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Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons (BBC Radio 4)

Narrator: Sophie Okondeo
Producer: Hillary Robinson
Date: 9, 16, 23, 30 March 2007
Time: 9.15pm

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons is based upon the 1996 book of the same name by Ann Rinaldi, and abridged by Amanda Hancox. It concerns the story of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poetess. Told in a series of reminisces by Okonedo as Phillis, the story documents her capture and enslavement, her purchase by the Wheatley family and the reception of her work. Through the descriptions of her family life in modern-day Senegal, her enslaved life in America and her travel to England, the story both documents the strength and character of Phillis as well as the brutal and repressive reality of the Atlantic slave trade.

Told entirely in the first-person Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons succeeds in evoking the life and limitations of the enslaved. The narrative communicates the restrictive existence of Phillis in eighteenth century America, her struggle with identity, representation and freedom. Though in the Wheatley household, a relatively benevolent and liberal Boston merchant family, the sense of capture, power and domination that the family exert over Phillis is always present. Nathaniel, her master's son, and the secret object of her affections, remarks when Phillis broaches the subject of freedom, '...don't belabour this freedom business, its tedious.' Phillis's response is, 'unless you don't have it', though of course these words are only thought not spoken. Her silence and subservience to the family are evident regarding her love for Nathaniel, 'he does not know that I love him. To do so would me the end of me in this house. To be in love with the Master's son would be unforgivable.' Though Phillis might have the appearance of a form of freedom, in that the she is provided with education and her writing is encouraged, the evidence of her enslavement is manifest. This is certainly the case with her writing as she is made to perform in front of a succession of audiences; her talents and creativity are exploited just as her physical labour is exploited. Phillis remarks, 'My writing no longer belonged to me, it belonged to the Wheatley family like me.'

Identity is a central theme in the story, how Phillis as a black woman in a racist, patriarchal society searches for a sense of her own being. She is distraught to discover in her formative years that despite her learning and her ability she will never be like 'white folk.' Her struggle to establish her own identity is present in her writing, which she desires not to be judged by the fact that she as a black woman wrote it. She disputes, though not overtly, the role placed on her by a committee in Boston who seek to ascertain if 'the African is capable of art.' She laments, 'the whole future of my race should be put on my shoulders!' Writing appears as a form of escape from the confines of her enslavement, 'when I write, I'm not skinny, black, and I'm not a slave.' Thereby Phillis refuses to be made a contemporary role model; she is and remains her own person throughout. The drama unfolds around Phillis as the acclaim brought by her work brings her freedom but also the end of her contact with Nathaniel. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons is powerful and highly engaging as the narrator speaks from an unusual and distinctive position. Enslavement and identity are explored as Phillis is shown as an agent in the creation of her own life but still hampered by society's boundaries. This engaging programme is only held back by the use of 'Amazing Grace' as the title music.

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