TABLE OF CONTENTS
I remember exactly what I was doing when I first felt the change. I was rewriting history.
My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall...
I crooned in the language of the Spirituals.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole...
came the promise.
I ratcheted up in Civil Rights Movement mode.
Liberated—high on life and learning and writing—this was my Freedom Day. I knew it. And it was only 10:00 in the morning.
Just two hours earlier I’d begun the workday kickstarting my cylinders, revving my momentum, as always, by editing pages I’d written the day before. A good start, the manu-script was hitting the necessary plot points. It threaded a cohesive narrative. The premise set; it foreshadowed what would later follow.
Somewhere around 8:30 I felt my temperature rise. By 9:15 I had a fever. Quite unexpectedly, but hardly without provocation, my fever blistered to a burn; consuming the pages in flames of red ink.
N O ! The block letters trooped from my hand at 9:25, taking up arms on page fourteen. NO! NO! NO! The letters stormed the page. This was war—the latest in a series of encounters I’d been having with the historical dead and still dangerous.
For weeks, with funding from The Ford Foundation, I’d been adapting my Glory Days book trilogy for a documentary film history of African American women. To move through the next funding round, my storylines would have to incorporate established Humanities themes rooted in traditional American historiography. That’s the method behind public television documentaries—especially those funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It’s about delivering a 360º view of the subject; approaching it from multiple angles to achieve a rich depth of field. That was my charge.
But, American historiography had traditionally ignored the very people I was writing about. Hence the need for my books and the documentary: to fill in history’s missing pages.
So it was that by traveling this route, History and I reached the latest standoff: the impasse of 9:25 at page fourteen. This time we crossed swords on Phillis Wheatley—Colonial America’s first known child prodigy, African America’s first published author and poet, the second American woman to see a volume of her work in print.
Recreating the swirl of issues and voices that would place Wheatley at the core and define her life and times had me bumping into obstructionists at every documented source. Talk of overcoming obstacles!
There were the shipbuilders, insurers, advertisers, reporters, printers and publishers. There were the manufacturers and distributors of the whips, chains, guns, and lashes essential to slavery’s enterprise. From accounting ledgers to purchase orders, bills of lading to sales receipts; they’d blazed an endless paper trail. There were the archives and family papers of the bureaucrats, legalists, loyalists, and sanctimonious of every stripe who codified, institutionalized, and justified their scheme of status quo oppression for profit.
By page fourteen, my primary sources had led me to the point where I’d tolerated as much of these critters as I could. What made the task so noxious was that by the pre-ponderance of evidence (the sheer physical weight in pounds and ounces of paper, not in morality or ethics), the “facts” favored the critters.
Voluminous written documentation, easily accessible, made their images more indelible, their voices more definitive, and their existence infinitely more significant, from a research point of view, than that of women like Phillis Wheatley who’d lived and died to tell the tale. Oh no! They wouldn’t get away with that piling on business this time. I was historiographically livid!
Phillis’ story, both indicative and unique, is a herstory of millions untold. In her words, guarded as they were, is a window into the lives she and others dared hold sacred within. Upon their life stories, anvil of the ages, were forged dreams they would pass down for actionable safekeeping to women like me.
Having come to that realization, from 9:25 on, I didn’t much care what that cadre of contemptibles had to say with their voices, so full of themselves, shouting “me, me, me” across the pages; propped up by the secondary sources they’d hoodwinked into submission. Why should I defer to those pretentious fops prancing about the pages in the persnickety waistcoats and froufrou frocks some Black woman somewhere had been forced to slave over for them? Why should I give such miscreants center stage in scenes not theirs for the living? Oh, my page was a fire of red where History and I crossed paths on page fourteen.
I knew there had to be some opposition to such vil-lainy somewhere. I especially wanted to hear from women silenced by memories of the punishment meted out to “witches.” (In Phillis Wheatley’s day, there were people whose parents had lived through the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 that saw two hundred people accused, twenty executed before the hysteria had taken its course; all this just up the road from Boston.) What those accused of witch-craft were ecclesiastically guilty of and eternally damned for was being “outsiders”; for asserting themselves beyond church doctrine; for violating “God’s law”—rules interpreted for the benefit of privileged and powerful White men. That they were witches was rationally dubious even then; that they were to be made examples is certain even now.
“Every shut eye ain’ sleep,” as they say in the trenches; nor has every “criminal” committed a crime. These were the voices I begged my xeroxed sources to provide: the missing pages of the dissuaded.
Because Phillis could write; she’d made her life known and left an historical footprint. But she needed back up.
On page fourteen, where History and I crossed swords, Phillis was in a lurch. She’d already been kidnapped from her parents at six, snatched from her Gambian homeland in West Africa, cast into a dungeon, boarded onto a slaver, catalogued, shipped to Boston, priced, sold into slavery, and assigned the name Phillis for the slave ship that bore her as cargo. And, because history has a sense of irony, this frail and extremely bright child proved a bad investment and a great parlor trick for her owners. Defying errant gods and the odds with her love of language, Phillis turned the lash to lyric, and made of her pain a poem. Black, female, enslaved—triple-threat to critters everywhere—she was guilty, as tongues wagged, of “setting a bad example for slaves.”
So here she was, holed up on page fourteen, where my mind raged and raced to her aid as she stood trial to prove herself capable of being herself: a person, a writer—not a tradable commodity, a slave, a thing. It was a matter of life and death—literally and literarily.
Judging her were men dubbed “the most respectable Characters in Boston,” obviously all White, all male: a colonial Governor and his Lieutenant, a college founder, two lawyers, seven men of the cloth, and a future signer of the Declaration of Independence who affixed his true John Hancock certifying her authentic and putting his reputation on the line. Whew!
There is not a time when I think of her landing on these shores, her being set up like a piece of furniture for inspection, that tears do not fill my eyes. It is more than empathy. It is a situation with which I could identify from personal experience two hundred years later. How cold she must have been, how traumatized by the months of chains and the nauseating sea; the menacing hands rummaging their way around her body, confirming her sex (and sexual prospects), exposing her missing baby teeth, assigning her an age (six, likely) and a status (slave for life).
Now fourteen, here she stood for inspection again. This time her torment wasn’t in the hands of those who would pry open her mouth and paw between her legs, it was in the hands of those with the power to shut her mouth and forever embargo her mind. Yet, what those men did that day was indeed revolutionary. They certified her authentic; certified her writings to be of her own righteous mind.
Yet, despite the approval of the mighty and the revolutionary temper of those colonial days when tea would pour and heads would soon roll, no American publisher would print Phillis’ work.
That’s what the contemptibles would be up to in just three more pages. Oh, I was in a tizzy; simply beside myself with grief at the affront of it all.
Long before I knew of Phillis and her poems I knew how it felt to be six (or, in my case, eight) and terrified. I knew the stench of judgment and such rooms, the musky air of negotiated contempt, the putrid stealth of ill-gotten gain and misbegotten power. I knew it all as surely as she emerged from the harbor in 1761 to stand in judgment in 1772, and I—descendant of the enslaved, school desegregation “test child”—emerged from my parents’ car to stand before an all-White crowd outside P.S. 98 in 1956.
“NOOOO!” I charged to her defense, my pen the bayonet.
Perhaps what I felt had been bubbling up for weeks, ignited by the battle cries of the annual freedom season—Juneteenth, June 19 (ceremonial end of slavery, United States) through July 4 (Independence Day, United States), July 14 (Bastille Day, France), and August 1 (Emancipation Day, Great Britain).
Perhaps it was a life lived from my time as an eight-year-old footsoldier in the battles over school desegrega-tion to the day, forty-three years later, when the press captured my return to my elementary school; making a point for history and its promises. It could have been the years as a journalist reporting current events and wearying of such “news”—stories of race, caste, class, and power—feeling very old. Perhaps it was my scholarly pursuits and the lessons learned; the heat of the sun at my morning window and the steam from the city pavement already rising to meet it. Perhaps it was nearing 10:00 and the time had come.
At 9:45, I was riffling a stack of sources when a mother-ly well-modulated Boston Brahmin spoke from the page.
“I have sometimes been ready to think,” she said, “that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.”
Abigail Adams! March 31, 1776. A letter.
“Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.” Abigail was chiding John, her husband and future president, gone to “Phyladelphia” for heady talk of tea and liberty while she, Red Coats at her door, remained at home alone to manage the house, farm, and four children. “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion.”
Thank you, Abigail.
However dead she, too, might be, her words breathed life into me that morning. The words may have changed spellings across the centuries, but her meaning was clear.
My page, my rebellion!
The time had come.
It was like the scene in the movie, Superman, when the villain’s demonic investment plan, a bomb plot to turn landlocked Nevada into “beachfront property,” sets the earth a-quake, and smothers Lois Lane under a pile of rubble.
“NOOOOO!” Superman cries out to the heavens, devastated. Angry with the gods for stealing his love, Lois, from him, Superman defies the rules of the galaxy to stop the earth on its axis, turn back the events of time, reverse the waters of Niagara Falls, heal the fissures of the world, and rescue his love from the broken pavement of deadly fate.
Having revved up a full head of steam and blown my own mind, by the time I exhaled at 10:00, I had reconfigured my view, my Glory Days. My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall . . . There is a balm. . . yes. Oh freedom . . . indeed. I knew the task that needed doing and I was up it.
I would rewrite history.
The story I needed to tell would also begin in Philadelphia. There, on the evening of September 17, 1831, twelve or so disciples, free women of color, self-proclaimed “daughters of Africa,” gathered to found the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia, the first known book club, a club on a mission. Their gathering was no small feat. Each woman had to make peace with fear; make a pact with destiny. Each had to wind her way through murky narrow streets “even as the ‘iron hand’ of slavery stretched forth to seize her as ‘prey’”—retribution for Nat Turner’s great slave rebellion two weeks earlier; power-play by contemptibles every one.
Huddled in a middle-class row house, basking in a candlelit glow of hope, they planned the risky weekly “mental feasts” that would “feed our never-dying minds.” They pledged to “stir up in the bosom” the strength to rally for “our brethren and sisters who are in this land of Christian light and liberty held in bondage.” They ratified their constitution and voted in the bylaws they would courageously publish in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper; paving a paper trail to my morning awe.
“It therefore becomes a duty incumbent upon us as women, to use our utmost endeavors to enlighten the understanding, to cultivate the talents entrusted to our keeping, that by so doing, we may in a great measure, break down the strong barrier of prejudice.”
And who were these sheroes of liberty reading? Phillis Wheatley. Of course. Each week these women, Wheatley’s daughters, shared their own writings, hers, and the work of others she’d empowered and inspired in the six decades since she’d stood up to her trials as a frightened teen.
This was a story to which I could not only relate my own childhood, but my mission in founding—totally unaware of my Philadelphia forebears—the first national book club for African American literature, Harambee, in 1990. Unlike Superman—and as a matter of professional ethics—I might not be able to change what had happened across the centuries, but I could change how the story was told. History, it is said, is written by the winners. And, the African American women I knew—women with a “tradition of achievement,” as I subtitled the documentary—were winners all. That was the history, the herstory, I would write. It was important.
For there is an All-American story you’re supposed to tell about yourself if you are...
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SEDIDDY: Attitude, Gratitude, and Seeing Red
© Janus Adams 2018
All rights reserved.
First edition: January 2018
ISBN eBook with audio of selected excerpts: 978-0-930399-54-2