In her tribute essay to Phillis Wheatley in 2002, June Jordan writes, “the specific daily substance of her poetry establishes Phillis Wheatley as the first decidedly American poet on this continent, Black or white, male or female.” As a Resident Teaching Artist attempting to inspire young 21st century American poets, one could imagine why studying Phillis would be an essential example. In the beginning of 2023, as I planned for February lessons, I focused on content that could highlight and celebrate Black poetry. The legacy of Black writing is inextricable from the ways that contemporary poets write and perform today. It is impossible to learn about sonics, rhythm, or the stakes of writing a poem, without understanding Black history in the context of poetics.
This idea obviously does not stand alone. We cannot fully understand any of the core subjects studied in high school without delving into Black history. In conversations with an American History teacher at my service site about lesson plans for February, I learned that his students would be focused on the American Revolutionary War in the beginning of the month. The teacher asked: “Would this be a perfect time for some Phillis Wheatley?”
My overarching goals in this lesson were, first, to situate Phillis’ work in the contexts of the social dynamics of her time, and second, to emphasize her legacy on poets’ abilities to create agency. We opened the class by introducing Phillis and looking at her poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” We discussed the ways that Phillis used her language to appeal to her readers, later using that established trust to question their own morals and religiosity. The class then turned to a packet of primary sources showing correspondences about or between Phillis Wheatley, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The class used this source material to develop a deeper understanding of how Phillis’ powerful writing placed her within the same influential sphere as some of the most important names of this era. The class then listened to a portion of a podcast interview with contemporary poet, Honorée Jeffers. She reads her poem, “Dafa Rafet,” which imagines Phillis as a child in The Gambia, living a domestic and contented life. The poem describes Phillis’ parents, admiring their child: “their daughter is a marvel / and they must pray for humility.” The class used this piece to explore the importance of humanizing a figure like Phillis beyond the context of her enslavement. Finally, the class turned to a poem by June Jordan: “Poem about my Rights.” Students took in Jordan’s description of her life as a Black woman in America and many felt moved by her response to her own troubles. It comes in the form of powerful and deliberate resistance. Many students expressed ways that they related to Jordan’s experiences in their own lives. For students who did not necessarily have personal connections to Jordan’s work, the class discussion covered why it is important to read the work, regardless.
In bringing Phillis’ influence forward to writers like Jordan in the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary poets like Jeffers, students saw her work’s lasting impacts. One of the more common responses I get from students when they hear that I am going to ask them to write is “I don’t know how to write a poem!” said with varying degrees of panic. In my lessons, I try to approach the question “whom is art for?” If I have done my job, the students will answer, “It is for me…. and it can be by me, too.” Part of studying Phillis Wheatley is studying art as a form of belonging and agency.
One of the most rewarding parts of teaching creative writing is seeing even the quietest, seemingly unengaged students produce moving work by the end of a class. We finished this class with a short writing assignment. The students picked a phrase or line from a source we looked at during the lesson and used it to write a piece about something they learned and perhaps how it could apply to their own lives. The goal was for the class to practice using source material to support their writing, as well as write something creative. In her essay, June Jordan describes, “this girl, the first Black poet in America, had dared to redefine herself from house slave to, possibly, an angel of the Almighty. She was making herself at home.” I want my students to see their own writing as a way to make themselves at home, even when in a school, or a class, or a community that may not be a comfortable place.
(Note: Frequent references to Phillis Wheatley by her first name – rather than the customary use of a surname in a written piece – is not intended as a form of disrespect to the poet or the eminence of her work. It is done intentionally as a recognition of the fact that the name “Wheatley” was assigned to the poet because it was the name of her enslaver, rather than the name shared by her own parents or representative of her own culture. The Wheatley family named the poet “Phillis” after the ship which brought her to the Americas following her kidnapping. Unfortunately, her birth-name is unknown. Phillis Wheatley is the name under which she published. However, I have attempted to use her first name, when possible, to indicate her individual identity as a writer, beyond the Wheatley family.)
Isabel Galgano learned her love for writing through a deep passion for reading at a young age, keeping her own little “library” of carefully stacked books surrounding her childhood desk. She is a poet interested in finding meaning and acknowledging the unknown. She explores concepts of childhood, meanings of home, and the interpersonal nature of poetry through her writing. She is serving as a Creative Writing Resident Teaching Artist in the 2023 Cohort.