Reading Follow-up

fire

A bunch of stuff kept me from The Fire This Time, but I’m back and loving it. Another observation.

Honoree Fanonne Jeffers has written “ ‘The Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” It raises a challenge to the woman who is the source for information that John Peters was a failed businessman who abandoned his wife. Jeffers has also found evidence that Peters ran a successful business, though he did suffer along with the rest of the country after the Revolution. I have two questions about the essay. Jeffers asserts that in the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley is crying out in pain to the Christian god. She begins:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,/Taught my benighted soul to understand/That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Jeffers italicizes “Pagan” and “Saviour.” She’s the poet, not me. And I am not a lit-crit expert, having read the canon. But did it occur to anyone that Wheatley meant to be ironic? The rest of the poem supports this view, especially that “Remember, Christians”:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,/”Their colour is a diabolic die.”/Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,/May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Jeffers also assumes that Peters and Wheatley married for love. In 1774, even rich white people – well, maybe especially rich white people – didn’t do that. Marriage until the middle of the nineteenth century was a business arrangement. Someone should look for evidence that Wheatley married because she respected John Peters and like a great many other women wanted security in a severely patriarchal society.

 

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