In 1772, a slave girl had to prove she was a poet. She's had to do so ever since.
It was the primal scene of African-American letters. Sometime before October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley, a slim African slave in her late teens who was a published poet, met with eighteen of the most influential thinkers and politicians of the Massachusetts Colony. The panel had been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: Was a Negro capable of producing literature? The details of the meeting have been lost to history, but I've often imagined how it all might have happened. Phillis walks into a room perhaps in Boston's Town Hall, the Old Colony House-and stands before these New England illuminati with a manuscript consisting of twenty-odd poems that she claims to have written. She is on trial, and so is her race.
Wheatley's poems had been appearing in periodicals and newspapers in New England and Britain since she was fourteen. One of her adolescent works, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," displays her typical subject matter and the hallmarks of her early style-religious piety wrapped in heroic couplets. The eight-line poem has been widely anthologized in collections of African-American literature in this century, most recently in James G. Basker's "Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems About Slavery, 1660-1810" (Yale; $45). It is a modest and not particularly sophisticated paean to her Christian education, and expresses a forgiving, even grateful attitude toward human trafficking:
John and Susanna Wheatley had teenaged twins, Nathaniel and Mary, who were living at home when Phillis arrived. Phillis spoke no English, and Mary, apparently with her mother's encouragement, began to teach her to read, tutoring her in English, Latin, and the Bible. By 1765, Wheatley had written her first poem; in 1767, when she was thirteen or fourteen, the Newport Mercury published a poem that Susanna Wheatley submitted on her behalf. In 1770, when she was about seventeen, an elegy she wrote on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, a popular English preacher who was a leader of the evangelical movement in England and America, was published in newspapers in Boston, Newport New York, and Philadelphia. Whitefield had been the personal chaplain of an English philanthropist, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Wheatley shrewdly apostrophized the Countess in the Whitefield elegy and sent her a letter of condolence with the poem enclosed. With the poem's publication in London, in 1771, Wheatley suddenly had a wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic.
As her literary reputation grew, however so did doubts
about her authenticity, and the Wheatleys, attempting to publish her
manuscript, were unable to elicit the number of book orders that printers
in those days required. Eighteenth-century philosophers like David
Hume believed that blacks were a different species, and there was
widespread incredulity at the idea of a black litterateur. It was
John Wheatley who assembled the illustrious group of interrogators,
hoping that they would support Phillis's claim of authorship, and
that the opinion of the general public would follow.
Andrew Oliver, the colony's lieutenant governor, would have been seated on one side of Hutchinson. Oliver imprudently allowed himself to be publicly identified as a supporter of the Stamp Act of 1765, prompting angry crowds to ransack his house and uproot his garden. When, in 1774, Oliver had a stroke and died, commentators assumed that it was related to the political turmoil.
Quite a few men of the cloth were present. The Reverend
Mather Byles was the minister of the Hollis Street Congregational
Church, in Boston; he was the grandson of Increase Mather and the
nephew of Cotton Mather. As a young man, he had corresponded with
Alexander Pope and Isaac Watts, and in 1744 he had published a book
of verse, "Poems on Several Occasions." Like Hutchinson
and Oliver, Byles was a Tory loyalist, and he lost his pulpit when
Massachusetts finally rebelled. He was sentenced to banishment, later
commuted to house arrest, for his loyalist views. (Byles called the
sentry stationed just outside the house his "Observe-a-Tory")
Even after the validation of the esteemed Bostonians,
no American publisher was willing to take on Wheatley's manuscript,
and so Susanna Wheatley turned to English friends for help. The publishing
climate in England was more receptive to black authors. The Countess
of Huntingdon, though a slaveholder herself (she had inherited slaves
in Georgia), had already, in 1772, shepherded into print one of the
earliest slave narratives, by James Gronniosaw. Vincent Carretta,
a leading scholar of eighteenth-century black transatlantic literature
and an expert on Wheatley, has observed that the British market for
black literature may have been indirectly created by a court ruling,
in 1772, that made it illegal for slaves who had come to England to
be forcibly returned to the colonies. Although the ruling stopped
short of outlawing slavery in England, it encouraged an atmosphere
of sympathy toward blacks.
While Phillis was in London, where she had been sent with Nathaniel Wheatley in the spring of 1773 to oversee the book's publication, she met the Earl of Dartmouth, who gave her five guineas to buy the works of Alexander Pope; Granville Sharp, the scholar and antislavery activist, who took her to the Tower of London; and Brook Watson, a future Lord Mayor of London, who gave her a folio edition of "Paradise Lost." Benjamin Franklin paid her a visit, which he mentions in a letter to his nephew Jonathan Williams, Sr. "Upon your Recommendation I went to see the black Poetess and offer'd her any Services I could do her," he wrote. "And I have heard nothing since of her." On the strength of this seemingly perfunctory visit, Wheatley decided to dedicate her second volume of poetry to Franklin. Even an audience with King George was arranged, although she had to cancel it when Susanna Wheatley suddenly fell ill and needed her care.
Within a month of the book's publication and Phillis's
return to America, the Wheatleys freed her. (English reviewers, using
Wheatley's book as a point of departure, had condemned the hypocrisy
of a colony that insisted on liberty and equality when it came to
its relationship to England but did not extend those principles to
its own population.) Freedom meant that she became filly responsible
for her literary career, and for her finances. In mid-October, she
wrote a letter to David Wooster, the customs collector in New Haven,
alerting him that a shipment of her books would soon arrive from England,
and urging him to canvass among his friends for orders. "Use
your interest with Gentlemen & Ladies of your acquaintance to
subscribe also, for the more subscribers there are, the more it will
be for my advantage as I am to have half the Sale of the Books."
She continued, "This I am the more solicitous for, as I am now
upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine, &
it is the Chief I have to depend upon. I must also request you would
desire the Printers in New Haven, not to reprint that Book, as it
will be a great hurt to me, preventing any farther Benefit that I
might receive from the Sale of my Copies from England."
One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
In the event, Washington overcame his fear of the imputation of vanity and, by means of an intermediary, secured publication of Wheatley's pentametric praise in the Virginia Gazette, in March of 1776.
1776, Wheatley had moved back to Boston. In 1778, she married a black
man named John Peters. Peters was a small-time grocer and a sometime
lawyer about whom very little is known-only that he successfully applied
for the right to sell spirits in his store, and that a Wheatley relative
remembered him as someone who affected the airs of a gentleman. Meanwhile,
the poet continued her efforts to publish a second volume. In 1779,
she advertised six times in the Boston Evening Post & General
Advertiser, mentioning that she intended to dedicate the book to Benjamin
Franklin. The advertisements failed to generate the necessary number
of subscribers, and the book was never published.
To her black contemporaries, Wheatley was a heroine. Jupiter Hammon published a laudatory poem entitled "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley Ethiopian Poetess, in Boston," in 1778. Hammon's poem echoed and approved of the sentiments expressed in "On Being Brought from Africa to America": ìThou hast left the heathen shore, / Thro' mercy of the Lord, /Among the heathen live no more, / Come magnify thy God." Wheatley encouraged the work of other black artists, such as Hammon and Scipio Moorhead, a well known painter to whom she dedicated a poem. In letters to her best friend, Obour Tanner, a black woman she had met in Providence, Wheatley argued for the inherent right of blacks to be free. She corresponded with the English philanthropist John Thornton, a wealthy merchant and a friend of the Countess of Huntingdon. She used her fame and her acquaintance with political figures to complain bitterly about the human costs of the slave trade, as in a famous poem called "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth":
In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our Modem Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us.
In the half century following her death, Wheatley remained something of an icon in the abolitionist movement, and was frequently cited as proof of Africans' innate intellectual equality with whites.
At the same time, her popularity among the abolitionists brought her some formidable detractors. In "Notes on the State of Virginia," which was published in America in 1787, Thomas Jefferson dismissed Wheatley's poetry as undeserving of the name:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions composed under her name are below the dignity of criticism.
had plenty of experience "misery enough"-and, thanks to
the Wheatleys, training in spelling and composition. What she lacked,
Jefferson wrote, was an animating intellect. "Epictetus, Terence,
and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It
is not [the blacks'] condition then, but nature, which has produced
the distinction." The authentication of Wheatley's authorship
in 1772 missed the point, in Jefferson's view. The issue wasn't whether
she was the genuine author but whether what she produced was genuine
"One looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land, "James Weldon Johnson wrote about "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in 1922. Instead, one finds a "smug contentment at her own escape there from." Wallace Thurman, in 1928, called her "a third-rate imitation" of Alexander Pope: "Phillis in her day was a museum figure who would have caused more of a sensation if some contemporary Barnum had exploited her." Another black critic described her as "a clever imitator, nothing more."
By the nineteen-sixties, criticism of Wheatley had risen to a high pitch of disdain. Amiri Baraka, a founder of the Black Arts Movement, wrote in 1962 that Wheatley's "pleasant imitations of eighteenth-century English poetry are far and, finally, ludicrous departures from the huge black voices that splintered southern nights with their hollers, chants, arwhoolies, and ballits. " In "Images of the Negro in American Literature" (1966), Seymour Gross wrote, "This Negro poetess so well fits the Uncle Tom syndrome .... She is pious, grateful, retiring, and civil." A few years later, the critic Addison Gayle, Jr., issued his own bill of indictment: Wheatley, he wrote, was the first among black writers "to accept the images and symbols of degradation passed down from the South's most intellectual lights and the first to speak with a sensibility finely tuned by close approximation to [her] oppressors." She had, in sum, "surrendered the right to self-definition to others." Phillis Wheatley, who had once been cast as the great paragon of Negro achievement, was now given a new role: race traitor.
The examples could be multiplied, as versions of the Jeffersonian critique have been taken up by successive generations of black-writers and critics. Too black to be taken seriously by white critics in the eighteenth century; Wheatley was now considered too white to interest black critics in the twentieth. She was an impostor, a fraud, an avatar of inauthenticity. It's striking that Jefferson and Amiri Baraka, two figures in American letters who agreed on little else, could concur in the terms of their condemnation of Phillis Wheatley.
critics, her sacrifices, her courage, her humiliations, her trials
could never be enough. And so things came flail circle: the sorts
of racist suspicions and anxieties that first greeted Wheatley's writing
were now directed at forms of black expression that failed the new
test of cultural affirmation. The critics of the Black Arts Movement
and after were convening their own interrogators, and they were a
rather more hostile group than met that day in 1772. We
stood for anything, of course, it was the creed that culture did,
or could, belong equally to everyone. That's an ideal that has been
arraigned, interrogated, and prosecuted with unremitting zeal, but
it remains worth defending. The republic of letters that Wheatley
so yearned to join-one that might embrace the writing of both Jefferson
and his African-American descendants-was based on common expression,
not common experience. What would happen, then, if we ceased to stereotype
Wheatley, to cast her in this role or that, but, instead, read her,
with all the resourcefulness that she herself brought to her craft?
That's the only way to let Phillis Wheatley take the stand.