by Nadia Colburn
Several years ago, I wrote a poem, “Immortality,” in part as a kind of challenge: could I take some of the issues that I felt most sad and angry about and write about them? Could I go to spaces I had not looked at before?
It was, I now believe, only by really going into those darker places that I was able to open up to a deep spiritual life. This poem is part of that journey.
If I am writing a poem about Phillis Wheatley it is because history offers itself
in names, in a few spare facts:
that she came to Massachusetts at the age of seven, seven
or eight, facts hardly facts,
that they called her Phillis,
the name of the ship on which she made the middle passage.
If I am writing a poem about Phillis Wheatley,
it is because she wrote poetry in another language, not her own,
the language of the people who gave her their name,
the Wheatleys who bought the girl for three dollars,
though she was younger than what they had hoped,
in that language I call my own.
If I am writing a poem it is because of the poems that she wrote, the poems
she did not.
“Imagination,” Phillis writes, “who can sing thy force?”
and sees it flying through air to a God whom she thanks:
“‘twas mercy,” she says, “brought me from my Pagan land.
taught my benighted soul to understand.”
And no one could believe
that a slave could do that, that a slave girl could do that.
To prove that she was the author she stood before the great men of Boston,
his excellency THOMAS HUTCHINSON, Governor,
by The Hon. ANDREW OLIVER, Lieutenant Governor, and answered their
four years before the revolution that was to set America free.
If I am writing a poem, no one will endorse it.
What after all, is a poem?
Lines of a certain length, language of a certain intensity?
I have not mastered Latin or Greek.
I do not even think that I have fully mastered English,
mastery over which I want, sometimes, nothing any more,
wanting to own nothing, owning nothing,
not even my own vast distances, my un-encountered strength.
The mother holding her child against her breast,
the mother childless now, is not present in my poem;
the girl aboard the ship in a language I do not speak
cannot be present; men throwing their bodies overboard
rather than living the life of a slave;
men dancing to a whip to keep up their physique: image now of
What was it that the human world offered
in its own image?
What unendurable pain?
What fortitude and tenacity. The girl,
moving through the streets of Boston over which I sometimes walk,
in her own life.
By thirty-one she was dead in a poor house.
Her body dumped into a common grave.
And her third and only remaining child, whose name
I also do not know,
survived her for a few hours.
I grew up in a family without religion. The closest thing we had to religion was poetry, which my father wrote. Poetry, he told us, was a place of praise.
Becoming a poet was something that I resisted, but I found myself drawn to it nevertheless. In poems, there seemed to be a space not just for the visible, but also for the invisible, and a way not only to use language to point, but also to point beyond the ordinary world.
By the time I wrote “Immortality,” I had been writing for a long time and was feeling the limitations of poetry.
Wheatley was the first African American woman and first African American slave to publish a book of poems. Her poems are widely anthologized and taught, and the tone in which they are taught and in which her life is talked about is usually triumphant. Her life, however, was full of incredible challenges and pain. I was interested in the way her poetry, and the words around her poetry, hardly seemed to touch that pain. I felt acutely aware of the ways in which language—the human mind—often shied away from the most difficult parts of experience.
Wheatley was born in 1753 in what is now Senegal, where in the eighteenth century people practiced both Islam and the older religion of the Jola people that saw God in the natural phenomena of rain, sky, and sun. At the age of seven she was kidnapped into slavery.
After making the brutal middle passage, she arrived in Boston Harbor with nothing but a dirty blanket around her. At the age of seven, she had already lost her mother, her family, her name, her home, her homeland, her language, her identity, her freedom.
She was bought by the wealthy John Wheatley. She learned English quickly and soon started to learn how to read on her own. When her owners saw this, they started to teach her explicitly. Soon she was reading and writing in Latin and Greek. By the time she was twelve, she was writing complex poetry.
She put together a book of poems and tried to publish it in America, where she was met with resistance, so the Wheatleys took her to England, where she published her book.
The beautifully illustrated children’s book that my husband bought for our daughter about Wheatley tells this part of the poet’s life and no more.
If there is an upward trajectory after her arrival in Boston (most stories take that as the starting point, though, of course, it was not), the story does not continue to rise triumphantly. At the death of her masters, Wheatley was set free, though she was not left material wealth. She married a free African American. In the first years of their marriage, the couple had a child who died in infancy, and then another child, who also died in infancy.
Despite her husband’s ambitions, during the economic depression that the American Revolution brought on, he could not find work as a black man, and soon found himself in a debtors’ prison. Wheatley tried to publish a second book of poems, but no one would publish it. Her health weakened. By the time she was thirty, she was living in a squalid poor house, pregnant with her third child. She died soon after giving birth, and her baby died soon after her. Both mother and child were buried in an unmarked grave.
In titling my poem “Immortality,” I meant to convey my skepticism about the ways in which we sometimes talk about the immortality of poetry—as if a poem could make up in some way for the suffering of a lived life, as if the flesh and blood mortality of the author did not really count.
Most accounts of Wheatley’s life edit her suffering out. The 2007 seventh edition and the current online edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, widely taken as the most authoritative, canonical source for American Literature in the United States, gives a biography of Wheatley’s life that is so bowdlerized it is shocking. Reading the biography one might not know that Wheatley was a slave; one might have no idea of the middle passage; one might think that the Wheatleys, not Phillis, were the true heroes of this story; one might think that all that mattered in her life were the poems she wrote. I quote the biography in full to show how much is left out of it:
“Born in Africa, probably in present-day Senegal or Gambia, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston when she was around eight years old to be a companion for Susannah Wheatley, the wife of a wealthy tailor. Mrs. Wheatley, part of an enlightened group of Boston Christians who believed that slavery could not be tolerated in Christian households, recognized Phillis’s intelligence and saw that she was taught to read and write; Phillis studied the Bible, read Latin poets, and was influenced by Milton, Pope, and Gray. She became well known for her poem eulogizing the Reverend George Whitfield, and when she was nineteen or twenty she traveled to England, accompanied by the Wheatleys’ son, with a manuscript of her work. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) inaugurated the black American literary tradition. A group of eighteen prominent citizens of Boston, including the state governor and John Hancock, asserted that Wheatley had composed the poems, although ‘under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town.’ A second volume was proposed but never published, and most of the poems and letters have been lost.” 1
The Norton biography makes it sound like it was a pleasant thing that Phillis Wheatley was brought to America, and says nothing about her trials—the death of her children, her poverty, and her own early death, nor that no one would publish her second book.
The Poetry Foundation’s website, the web home of the well-funded Poetry Magazine, provides a much longer and more accurate account of Wheatley’s life, but it, too, seems unable to imagine the true experiences behind Wheatley’s life. Here are the opening two sentences:
“Although she was an African slave, Phillis Wheatley was one of the best-known poets in pre-nineteenth-century America. Pampered in the household of prominent Boston commercialist John Wheatley, lionized in New England and England, with presses in both places publishing her poems, and paraded before the new republic’s political leadership and the old empire’s aristocracy, Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual.” 2
Can slavery be an “although”? Was she really “pampered”? The phrase “abolitionsts’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual,” suggests not only the ways in which she was used in the past, but also the ways in which she is still being used.
I felt Phillis Wheatley was invisible behind her own poems.
However, while I was aware of the ways in which others used Wheatley for their own ends, I was also aware that I was doing something similar myself.
I myself was using Wheatley and the sideways powers of language to explore and communicate obliquely my own anger, my own suffering, my own limitations. For I believe that all writers, even when writing about someone else, are also, at least in part, writing about themselves, and about their own connection to what it means to be human.
In the period I wrote the poem, I was confronting for the first time my response to having been sexually assaulted as a young child. As a child, I had no language or context to carry the painful, taboo experience consciously, so I forgot it. But if I did not have conscious language memories for the experience, nevertheless, the experience lived on in me through the cells of my body, which stored the impressions of horror and confusion and fear during the assault. Slowly, I was bringing those painful experiences up and feeling them in ways I never could feel them before. And I was looking at other people’s painful experiences, the heavy weight that is present, if not always talked about, in so much of our history.
At times I felt I could imagine the pain of the young Phillis, cold and alone on the boat in Boston Harbor. At times I felt that even trying to imagine her pain was presumptuous of me.
At times I felt that trying to imagine her pain was an act of defiance. I was acutely aware when I wrote the poem of the ways in which we, as individuals and as a culture, are unable to look at certain kinds of suffering—we cover it up, we deny it, we turn the other way.
I was aware, too, of the ways in which Phillis Wheatley’s suffering was not unique to her. The violence she experienced, her personal losses, were part of a larger system of oppression and injustice stemming from the objectification of other people that continues in various forms to this day, just as my experience of being assaulted as a young child was a personal experience and also an experience that was part of a larger cultural climate in which abuses of sexuality and power have similar structural roots. But understanding these causes, from which so many still turn away, is not in itself enough.
Spiritual teachers often tell us we should find meaning in our experiences. Our painful experiences have something to teach us; they help us grow.
I did not fully trust this advice. Did people really need to endure being stolen into slavery in order to “grow”? The advice felt patronizing and blind to the real injustices and relentless suffering that so many people around the world and throughout history experience.
Spiritual teachers also often tell us that we should be grateful for our lives. I did not fully trust this advice either: was I really supposed to be grateful to the person who assaulted me? I wasn’t grateful. I was angry.
Wheatley’s life was a kind of spiritual puzzle to me. Here was an amazingly talented, remarkably brave young woman who had endured incredible challenges. How had she done it?
And how had she made sense of her own life?
I wanted to know because I was myself angry and confused.
But instead of solving the puzzle, the answers I found only deepened the puzzle for me.
Wheatley turned to God.
In perhaps her most famous poem, written when she was quite young, Wheatley tells a redemptive story about her life; she gives thanks, and she praises God.
On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
The poem gives thanks for being stolen into slavery, because, it says, it allowed her “benighted soul” to encounter “God,” and, through God, “redemption” and salvation. Although some people, the poem goes on to say, do not believe that black people can find redemption, Wheatley asserts that black people, too, are part of God’s kingdom and the “angelic train.”
The poem certainly made me uncomfortable on many levels. If Wheatley was beloved by abolitionists, she was, understandably, less loved by twentieth-century civil rights leaders and poets.
Did she really think it was a “mercy” that she was stolen into slavery? Was it perhaps too painful to process her early childhood and what she had left behind in Africa?
When writing my poem, I was very much influenced by the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller who asks us to look at the ways in which we are often blind to the experiences and needs of children. In her book Thou Shall Not Be Aware, Miller shows the ways in which this blindness has deep cultural roots in a society in which we are taught not to question an authoritarian system, whether of our parents or of a patriarchal God.
Wheatley’s turn to the God of her slave owners and the racist language of her own poem, even as she tries to combat racism, reinforced for me the ways in which our imaginations are culturally limited.
Were we seeing in Wheatley not just an individual story, but also an expression of cultural genocide that Europeans created around the globe, most painfully in the Americas with the natives and the slaves stolen from their homelands?
William James famously said that religion begins with a cry for help. And yet, what happens when the help that comes back is itself limited?
I grappled with bondage and a struggle for freedom that might, or might not, come.
When I was writing the poem, I told a friend about it. Isn’t Wheatley’s life terribly tragic, I had said, and isn’t it ridiculous that she THANKS God?
My friend, who had had a very painful childhood, surprised me with her answer: “Maybe not.”
At the time I didn’t quite know what to make of my friend’s response. I knew she had a deep spiritual practice, but was that practice blinding her to Wheatley’s story? Did faith in some benevolent God or spiritual abundance and rightness prevent one from hearing the pain of Wheatley’s story because one wanted to believe something else about the world?
Or was there something else next to all the suffering? Was my own imagination blind to something important?
I wrote many other poems about many other people’s suffering. I talked to other people. But I kept on coming back to Phillis Wheatley’s story as a kind of touchstone. I believed that there was something more. I remembered my friend’s answer, and I remembered the look of radiance and peace on her face.
I found that when I fought Wheatley’s story, I felt anger and this anger made my body contract. I was resisting reality. But when I felt sad about her story, instead of contracting, my body relaxed. My sadness did not condone the terrible things that had happened, but in not fighting reality, I felt more open.
I experienced something similar around my own story. My healing came not through my head, but through my heart and through my body. Gradually, I allowed myself to remember and feel physically what I had not been able to feel before. Slowly, I came to acceptance. I cried a lot.
What had seemed at first unbearable, seemed more bearable.
And from this position, I felt more able not only to heal myself but also to help others.
Tears have been shown to be biologically healing. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the tears I shed yesterday have become rain.” And rain is necessary for any garden.
If I went to Wheatley’s story first as a kind of puzzle about the limitations of spirituality and social justice, what I found instead is what I believe lies at the root of both.
The religious scholar Karen Armstrong teaches us that at the foundation of all world religions is compassion. Compassion is also, I believe, at the root of social justice.
My anger could not accept things as they were. But compassion is a little different; it aspires towards change and towards love and understanding, but it accepts it if change does not happen. At its best, it is large enough to hold whatever comes, with love. And from this position, I think we are better able actually to help people, not to get caught up in our own frustrations.
It is now several years since I wrote my poem. I see my poem as only one piece of a journey, a snapshot of myself, engaged with the world and with language, and part of a larger process that extends beyond the finished product of the poem.
Now I think that maybe my friend was right—who knows what strength and power Wheatley found in religion?
Wheatley remained religious throughout her life.
As I was able to look at my own pain, accept it for what it was, I saw not just vulnerability within myself, but also strength, and a real spiritual power that seemed to have been holding me all along. Looking at my vulnerability led me down my own spiritual path.
I do not know what enormous spiritual power Wheatley had access to; perhaps she felt held even in her worst adult crises, even, perhaps, in her moments of despair.
How much did it really matter what words Wheatley used to describe her God? What if the word God of the white slave owners that Wheatley found within her own heart was really not very different from the sun god that so many people in her West African homeland worshipped and that, perhaps, she had worshipped as a child? Despite the different language that we use, despite the limitations of our cultural imaginations, there exists a vast limitless realm of being, an energy within and all around us all.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That Wheatley’s children were born and lived only a few months or a few hours instead of many decades—does this make their lives less precious, less miraculous? We are all, always, passing out from and back into silence, or, as Thich Nhat Hanh, who I now take as my spiritual teacher, says, there is no birth, no death, no coming, no going.
What we know of Phillis Wheatley lives on because of the words she put on paper. She came out of silence and went back into it. She was impermanent. And perhaps, she was, like all of us, also, immortal.
For a moment, things come together, though I am aware that these answers, also, can fall apart.
If I started the poem questioning the powers of poetry, it was also the powers of poetry that allowed me to stay on my journey, with its many ups and downs.
Perhaps I, too, turn to poetry for praise.
I turn away from language, then turn back to it, turn away and back again.
Who was Phillis Wheatley? What is a poem?
I do not know. But I hope to be able to hold a place for not knowing, for the namelessness of suffering, grace and joy, and for the rich space of the heart that allows us to turn over, again and again, what it means to be human. §
1 “Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784).” Norton Anthology of American Literature, 7th Edition. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. Web. 14 May 2014. www.wwnorton.com.
2 “Phillis Wheatley.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2014. Web. 14 May 2014. www.poetryfoundation.org.
Nadia Colburn’s poetry and prose have been published in more than fifty national publications, including The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Slate.com, Yes! Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in English and currently teaches private creative writing workshops. For many years she worked as a volunteer counselor with the GI Rights hotline. Some of her other interests include deep ecology, yoga, and Buddhism. She is currently an OI Aspirant in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Nadia lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two children. See more about Nadia at www.nadiacolburn.com