The Age of Phillis

The Age of Phillis

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Author: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Publisher: Wesleyan University Press (2022)

In 1773, a young, African American woman named Phillis Wheatley 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

"'Morning shards, and a mother wondered / if her daughter forgot her real name' writes Honorée Fanonne Jeffers in the poem 'An Issue of Mercy #1' in her latest collection. In this vast, imaginative opus on Black female genius, Fanonne Jeffers excavates the figure of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the first Black woman to publish a book in America. Here, too, is a virtuosic deconstruction of the figure of Phillis, stolen from her home in the Gambia at age 7 and enslaved in America during the 18th century—and what she means as a representation of this time in our history that's still influencing American social institutions and life today in relation to power, agency and the histories that are told."

–Hope Wabuke

"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

"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