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, May 16, 2023

“Finding Mrs. Phillis” in Cambridge, 20 May

On Saturday, 20 May, the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge will host an event called “Finding Mrs. Phillis” with Toni Bee and Nicole Aljoe.

Bee is a poet, teacher, and Poetry Ambassador for Cambridge. Aljoe is a professor of English and Africana Studies at Northeastern University. They’re two of the three coauthors of “Reading and Teaching Phillis Wheatley Peters in Boston,” published in a recent issue in Early American Literature.

The event description says:
Through a historical eye and a creative mind, the Professor and the Poet will lecture on the correspondence between General George Washington and Poet Phillis Wheatley Peters. This event includes a lecture, house tour, and poetry workshop.
It is scheduled to start at 2:00 P.M. and end at 4:00. Register to attend here.

The phrase “Mrs. Phillis” comes from Gen. George Washington’s letter to Phillis Wheatley, sent from that Cambridge mansion during the siege of Boston on 28 Feb 1776.

As the owner of a slave-labor plantation, Washington was used to addressing and referring to enslaved people by their first names—even when he knew they had surnames—and with no honorifics like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” For example, as he freed his wartime bodyservant in his will, Washington referred to that man as “my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee).”

The commander-in-chief was completely unprepared to receive a letter and poem from a black woman, someone he knew had been enslaved until recently. She signed herself “Phillis Wheatley.” Had she been white, the general would certainly have started his reply to her with “Dear Miss Wheatley.”

Instead, Washington wrote, “Dear Mrs. Phillis,” casting the poet into an in-between space, neither fully respected nor completely disrespected.

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