Q: In the book, Freedom’s Pen, you’ve told the story of the young slave Phillis Wheatley. What made you choose her for your children’s series, Daughters of the Faith?
Wendy: Each book in Daughters of the Faith series tells the story of a real girl from history who faced insurmountable odds and, through her faith, made a difference. As a small child, Phillis Wheatley was captured by slave traders in Africa, taken away from her mother and father and sent on a slave ship to Boston. When she arrived in Boston—a frail child of 7 or 8, missing her front teeth—she was purchased by John Wheatley for his wife Susanna.
Q: Why is Phillis Wheatley memorable?
Wendy: Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, became the first book of poetry published in the English language by a person of African descent. She is the first woman poet to be published in America. She’s only the second woman to publish a book on any topic in this country. She was a celebrated literary figure in Boston during the Revolutionary period, known by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and others whose names are part of the history of our country.
Q: I see another book in your Daughters of the Faith series is about the young Harriet Tubman. We’ve all heard about Harriet Tubman—the famous conductor of the underground railroad. Why haven’t we heard more about Phillis Wheatley?
Wendy: Many historians have not known what to do with Phillis. Hers is not an easy story to classify. In the first place her owners were kind to her, treating her as if she were part of the family. That experience flies in the face of the vast majority of slaves. Would telling her story negate the awful realities of slavery?
Then, her writing has been criticized because it does not reflect the rhythms or origins of her African childhood or the cultural sense of the American slave. As a little girl she fell in love with the poetry of John Milton and Alexander Pope. She received a classical education and wrote in a neoclassic style that sounds stilted to us today. A number of years ago, the African-American literary critic Saunders Redding said her work had a “negative, bloodless, unracial quality to it.”
But perhaps the most troubling issue for many black historians is summed up in one poem Phillis wrote called On Being Brought from Africa to America, where Phillis says:
“Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God and that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew
In those days people generally believed that slaves were not like white folk. Almost no one believed a slave could learn to read and many did not even believe they had souls.
In the poem she goes on to make the case that her people possessed souls and needed that Savior. Phillis’ literary skills and spiritual focus is thought by many to have put to lie the belief that slaves could neither read nor have a need for a Savior.
But for many years this poem was seen as repudiation of her roots.
Q: You say “for many years.” Is this changing?
Wendy: Yes. More and more African American historians are seeing that, though her story is so very different from so many, she accomplished amazing things and her voice deserves to be heard. Scholars today are rediscovering Phillis Wheatley. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said in the 2002 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Library of Congress, “And even now, so the imperative remains: to cast aside the mine-and-thine rhetoric of cultural ownership. For cultures can be no more owned than people can. . . And so we’re reminded of our task: to learn to read Wheatley anew, unblinkered by the anxieties of her time and ours. . . The challenge isn’t to read white, or read black; it is to read.”
Q: So your book focuses on the young girl, Phillis Wheatley. . .
Wendy: Yes. Freedom’s Pen is for girls from about the age of 8 – 12. In the book, we leave controversy to the critics and we see a tender story of a girl captured and taken from her home and finding a true home in Jesus, who changed her entire life.
Q: What other books are in this series?
Wendy: There are eight other books in the series, telling the stories of real girls who made a difference. Courage to Run tells the story of Harriet Tubman; Almost Home, the story of Mary Chilton of the Mayflower; Captive Princess is Pocahontas’ story and then there are others. . .