The Auctioning of Phillis Wheatley

Finding and collecting Black Americana used to be easy.

Even a decade ago, folks would bring in boxes of incredible Americana and just “throw in” some book or novel item by or about Black American History. Sellers treated books by and about Black Americans as an interesting side note. It was similar to getting free undercoating for your new car.

Seller (digging through a box): “There is a Lincoln document, a lock of George Washington’s wig and Thomas Paine’s fingertip bone and some pretty poetry books by Black people… I can throw those in.”

Collectors and sellers and buyers were not only underwhelmed by these books (with a few exceptions), they were baffled by them.

As recently as twenty years ago, the demand for books by and about the Black American experience were misunderstood and practically unexplored in High School history class. Unless you count those so scary and so dreaded chapters. I learned the word “ambivalent” that year in Social Studies class when we all turned to the thin chapter on Reconstruction.

I almost fainted when I acquired this signed, first edition biography of A. Philip Randolph.

Luckily, in the last 100 years, books by Black folks of prestige fetched high enough prices to be displayed by booksellers and collectors. The usual suspects included: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and Phillis Wheatley.

Unsurprisingly, the line up is mostly of Black Men born within less than one hundred years before and after the Civil War bearing familiar names of dead, white statesmen. (But, so did the collectors.) The one lone female, Ms. Wheatley, was a poet and child of another war, the American Revolution. It is with Ms. Wheatley’s book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects (1773), that the collector of both Black Americana and Americana in general, turn their eyes up in aspiration.

Almost anything written by Ms. Wheatley, if brought to auction today, will set you back the price of a couple of fresh Tesla automobiles. A woman, captured in Africa and then sold for a trifle, was the writing sensation of the Revolutionary era. Material by Ms. Wheatley is now considered foundational to the collector of Americana with prices a decade ago being ridiculous and prices now being stratospheric.

The arrival and interest in Ms. Wheatley’s published poetry decades ago (ironically, she cannot escape the auction block), set off a spark with collectors who had either run out of ideas for collecting or were inspired by her appearance (many never having heard of her before). Including this writer.

She was the foot in the door. Now, the door is wide open and first edition books of first hand accounts of the Black Experience are becoming so collectible, that the price, like the universe, is expanding. Sourcing has been difficult and great books harder to find. (Just try and find a book written by any of the Black Panthers in a second hand store these days. I mean…you can’t find even find these books in Maine, people!

JUBILEE! Books about the Black Experience are HOT!

BOO!! They are too expensive for most folks — especially those witnessing the Black Experience first hand!

But, don’t let that stop you from looking.

I might try the multiverse.

Always keep the faith.

That’s the American way.

Phillis Wheatley - Poems, Quotes & Facts - Biography
Stay Beautiful.

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