“The Dear Pledges of Our Love: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Summary
When Jeffers was in school in the still unofficially segregated South of the 1970s, her teachers bolstered their students’ self-esteem by introducing them to the great figures of African American history and celebrated Black “firsts.” At school and at home, one person was revered above all as the “first” among eminent African Americans: Phillis Wheatley, the first Black woman to publish a book of poetry on either side of the Atlantic. Yet, for all Jeffers had heard about Wheatley, she knew nothing about her having a husband, having learned in school that Wheatley died unmarried at thirty-four.
In college, Jeffers finally learned that Wheatley had indeed been married, but the small amount of information available about her husband, John Peters, portrayed him in a dismissive, judgmental way redolent of common stereotypes about Black men. Described as an arrogant dilettante who abandoned his family responsibilities, Peters reminded Jeffers of the Alabama townies who hung around outside the campus of her Historically Black College to cajole the girls into romantic adventure. These were the type of men Jeffers's staunchly middle-class mother always warned her about, men who were all promises and could ruin a young woman meant for better things.
Jeffers wonders about the reliability of the story of Wheatley’s seduction and fall from prominence. After all, much of the biographical information about Phillis Wheatley comes from a dubious source, an 1834 “memoir” written by a woman named Margaretta Matilda Odell who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susannah Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley’s former mistress, fifty years after Phillis Wheatley’s death.
Odell’s version of Wheatley’s story reflects a well-meaning abolitionist agenda and portrays her purported ancestor Susannah Wheatley, wife of a Boston merchant, as a paragon of virtue and refinement.
According to Odell, the seven-year old Phillis so melted the heart of Susannah at the Boston slave market that she decided to forgo her intention to bring home an elderly female domestic and instead purchased the “poor, naked child.” Soon after Phillis’s arrival at the Wheatley household, she learned to read and write with remarkable progress and impressed everyone with her “amiable disposition” and “proper” behavior. Susannah began teaching Phillis poetry, and she showed a precocious talent. In 1773, Susannah took Phillis to London to promote her first and only collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and upon their return to the United States and the book’s publication, Susannah freed Phillis.
In Odell’s narrative, Phillis became distraught over Susannah’s death, as a child mourns a beloved parent, and it was when Phillis was in this vulnerable emotional state that she was taken advantage of by Peters, a rakish, slightly older gentleman shopkeeper. Despite the good impression Peters initially made, Odell suggests that soon after the marriage, Peters’s neglect and abuse led to Phillis’s rapid dissolution and death after losing three children; this is the story that is now “branded” into history.
Jeffers becomes so intrigued by a 2003 New Yorker article by the African American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. that she begins to look into the historical record for herself, to learn the truth about Phillis’s life and 1778 marriage. According to Gates, Phillis Wheatley served as a living “rebuttal” to the racist elements in Enlightenment thought, such as those in Imanuel Kant’s philosophy, which considered Africans to be of a lower order of culture and intellect. Even Thomas Jefferson’s condescending dismissal of the quality of Wheatley’s verse shows she was far from accepted as an equal, yet her achievement in the late eighteenth century was a beacon for other Black artists and intellectuals of the time.
For six years, Jeffers immerses herself in Wheatley’s poetry and life and begins to understand just how much of...
(The entire section is 1,234 words.)