Trauma in Phillis Wheatley’s Juvenilia


  • Lucia Hodgson Independent Scholar



Phillis Wheatley, trauma, slavery


Reading Wheatley’s writings as juvenilia and considering her poetry and letters in relation to one another can productively complicate the view that her poetry is devoid of traumatic affect. This approach illuminates her agency in grappling with how to represent her traumatic childhood experiences. To hear trauma in Wheatley’s poetry requires recognition of her agency in representing her traumatic childhood experiences and their effects on her memory, attachment, and affect. This essay argues that the poems Wheatley published while under age twenty-one provide insight into the challenge of representing the traumatic separation from her mother when her physical and psychic survival depended on her affective relationship with her mistress Susanna Wheatley. What we can hear in Wheatley’s poetry about her childhood in Africa and her upbringing in the Wheatley household must be teased out of the performance of obedience and gratitude expected of her as an enslaved child.