Expanse of dreams
best explored in steps, with
care for unexpected turns—
that we not lose balance.
The unexplored territory
not our stomping ground.
Historical, Fictionalized Biography of Early American—First African–American—Poet Phillis Wheatley, by Afua Cooper
Taken from a settlement of “weavers, herders, farmers, griots, and fishermen” of the Wane clan of Fouta Toro, Senegal, promising griot Penda Wane (poet Phillis Wheatley) offers her story in hindsight, first through her poetic traditions of recording and later in this fictionalized, yet close biography by historian and poet Afua Cooper.
A griot is an African leader—specifically an historian and storyteller who may be a singer, poet, or musician. They’re considered a “repository” of oral tradition.
Looking at the history of American poetry, we might recognize from early education the name Phillis Wheatley as the first African-American author of a published book of poetry. But we shouldn’t mistakenly believe that this book was published in America, or had much hope of it. Instead, Wheatley was taken by proud masters (Pike, p.4) to London, where there was greater promise of manuscript acceptance from an African-American slave.
When first brought to America after her purchase by a Bostonian, Penda was renamed for the ship that carried her, the Phillis, and for her owner’s surname, Wheatley.
Author Afua Cooper sheds light on less-often realized circumstances of this historical figure of the world of poetry. Although the language of Cooper’s book is geared toward the juvenile audience, it’s mature and the work offers an informative picture of Wheatley from a time and perspective that many may not know.
Pike, E. Holly. Childhood and Slavery: An Interview with Afua
Cooper on Young Adult Fiction https://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewFile/1994/1939
Sheridan, Stephanie. Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy
Cooper, Afua. My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom
Reluctant settler Anne Bradstreet: America’s First [English] Poet