons of Noah.”
She names the three sons of Noah.
“With what sort of fruit did Eve tempt Adam?”
She recognizes the trick question and replies, “Sirs, the Bible states it was
a fruit, but does not say what sort of fruit it was.”
After this unofficial, surely inhospitable interrogation, these eighteen men first confer among themselves. Then, to a man, they concur that the girl had, indeed, written the poems ascribed to her … or, at the least, was capable of so doing.
And then they do this. At the urging of John Wheatley—Phillis’ so-called owner—they eat humble pie. They put ink to parchment and there and then draft and sign a statement attesting to their confidence that this African child could in fact have written the poems. A year later, when Wheatley’s first book of poems is published, their attestation with all of their signatures is printed as the Foreword. Their attestation, addressed “To the Publick,” reads as follows:
“WE whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by PHILLIS, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”7
The story of Phillis Wheatley is the story of a girl who reads her Bible, who meets in its pages the God who weeps at misery, who rages at injustice and who acts to free the oppressed.
The story of Phillis Wheatley is the story of a small, frail child, alone in the world, who faces down men of consequence. How? By artfully wielding their own formidable weapons: learning, letters and literature, piety and poetry, courage and conviction,
Having read her Bible, she later names these men, and others like them, “modern Egyptians.”
The story of Phillis Wheatley is a story held sacred by this congregation. She was one of us, baptized and welcomed into membership on August 18, 1771.
This week eighteen persons follow in Phillis Wheatley’s footsteps in “owning the covenant” of Old South Church in Boston. Lisa, Emelia, Dana, Katherine, Marie, Caitlin, Larry, Paul, Jane, Thomas, Shawn, Bonnie, Bridget, David, Sunny, Jocelyn, Seth and Tracy: by owning the covenant, you attest to this: that the God of the Exodus, the God of Moses and of Phillis, is your God … and that what matters to God matters to you.
There is so much of Phillis’ story I have left unsaid. I have not spoken of her correspondence and meetings with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. I have not told you about her travels to Europe or how she won her freedom. Nor have I told you how she died: alone and destitute … predeceased by her three babies.
I want to end by letting Phillis speak for herself. I will read a portion of her poem written to and for the Earl of Dartmouth. (How and why she came to correspond with the Earl of Dartmouth is another story for another day.) Listen to Phillis in her own words as she anticipates by nearly a century the Emancipation Proclamation:
“To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.”
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she lanquish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breasts
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favors to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly race the sacred sanction give
To all thy worts, and thou for ever live
Not onlv on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot’s name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
1 The sermon title is lifted directly from the List of Members in the Historical Catalogue of the Old South Church, Boston, 1669-1882 (p 50). Enslaved persons were listed on the membership roles by first name only.
2 “Mr. Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 2002 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
3 Frederick V. Mills as quoted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, in his lecture.
4 Rev. Moorhead’s African servant, Scipio Moorhead, later rendered the portrait of Phillis Wheatley that appears at the beginning of the first edition of Wheatley's work.
5 From “Mr. Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 2002 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
6 The first three questions are taken from Gate’s lecture. In fact, no transcript of the oral examination exists and Gates and I have simply imagined the sort of questions her interrogators might have asked.
7 (Original Source: “To the Publick.” In Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral London: Archibald Bell, 1773.)