Forward thinking: Founding mothers

Phillis Wheatley

The expression “Founding Fathers” has struck some students of American history as inherently sexist. Not so.

The fact that only men signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution did not preclude women from leaving their imprint on the winning of American independence from Great Britain or on the founding of the new republic.

Despite the fact that the “Founding Fathers” label obscures their role, such influential women as Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Martha Washington and many others made significant contributions. Some served in the capacity of America’s first ladies, American Revolutionary War heroines and American poets – to name but a few of their leading roles.

In this particular column, I would draw your attention Phillis Wheatley. If you do not recognize the name, I am not surprised. However, since February is being recognized as Black History Month, I felt it appropriate to draw our attention to Ms. Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley was the first black woman poet of note in the United States. She was born in 1753 in present-day Senegal, in west Africa. Her writings were frequently cited by abolitionists to combat and refute the charge of innate inferiority among blacks and to promote educational opportunities for African Americans.

The young girl who was to become Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and taken to Boston on a slave ship in 1761. It was then that she was purchased by a tailor, John Wheatley, as a personal servant for his wife. Evidence would indicate that Phillis was treated kindly in the Wheatley household — almost like a third child.

The Wheatley family soon recognized Phillis’ talents and gave her privileges unusual for a slave at that time. They allowed her to learn to read and write. In less than two years, under the tutelage of Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter, Phillis had mastered English. Subsequently, she went on to learn Greek and Latin. The latter caused quite a stir among Boston scholars by translating a tale from Ovid. As an early teen, she wrote exceptionally mature and conventional poetry that was largely concerned with morality and piety. Wheatley’s better-known pieces include “To the University of Cambridge in New England,” “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, “ “On the Death of Rev. Dr. Sewall” and “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine… George Whitefield,” which turned out to be the first of her poems to be published in 1770.

In 1773, Phillis was escorted by Mr. Wheatley’s son to London where her first book was published. It was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Her personal qualities, even more than her literary talent, contributed to her great social success while in London. Upon getting the news that her mistress was ill, she returned to Boston. Both Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley died shortly thereafter, and Phillis was freed.

And now for the rest of the story… In 1778 Phillis married John Peters, a free black man, who eventually abandoned her. At the end of her life, Wheatley was working as a servant, and she died in poverty on Dec. 5, 1784, in Boston.

Two books issued posthumously were “Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley” in 1834 and “Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro Slave – Poet of Boston” in 1864.

As I was preparing to write this column, I found myself asking several questions. I wondered if any who read this piece had ever heard of Phillis Wheatley or read any of her works. I confess that I had not.

I also wondered how many women like Wheatley, as well as men, used their talents in the early history of our nation who remain nameless and unknown for all practical purposes. My guess is that the numbers are legion.

It was Shakespeare that reminded us that the world is but a stage and life is a seven act play. Recently, I had another birthday. According to the various acts as outlined by Shakespeare, I just “officially” stepped on stage for the start of act six commonly known as “old age.”

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of life, I would encourage you to take pause and evaluate what contributions you have made to our community
up to now. More importantly, what contributions you can and want to make in the days ahead.

We really do need each other… and must not forget that we are all in this together. Our community is a reflection of the investment of its citizens. That includes you and me and all of us!

Until next time…

Loren (1)–By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 35 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years and is currently a member of the Lynnwood Civil Service Commission. Loren works as a consultant, writer, speaker and trainer. He is also a member of the Lynnwood Parks and Recreation Foundation.

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