J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

False Anniversaries for Equiano and Wheatley

Earlier this month, on 16 October, Google’s doodle of the day featured the eighteenth-century author Olaudah Equiano, as shown above.

Which was great, except that the company said it was doing so to celebrate Equiano’s 272nd birthday. Many websites and Twitter feeds picked up that factoid and repeated it around the globe.

But we don’t know that Equiano’s birthday was on 16 October. We don’t know what year he was born. Indeed, there’s a historical debate about whether Equiano was born in western Africa, as he stated in his memoir, or in South Carolina, as two documents from earlier in his life say.

Equiano’s memoir never states the year or day of his birth, and the chronology of his early life is fuzzy. Look at his Wikipedia page, and [as of right now] it says he was born around 1745, kidnapped into slavery around the age of eleven, and sold to a particular master in 1754—so the numbers aren’t adding up.

Sure, we can celebrate Equiano on 16 October, or any other arbitrary day. But to declare that’s his birthday isn’t just a claim without evidence. It normalizes Equiano’s life by modern standards when the whole point of his anti-slavery writing was that he was wrenched away from his life, family, and home. He was renamed multiple times and shipped around the globe. He had legally become property, and we don’t make a big deal about property’s birthday.

Celebrating Equiano’s birthday as if we had records about his early life the way we have records about, say, Oliver Ellsworth (born 29 Apr 1745) glosses over a huge difference between those two people’s lives. Indeed, it glosses over a crime.

Likewise, two days later on 18 October, a number of Twitter accounts tweeted that that date was the anniversary of Phillis Wheatley becoming free. The year they gave for that event ranged from 1773 to 1778, which should cast doubt on the dating.

In fact, we don’t know when exactly the Wheatley family of Boston freed their young slave Phillis. Instead, we know that on 18 Oct 1773 she wrote a letter that described herself as having become free. So Phillis Wheatley was free by that date; she wasn’t freed on that date.

That’s closer than what some other tweets have claimed about the poet—that she was born in 1753 or even on 21 Jan 1754. The sad fact is that she was kidnapped as a small child, so young as to still be losing teeth, and therefore came with no knowledge of her age and birthday.

Again, we can celebrate Phillis Wheatley’s accomplishments and the fact that she won her freedom through sheer intellectual accomplishment. The 18th of October seems like an appropriate day to do that because of the evidence we have. But we don’t have clear documentation of when the Wheatley family restored her freedom, and that in itself is significant. Such an emancipation was entirely up to the owners, reflecting the slavery system. The family may have given Phillis Wheatley a document declaring her freedom, but most of her later papers vanished after she died, a reflection of her relative poverty. We shouldn’t fog over those facts about her life.

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