Black History Month: A Tale of Three Women
Updated: Feb 11
It is (in the UK anyway) Black History Month, and while I obviously want to mark this very important area of long ignored history, it is hardly my specialist subject, so I want to boost up the really knowledgeable people who write about these three incredible women I will be mentioning here. (And yes it was a conscious decision to focus on three women, black disabled/sick women are naturally incredibly difficult to find details on, as even when they did INCREDIBLE things like these following ones, we still know so little about them)
All of these women have been profiled by others much better than me, but their health issues and disabilities are often glossed over (not necessarily intentionally, but little is known about them) and so it's hard to tell whether they would have considered themselves disabled or chronically ill, but those are the perils of disability history.
Phillis was only 7 years old when she was originally seized from West Africa and ended up in Boston docks, as she was thought too unwell for the work in the colonies. In August 1761 Phillis was bought by the Wheatleys, a well known family.
Mrs Wheatley was looking for a domestic servant, and purchased Phillis for a very low price, as the captain of the ship believed she was terminally ill as she was so small and frail looking. A relative of the Wheatley's later said that she was clearly "suffering from a change of climate", and was nearly naked, aside from a bit of carpet, when she arrived in Boston.
The family discovered that Phillis was very bright, and while they didn't let her get out of her household jobs, the children taught her to read and write. She read extensively from all subjects and genres and was heavily encouraged in her poetry writing. It was highly unusual for a girl of any race to receive such a level of education, and unheard of for an enslaved person.
Her first poem is thought to be "To The University of Cambridge, in New England", written when she was 14, although not published until much later. In it she wrote about how she longed for academia and intellectual challenge. Her first published poem was in 1767 when she was around 14, but the poem that really brought her critical acclaim was published in 1770 was “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield”.
Phillis had been unwell for a while, with something the descriptions imply as being similar to a chronic lung condition, and along with the Wheatley's son Nathaniel, travelled to London in 1771, partly in the hope of improvements in her breathing problems, but also for a better chance of being able to publish a collection of her poetry, after struggling to find colonists willing to support any writings by an African. She had the financial backing of the Countess of Huntingdon, and her volume of poetry "Poems on Subjects Religious and Moral", the first book written by a black woman in America, was published in England in 1773.
The book contained a forward signed by many noteworthy people from Boston, after being forced to prove to colonists in 1772 in court that a slave was capable of writing poetry so well, and a portrait to prove that it had actually been written by a black woman. Shortly after the publication of her volume, Phillis was emancipated by her owners.
Many British people criticised the Wheatleys for keeping Phillis enslaved while parading her around as a genius poet in London, but thanks to the difficulties of being a free black person in both England and America at that time, some argue that "the family had provided an ambiguous haven" for Phillis and "she had experienced neither slavery’s treacherous demands nor the harsh economic exclusions pervasive in a free-black existence." Which while in theory true of the time, still strikes far too close to being a justification for slavery for my liking. If they were that concerned about it they could have always not done the slavery, but what do I know.
After her emancipation, Phillis married a "free black" called John Peters, against the advice of many friends. Despite the pair's intellect and talents, the harsh economic conditions of the colonies led the pair into poverty. Their living conditions led to a significant worsening in Phillis' long standing health problems, and the Wheatley family's relatives found her in a rundown part of Boston "suffering for want of attention, for many comforts, and that greatest of all comforts in sickness- cleanliness. She was reduced to a condition too loathsome to describe."
She continued to write poetry and publish it, even throughout these years of poverty and illness. She hoped that even with the poor financial situation of most people in the country, and the country itself, she would find some people to contribute towards a second poetry volume of hers.
In an attempt to find subscribers to fund the new volume of poetry she ran adverts for her book, however she encountered the same problems with this second volume as she did with the first in America. No-one would financially support a black African poet, even though she was one of the most appreciated American poets of the time.
In the year before her death, she was able to publish individual poems again under the name Phillis Peters. Three months before she died, she published a poem in The Boston Magazine called "To Mr and Mrs _, on the Death of their Infant Son", thought to be written in commemoration of the death of one of her and her husband's children.
At this point, her husband John is believed to have been in debtors prison, after spending years running from creditors and looking for work, often leaving Phillis on her own to do so. As a result, when Phillis died in December 1784 aged just 31, supposedly from complications of childbirth but exacerbated by her existing health problems, she was alone. Their only surviving child died just a few days later, in time to be buried alongside his mother.
Her poetry was criticised by some for not being as blatantly anti-slavery as they wanted it to be, but first off, who made you king of the world, and secondly, most people who analyse her poetry now agree that she carefully selected biblical references that emphasised and symbolised freedom, liberty and equality, as well as recently discovered documents showing her extensive communication with abolitionists. So there.
Phillis Wheatley's first volume of poetry was eventually published in America in 1786/7, two years after she died.
Claudia Cumberbatch (no relation, I think) was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1915, and migrated to the US with her family as a child in 1924 settling in New York. When she was 12, her mother died of spinal meningitis, exacerbated by the harsh conditions of her job in the textiles industry.
After this tragedy the family slid into poverty despite her father's best efforts, and the year after Claudia was hit by tuberculosis, which hospitalised her for months on end and damaged her lungs significantly, causing her problems for the rest of her life.
She was a very intelligent and well liked student at school, but her family were unable to afford to attend her graduation ceremony. It was during her school years that she became involved in politics and journalism, joining the Communist Party and the Young Communist League in 1936, and writing for the Daily Worker, among other publications.
She quickly gained prominence in the Young Communist League, joining the National Council, and by 1946 she was on the National Committee of the full blown Communist Party, using the name Claudia Jones as a thin veil of privacy for her family as much as herself.
Unfortunately, at this time, America wasn't that keen on communists. I'm not sure there has ever been a time where Americans were into it even a little bit, but it was particularly bad now. China had fallen to the Maoists, Russia was testing the first nuclear bomb and there were suspicions of communist sympathies upon many well known individuals.
The FBI decided they were quite interested in keeping an eye on what Claudia was doing, and over the years she gained herself a two volume filed with over a thousand pages of notes, which typically is the primary source of most of her life.
Over the course of just over 10 years, she developed a serious heart condition following a heart attack in prison along with her long standing lung problems, but carried on writing and speaking around the country, in between being arrested 4 times, and detained both on Ellis Island and in West Virginia while the American government tried to deport her.
She had failed to get US citizenship and was found to be in breach of the McCarran Act, because she was an alien member of the Communist Party. A number of witnesses were dragged into these hearings to testify that Claudia was a member, which feels like a waste of everybody's time since they primarily relied on her own Alien Registration form from 1936 where she had written she was a member of the Communist Party. Amazing detective work, well done.
She was ordered to be deported to Trinidad, but the colonial governor refused her admittance because "she may prove troublesome", and eventually she was offered residency in the UK. Where she would be less troublesome I guess?
In 1955, when she was eventually deported, Britain wasn't a great home for a chronically ill black female communist either (NO WAY).
Mosley was still around causing riots, the Cambridge Spy Ring had only recently been unmasked and they'd all run off to Russia, the Suez crisis was about to kick off and the Soviet Union was planning the invasion of Hungary.
But nevertheless, she carried on much in the same way as she had in America. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain but unfortunately it wasn't quite as welcoming to black members as in America. So she set to change that.
She got involved in the fight for the rights of the Windrush Generation (you may remember them from such breaches of human rights as the last 50 years) who had rebuilt the country after the war. She founded and edited the West Indian Gazette, the first major black newspaper and shortly after, the Notting Hill Riots and similar riots in Nottingham kicked off.
She had long been an activist for the black community, campaiging with the Communist Part of Great Britain against apartheid, immigration controls, oppression and racism. She wrote extensively on the challenges of being oppressed by her gender, race and class and is still read by many as a working example of intersectionalist activism.
But now Claudia decided to do something practical, to bring the community together, celebrate their culture and "wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths."
The first of the Carribean inspired mardi-gras style festivals was held in St Pancreas Hall in January 1959 and broadcast by the BBC to the nation. It ran in that same way for 6 years until Claudia died, and blended with a newer carnival that took to the streets of west London, becoming the Notting Hill Carnival, for which she is best known for in Britain today, earning herself a blue plaque.
She was a well liked and popular campaigner amongst all sorts of activists and minorities, but her health was declining significantly, as it had been all her life really.
She died in December 1964 (many think on Christmas day) and she was buried in Highgate Cemetery, to the left of Karl Marx, which sounds like a classic communist gag, but is also what happened.
Mary Prince was born in 1788 in Bermuda into slavery. As a very young child, she was sold along with her mother to Darrel Williams, for his granddaughter. Mary was the same age as the granddaughter and they were friends, companions and playmates until Mary hit 12 years old and was hired to a neighbour as a nurse. Mary was an unusual case for a slave, in terms of just how many owners she had in a relatively short amount of time.
Once Williams' wife died, Mary was sold to another slave owner who put her to work on the salt ponds of the nearby Turks Island. This type of labour involved being stood up to their knees in the salt pond water, "raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the bone” They would be forced to work for 17 hours at a time to try to prevent rain ruining the salt.
She was sold yet again just a few years later, and from most of her captors endured significant beatings, floggings and most likely sexual abuse which SHOCKER left her with long term injuries, and after defending herself on one of these occasions, was hired outside of the house, washing clothes, so her master didn't have to put up with the audacity of someone not liking being beaten.
Eventually, she ended up in the house of John Adams Wood in Antigua, she was originally a domestic servant but on the worsening of her joint pain and problems, thought to be rheumatism, she mostly worked as a nursery maid.
Eventually her disability was such that she couldn't work, and earned money for herself when Wood was away by selling things and taking in washing. It was while she was in Antigua that she joined the Moravian Church, without the permission of her owner. She was baptised in 1817 and accepted to take communion, but was too scared to ask her master if she could take it. Despite this, she spent much time at the church, taking classes and learning to read and write.
In December 1826 she married a free carpenter, Daniel James, again without permission from her owners. The abuse and beatings after her marriage increased, for not getting permission, but also because the family didn't want a free black man living with them.
The Woods relocated to London, taking Mary with them, but by then the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was in force. This prevented slaves being transported outside the UK, but didn't technically ban slavery, didn't do anything at all in the colonies and didn't ban British people from being slave owners.
This meant that Mary was technically free in London, but couldn't return to her husband or friends as she would immediately be a slave again. She had no means to support herself, as the Woods still refused to fully emancipate her, they gave her technical permission in the form of a letter which pretty much said "you could hire her, but don't."
She was threatened to stay a number of times by Wood, but escaped to stay at the Moravian Mission House in Hatton Garden, until managing to find work and lodging via Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist writer and secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society.
The Woods left England to go back Antigua in 1829, and Pringle tried multiple times in vain to convince him to officially free Mary, but he refused to either free her or allow her to be purchased out of his control (so that someone sympathetic could buy her and free her.) The Anti-Slavery Committee and Mary tried to petition parliament to force her to be freed, becoming the first woman to petition Parliament and around the same time a bill was introduced in Parliament to free all slaves from the West Indies in England, if the owners has brought them there freely. Neither of these attempts were successful, but it foreshadowed a growing anti-slavery feeling among the public.
Mary had the idea to write down her story, to try and make sure that "good people in England might hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered". Pringle arranged for her to dictate her life story to Susanna Strickland, another member of the Anti-Slavery League, and with Pringle editing, the book was published as The History of Mary Prince in 1831.
It was the first account published in Britain of a black woman's life, and was very controversial. There were some who believed she was exaggerating, or that Pringle had edited it to sound worse to fit his anti-slavery agenda. It prompted two libel cases, which Mary testified at herself.
In one, John Wood claimed that Mary had “endeavoured to injure the character of my family by the most vile and infamous falsehoods” by writing about what had happened, and as her own defense in court tried to prove the truth of the account, but because of classic libel laws, she lost that case. However in the next case, against some slavery supporters, Mary and her publishers won.
A number of the arguments against Mary's book, including in the court case, were related to her personal reputation, full of accusations that she was a woman of low morals, and had been used by the anti-slavery movement to further their agenda. (What does that remind me of?)
Unfortunately, we don't know much of Mary after the court cases in 1833, although we do know that by that point, in addition to her rheumatism and long term flogging injuries, she was also losing her sight, although in her book, while she described in great detail the brutality of the injuries, she avoided ever discussing her pain, either in the moment or ongoing.
It was that year, 1833, that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, with the aim to have a two stage abolition of slavery in the West Indies, but with enough flexibility for an economic transition. Since Bermuda's economy was not reliant on slavery, they were the first to transition to full emancipation the minute the law took effect in 1834, but Mary had died by this point, and so couldn't return to her birth country as a free woman.
Since then, she has been immortalised by a commemorative plaque in London and a Google Doodle on what would have been her 230th birthday, and really what more impact on the world could you want? (Other than stopping slavery ofc)
Sources (this is not an exhaustive list of all those I used):
- Phillis Wheatley Biography, Sondra A. O'Neale, The Poetry Foundation
- Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy, Stephanie Sheridan, National Portrait Gallery blog
- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, Vincent Carretta, 2011
- Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile: A Biography, Marika Sherwood, 2000
- Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Carole Boyce Davies 2008
- The History of Mary Prince, a West African Slave, Related by Herself. 1831
- The Body as Evidence: Resistance, Collaboration, and Appropriation in "The History of Mary Prince", Barbara Baumgartner, Callaloo 2001
- A Story of Young Mary Prince, Margot Maddison-MacFadyen 2017