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Unpacking "Missionary"


Unpacking "Missionary" (excerpted recently in The Nation)

Two hundred fifty years ago, Phillis Wheatley Peters, likely in her late teens, published a landmark poetry collection. In crafting one well-known piece, she acceded to her master’s friend’s request to petition William Legge to be less of a tyrant to Massachusetts colonizers than his predecessor. The result is her stunner, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth.” The irony of an enslaved girl writing a book that purchased her freedom while simultaneously defending the rights of a white man benefitting from chattel slavery foreshadows Kente cloth-donned liberals hoisting upon systemically oppressed Black girls and women (Ruby Bridges Hall, Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, etc.) any hope that remains of “saving the soul of America” from the recent failures of our experiment with republican democracy.


The multilingual “Missionary” brims with nonce erasure of that Wheatley Peters poem and her equally subversive “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and “To Mæcenas,” and it renders loose “translations” of excerpts from the only extant works of two peer-elders, blues balladeer Lucy Terry Prince’s interpolated “Bars Fight” and obituary and Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. It interrogates failures: of chattel slavery to strip literary and African ancestors of their humanity; of Calvinist Reformers to indoctrinate enslaved Africans into uncritical acceptance of the inherent whiteness of divinity and the deceptively mistranslated King James Bible’s sovereignty; and of a poem to inhabit the insanities that Terry Prince, Equiano, Wheatley Peters, and millions survived. “Missionary” reimagines these pioneers’ journey from West Africa to colonized indigenous lands, reclaiming Wolof, Twi, Fula, Mandinka, Igbo, and Yoruba, languages and dialects native to their deduced homelands. I owe a huge debt to Twi, Igbo, and Yoruba speakers who are my former colleagues, Drs. Thaddeus Ulzen and Cajetan Iheka, and Thad’s friend, Dr. Alex Twum Boafo.

Wheatley Peters’s “To Mæcenas” name-checks a literary ancestor, Publius Terentius Afer, the most prolific writer of Roman antiquity, who was born in Carthage or North African Libyan lands nearby before he was enslaved in a system storied as less cruel than America’s. The Latin phrase in the penultimate section, from his Heuton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), addresses one of his enslaved characters, all of whom serve as his plays’ tricksters and moral compasses. If I’ve failed properly, you’ll find no morality or moralizing here. Take Me Back, Burden Hill, my second collection, returns to the circum-Atlantic trade and genocide of Africans, renamed a more digestible “Middle Passage” or “involuntary relocation” in contemporary historiography, to remember how the We who acknowledge that We are their descendants and ambassadors got over. 


Some deem “Missionary” “noisy,” as an esteemed white colleague has. Touché, bon ami. American chattel slavery was noisier and more pernicious than any poem can divine. For more successful (read: accessible) poems about enslavement’s complexities, start with Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s National Book Award-honored The Age of Phillis. However, “Missionary” invites you to ponder failures, its and ours. May they haunt the rest of our waking lives as this queer institution’s racist remnants persist—unrepented, unatoned, no repair in sight.

Photo credits: Schomburg Center, The British Library, Vermont History Explorer


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