Announcing “The Age of Phillis”

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The Age of Phillis illuminates an unbroken lineage, the way one poet pays homage to another and keeps the continuum for which we are all indebted. This is a necessary and visceral book, that brings to life the fullness of Wheatley.” —Matthew Shenoda, author of Tahir Suite

In the shadow of the American Revolution, a young, African American woman named Phillis Wheatley published a book of poetry, Poems on various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). When Wheatley’s book appeared, her words would challenge Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Her words would astound many and irritate others, but one thing was clear: this young woman was extraordinary. Based on fifteen years of archival research, The Age of Phillis, by award-winning writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, imagines the life and times of Wheatley: her childhood with her parents in the Gambia, West Africa, her life with her white American owners, her friendship with Obour Tanner, her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters, and her untimely death at the age of about thirty-three.

Woven throughout are poems about Wheatley’s “age”—the era that encompassed political, philosophical, and religious upheaval, as well as the transatlantic slave trade. For the first time in verse, Wheatley’s relationship to black people and their individual “mercies” is foregrounded, and here we see her as not simply a racial or literary symbol, but a human being who lived and loved while making her indelible mark on history. Read a sample poem below:

mothering #1

Yaay, Someplace in the Gambia, c. 1753


the after-birth

is delivered

the mother stops

holding her breath

the mid-wife gives

what came before

her just-washed pain

her insanity pain

an undeserved pain

a God-given pain

oh oh oh pain

drum-talking pain

witnessing pain


a mother offers

You this gift

prays You find

it acceptable

her living pain

her creature pain

her pretty-little-baby


HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS is a poet whose work examines culture, religion, history, and family. She is the author of four other books of poetry, including The Glory Gets, and the recipient of the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. An elected member of the American Antiquarian Society, she teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma where she is a professor of English.