Henry Louis Gates’s latest book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, is more than the story of America’s first black poet; it recounts the opening chapter in a struggle for literary and racial identity that began in the 18th century and continues to this day. Much like its title character, the book, though small in stature (only 107 pages), is full of powerful surprises.
The biggest surprise of all is that only 12 years after her 1761 arrival in Boston on a slave ship, speaking only Wolof, her native tongue, Phillis Wheatley was publishing the first book of poetry in the Western world by an African-American writer. Wheatley’s masters, John and Susanna Wheatley, and their daughter, Mary, first opened the door to this stunning achievement. For reasons not fully known, this trio took it upon themselves to tutor young Phillis in English, Latin, and the Bible. It was not long before the precocious black child was writing and publishing poetry clearly reflecting the influence of such literary giants as Alexander Pope and John Milton.
Phillis Wheatley’s reputation quickly grew in England, where her first and only volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. While she was not accorded as much acclaim in the United States, her literary talents did attract the attention of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and she became a darling of American abolitionists, who pointed to her achievements “as proof positive of the equality of the African, and therefore as a reason to abolish slavery.”
But many white Americans impugned Phillis Wheatley’s authenticity by defining her as nothing more than a classical “imitator.” In fact, some, like Thomas Jefferson, insisted that it was virtually impossible for blacks, whom he considered mentally inferior to whites, to produce great art or poetry. To Jefferson, “The compositions composed under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”
But for me the greater tragedy of Phillis Wheatley’s life, as described by Gates, was not the doubt or scorn rained upon her by skeptical whites, who, against all evidence, could not bring themselves to believe that an African slave girl could write poetry that captured the attention of both King George and George Washington. After all, Wheatley’s achievements were validated in her day by other members of the white intelligentsia, a recognition that not only loosed the shackles of her own literary dreams, but proclaimed the humanity of all African people and paved the way for what has become a remarkable African American literary tradition. That alone should have secured for her a place of undisputed veneration, especially in black literary circles. But, unfortunately, that has not been the case, and that is the greater tragedy. Hard as she struggled during her lifetime to gain the recognition she deserved, the indignities heaped on Wheatley in the years after her death, at the hands of her own people nonetheless, have inflicted an even greater injustice to her legacy.
Gates describes how, what he calls “the politics of authenticity” infected criticism of Wheatley’s work by 19th- and 20th-century black intellectuals and writers, who denigrated her for not speaking out more forcefully against slavery. The genesis of this antipathy is traced to an eight-line poem Ms. Wheatley wrote when she was 14 entitled “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
The first line reads: ” ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land.” The poem is an indictment of her African roots and a paean to her captors and their religion. Encountered with 21st-century sensibilities, it is a poem devoid of any trace of black pride. Even though Ms. Wheatley later wrote and spoke out powerfully against the human costs of slavery, the damage was done. Looking back at Wheatley from the vast expanse of two centuries of civil rights protest and progress, these modern day African-American critics have declared that the 18th-century prodigy was not “black enough,” or worse, an Uncle Tom.
This double bind of denigration, from both the whites of her day and the blacks of ours, is the most fascinating aspect of Gates’s story. Many black writers and professionals live in a similar cultural purgatory today. Anyone who has worn the proud but heavy mantle of a black “first” knows that, for a while at least, white stares of skepticism and white arms of condescension come with the territory. It is also true that success in the white world can cause an estrangement of sorts from black roots and lead to a life lived in cultural limbo. Thankfully, for Phillis Wheatley the downside of her black success, though seeded during her lifetime, only fully sprouted after her death.