Kevin Young’s poem “Homage to Phillis Wheatley” appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
One aphorism that has always struck me as particularly unfortunate is history is written by the victors. I take the point, but the word “victors” seems to imply some semblance of fair fight, and we exist in a universe where fair fights are few and far between. Perhaps a preferable phrasing would be history is written by the oppressors. The plunderers. The violators. The slave-holders.
In the current issue of KR, you’ll find a suite of poems by renowned poet and essayist Kevin Young, grouped under the title “Homage to Phillis Wheatley.” This heading is at once apt and wholly insufficient.
Each individual poem takes its title verbatim from a work by Wheatley, the young African slave who was also a lauded English-language poet, held up as a poster child for the possibility of “civilizing” through literacy. In this sense, Young’s poems are homages, written after Wheatley and in tribute to her singular voice and music. But this group of poems is also far from simply imitative; instead, the poems complicate the conventional story of Wheatley’s life.
Take, for example, Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” The original, written with Wheatley’s characteristic technical flawlessness, unequivocally praises the forces that deposited her on American shores. Wheatley’s original takes a forward-looking stance, urging her white Christian readers to “reform” and evangelize to slaves, rather than resorting to denigration and brutality. This poem was, in part, the product of aggressive messaging that began in childhood. Wheatley was put up for sale at the approximate age of seven (an estimate based on the condition of her baby teeth) and purchased by a family that treated her as some shifting combination of ward, pupil, and domestic servant, converting her to Christianity and teaching her that the ways of white America were the only route to salvation. Though the family is often referred to in literary-historical scholarship as Wheatley’s “benefactors,” they were in fact her legal owners at the time this poem was written.
In Young’s version of “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” he speaks back to the poet, countering the original poem’s unwavering certainty with subtle doubts:
. . . The auction /
block, the boat that rocked
and renamed you Phillis—
your young back the driver’s lash
(maybe) managed not to meet.”
. . . .
. . . Sable /
sister—at least your master
did not make you with him
(we think) sleep, or
out in the stable.
Young, a poet of formidable skill, incorporates Wheatley’s musicality and syntactical inversion throughout in order to retell the familiar story of how Wheatley evaded the near-ubiquitous atrocities of slavery, while also simultaneously questioning whether we should believe everything we’re told. We know, after all, by whom history is written. You’ll find many more such examples, exquisitely crafted, as you read through this set of poems, which brings to light elements of and doubts about Wheatley’s biography often neglected by the popular narrative of her life. The end result is a piece that separates the living, breathing person of Phillis Wheatley from the flat, obedient construct of Phillis Wheatley. It’s an homage that resists imitation, and that, in its resisting, does true justice to Wheatley’s original writing and presence.