- Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom: History, Poetry, and the Ideals of the American Revolution by G. J. Barker-Benfield
Phillis Wheatley makes choices often. She chooses to write poetry and letters. She chooses to marry John Peters and presumably, to befriend Obour Tanner of Newport, Rhode Island too; and according to historian G. J. Barker-Benfield, the famous, Boston-based poet chooses to stay in the American colonies in spite of a growing civil unrest and an opportunity to head east, in 1774, to do missionary work on the west coast of Africa. It's a familiar and accessible story. Wheatley writes about the opportunity in a series of letters to English merchant John Thornton and [End Page 543] to Newport's well-known, antislavery minister Rev. Samuel Hopkins. Her decision to stay is clear, "This undertaking appears too hazardous," she writes to Thornton, "and not sufficiently Eligible, to go—and leave my British & American Friends—I am also unacquainted with those Missionaries in Person."1 Wheatley's refusal to go to Africa is the subject of Barker-Benfield's seven-chapter investigation of Wheatley's choices. Not only is Wheatley offered passage to Africa as a missionary. Barker-Benfield builds upon the biographical and archival work of Vincent Carretta, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Katherine Clay Bassard to add to this story a curious detail: It's a marriage proposal.
According to Barker-Benfield's reading of Wheatley's correspondence and poems as well as relevant church records and letters, she is invited to marry one of her would-be fellow missionaries, and it seems Wheatley is presented with options. Their names are John Quamine and Bristol Yamma; both men live in Newport, Rhode Island, and have recently gained their freedom (with the help, in part, of a winning lottery ticket). And, both men have worked with Reverend Hopkins (and Reverend Ezra Stiles, pastor of Newport's Second Congregational Church) to spearhead this mission effort. Despite Hopkins's best efforts to garner attention and to raise funds for the mission, the increasing conflict between the colonies and the metropole thwarts their relocation plan. Wheatley refuses to join them even as Thornton and Hopkins encourage her to go, and she refuses this odd and noteworthy proposal. She has her reasons. She is "unacquainted" with both men, and she, of course, has no interest in acquainting herself with their proposed mission. She doesn't want to leave her "British & American friends" or her life as it is.
Though Barker-Benfield isn't the first to make such a claim, he is the first to give readers a book-length study of the poet's refusal to return to Africa as a missionary's wife. He offers a robust cast of characters—ministers, philanthropists, slave owners, and friends—who shape the world in which Wheatley receives and rebuffs the request to return to Africa and to wed a man she doesn't love or know.
The first two chapters examine Rev. Philip Quaque's missionary work and its lack of success in Cape Coast as well as his relationship to Hopkins; Barker-Benfield usefully contextualizes the religious landscape [End Page 544] that Rev. Hopkins hoped Quamine, Yamma, and Wheatley too would join.
Barker-Benfield turns to Wheatley and her writings in Chapters 3, 4, and 5. He tracks the publication of her Poems (1773) in London alongside her relationship to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon; Hastings is not only one of the founders of British Methodism but also an important patron of Wheatley and her contemporaries, including James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and David Margrett. He uses Wheatley's poetry as a way into who she is, and he journeys, with the help of her poems, through the Middle Passage and into what he thinks of as Wheatley's profound sense of grief. His close readings of her poems invite readers to remember whom Wheatley, as a little girl, has lost.
It's in these chapters that Barker...