“Not Tucking Tail This Time” – Boston, Massachusetts, April 24, 2016

Poet Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1754-1784)
Poet Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1754-1784)

It was Shakespeare’s birthday, in the year 2016, 400 years after the poet of the ages passed. I chose to honor April 23 by looking back on yesterday and researching the life of a celebrated dark lady, remembering that the British bard had been inspired by his own dark lady. My reading focus for the day was Phillis Wheatley, the 18th century Boston muse, who was purchased as property but later mastered and excelled in British meter, thus breaking her chains.

Barely inside the historic building of the Genealogical Society and Library on Newbury Street, my path was immediately blocked and my purposes interrogated. “What do you want inside these doors,” a guard asked. Seeing a dark lady coming across the threshold when no other entrants shared that complexion, he considered that I might be verging on forbidden territory. “I have come to do research,” I said. “The price is $20 for the day,” he returned. His manner and tone suggested that, in his eyes, I was unequal to those terms, and must therefore go back into the rain outside.

“That’s not a problem,” I replied, evenly. On the seventh floor, where the book I wanted was located, I came up against a similar scenario. An older Asian woman, a reference librarian, looked at me and said, before I parted my lips, that what I wanted was not on that floor. I replied as amiably as I might that I had done the necessary research and had, in hand, the call number of the book I sought. Since the society owns three copies of the book, and all are noted as available on the website, I did not share her opinion that I had no choice but to tuck tail and go immediately.

Once again, money was put up as an obstacle. “Well, if you think this is a helpful resource for you, are you prepared to pay for an annual membership?” I could be, I said. “But it’s too early to tell now. If I determine that what I need requires multiple visits,” I answered, “I will certainly pay more than the $20 I have already paid for today.”

A gently balding reference librarian sitting on the far end of the desk volunteered to help. In short order, he located the book I needed; unfortunately, it had no new information, just what I had already read online. My lesson for the day was that knowledge is not only to be found inside a book, but outside it as well. And as always, comparison can be instructive. April, T.S. Eliot, has written, is the cruelest of months. It is resistant to new growth. Other times, separate in years, can still talk with eloquence to new eras. As was true in Shakespeare’s time and in the freedom years of revolutionary New England as well as in Eliot’s drought times after one more death-filled war, voices coming up from the assumed bottom were often judged to be disruptive and less than welcome in spaces of public assembly.

—Barbara Lewis, Ph.D.

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Barbara Lewis heads the Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, where she is a faculty member in English. As a Francophone scholar, she co-translated Faulkner, Mississippi by Edouard Glissant, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As a cultural historian, she has published on lynching in drama, the minstrel stage, and the black arts movement. Dr. Lewis has taught at City, Lehman, New York University, and the University of Kentucky. She also blogs for The Public Humanist, and is a board member at New Federal Theater.

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