A Poem That Would Not Let Me Go

Document Type



African American History; identity; memory; Phillis Wheatley; poet; poetry; slavery

Identifier Data



Zócalo Public Space

Publication Source

Zócalo Public Space


I do not remember how old I was when my grandmother showed me Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. Ten, maybe 11? Young enough that my hands were open to everything she put in them: a crochet needle and thick hot pink yarn, a sewing needle, a gingham apron. Young enough that I obeyed, old enough to roll my eyes in secret when I didn’t want to listen. My grandmother used Scrabble to sharpen my spelling, fed me Du Bois and folktales about people who could fly. Things I needed to know; things they wouldn’t teach me. And so she laid Phillis in my lap like fine linen. Something like An Anthology of Fine Negro Poems or The Best Black American Poems. Does it matter? It was hardbound. It felt important. Langston Hughes was there, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, people she said I needed to know. She turned the thin pages until she was satisfied, and had me read aloud. In my grandmother’s house, recitation was just as important as the reading. Was it a nice day? I do not remember.