The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: A review

The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers illuminates the life and significance of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the enslaved African American whose 1773 book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, challenged prevailing assumptions about the intellectual and moral abilities of Africans and women.

In The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which won the 2021 NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work—Poetry” and was long-listed for the National Book Award, Jeffers portrays the life of the poet both before she was taken from her home in West Africa and throughout her lifetime in the United States, first enslaved and later free.

I became aware of the book by attending a virtual reading and can attest that Jeffers’s reading style is dynamic and worth searching out in audio and video recordings on the internet.

Jeffers, recipient of the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction (a lifetime achievement award), presents not only Wheatley, but many others of her era, enslaved and free, through one hundred poems that draw on primary sources to provide insight not only into the circumstances of Wheatley’s life, but into the people and conditions that condoned the horrors of slavery.

Jeffers portrays the ways that these conditions affected Phillis even when she is not directly mentioned. The poem “Catalog: Water,” describes the 1781 voyage of the slave ship Zong, in which well over one hundred (estimates range between 130 and 180) living enslaved people were thrown overboard to drown, in verses that appear arranged on the page to evoke a sailing ship’s tacking against the wind.

Jeffers begins:

I know I’ll try your patience, Read More→