Just 12 years after being captured in Senegal and enduring the gruelling journey to slavery across the Atlantic Ocean, Phillis Wheatley made her literary debut at age 19 to a welcoming audience in London in 1773.
Unable to get her work published in the United States despite her talent, which was recognized by her owners, who provided their slave with her own room to pen her poems and frequent readings in the living rooms of New England’s elite, Wheatley – her original name was Penda Wane – found a publisher in England.
She, however, returned to the U.S. to be with her ailing mistress. The mistress and her husband, John Wheatley, died four years apart. Before passing away, the family patriarch granted his slave freedom.
Dr. Afua Cooper, who is also an accomplished poet, brought to life Wheatley’s story in My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom, which has won the 2012 Beacon of Freedom Award. The honour is presented annually to a book that introduces American History, from colonial times through to the Civil War, to children in a historically accurate and engaging style.
Dr. Cooper said Wheatley’s tenacity, brilliance and her love of people inspired her.
“One third of all Africans who were captured and sold into slavery were children,” said Cooper, who holds the James Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “Yet the image that we have of an enslaved person is that of an adult. Children, like adults, were sold away from their families and abused in a myriad of ways. I wanted to write a novel that centred on the experiences of enslaved children and also introduce the subject of slavery to a child and young adult experience. What better way to do that than by looking at someone their own age who experienced slavery?
“I also wanted to explore writing, literacy and enslavement and to show that many enslaved men, women and children were literate. In fact, many of them were literate in Arabic, a language they were already fluent in in West Africa. I suspect that Phillis read and wrote Arabic and that could account for the reason she took to writing so rapidly.”
A co-founder of the Dub Poets Collective, Jamaican-born Cooper said she’s thrilled to be honoured with the prize.
“This shows that my work is recognized internationally,” said Cooper, whose interest in slavery, abolition and women studies led to her doctoral dissertation on anti-slavery crusader Henry Bibb and the publishing of The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, a national bestseller that was nominated for the 2006 Governor General’s Award.
“Writing can be a lonely endeavour and while writing about slavery might not be ‘sexy’, this award shows that there is a definite market for the kind of writing that I do and the subject matter with which I choose to engage.”
The award will be presented to Cooper on October 12 at the Williamsburg Library Theatre.
By RON FANFAIR