February 09, 2012

Library hosting Black History Month exhibit, event

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In celebration of Black History Month, the Special Collections Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Morris Library is hosting a special exhibit and lecture.

The exhibit, in keeping with the Black History Month 2012 theme of “Black Women in American History:  War and Culture,” looks at the history and achievements of African-Americans represented in the library’s historical collections.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is a 1773 copy of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by Phillis Wheatley, the first book published in America by a black poet.

The exhibit is in place throughout the month and at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, Joanne M. “Jodi” Braxton, the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., will present the lecture “Reflections on Phillis and her Daughters: Words of Liberation.”   The presentation will be in the John C. Guyon Auditorium on the first floor of the library and the Friends of Morris Library are providing a reception afterward.

Braxton is the author of numerous published works spanning a variety of venues.  Her works include the 1989 monograph “Black Women Writing Autobiography:  A Tradition Within a Tradition,” the 1977 poetry collection “Sometimes I think of Maryland,” and the play “Crossing Deep River:  A Ritual Drama in Three Movements.”  First published in the acclaimed “Journal of Black Poetry” in 1969, she also collaborated with jazz musician Marion Brown during the 1970s.

Braxton will discuss Wheatley and the voices of other liberating black women.  Born in West Africa about 1753, Wheatley got her English name from the slave ship, the Phillis, that brought her to Boston on July 11, 1761, and the family that purchased her as a frail child of about seven years old.  John Wheatley was a prominent Boston merchant and tailor in possession of a wholesale business, real estate holdings including warehouses and wharfage, and the schooner London Packet.  Phillis became a domestic servant and companion for his wife, Susannah, a devout Christian and admirer of George Whitefield.

A quick learner, Phillis knew no English upon arrival but with tutoring by the Wheatleys’ teenage daughter, Mary, she quickly learned English, Latin, history, literature, geography, religion and the Bible.   Treated more as a member of the family, her education paralled that of a young woman in an elite Boston family, featuring extensive exposure to contemporary literary works, as evident in her writings.  Although there was a 1772 proposal for a debut poetry volume the early plans were unsuccessful and an English publisher introduced her “Poems on Various Subjects.”

She accompanied the Wheatleys’ son, Nathaniel, to England in May 1773, where publication plans had begun and where she met many notables of the time. However, she soon had to return to America due to the illness of Susannah.  About the time of Susannah’s death in 1774, John Wheatley freed Phillis but her life thereafter was a struggle. 

Married in 1778 to John Peters, a free African American, she drew up proposals for a second poetry volume but wartime shortages and struggles prevented its publication.  Apparently unhappily married, Phillis and John Peters had three children, two dying in infancy and the third just shortly after Phillis passed away at the age of 31 in 1784.  She wrote more than 100 poems during her lifetime although many have been lost.