(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

This essay is an expanded version of the lecture Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presented at the Library of Congress in March, 2002, as one of a series of the prestigious Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities. In his analysis of the controversy surrounding Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, Gates demonstrates that theoretical issues debated in the academy are indeed relevant to the everyday lives of Americans. Gates, chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is a prominent intellectual. In his preface he states that the National Endowment for the Humanities, in honoring him by inviting him to lecture, acknowledges the importance of African American studies in the intellectual life of the United States.

His extended argument is crafted to explain how Thomas Jefferson and Wheatley were instrumental in founding the tradition of African American literature. An exchange of letters between a French diplomat and Jefferson debated the question of the intellectual potential of African slaves. The controversy continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and was a central issue in the abolitionist movement.

Gates has demonstrated throughout a prolific publishing career his mastery of a variety of literary genres, from personal memoir to academic critical theory. In this essay he writes for a general audience, presenting his argument in forceful, eloquent prose. He tells a compelling story, with frequent witty references to topical issues. Although securely grounded in his identity as an African American, Gates argues that the reading and interpretation of literature must be free of racial bias. Despite the explosive growth in the past thirty years of publication of creative works and literary criticism in African American studies, many readers will not be familiar with Wheatley’s life and work, so Gates provides the necessary biographical and historical background.

On October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley was called before a committee of eighteen prominent Bostonians who had gathered to judge whether the celebrated young poet was an imposter. The larger issue at stake was one widely debated in eighteenth century America and Europe: Did Africans have the intellectual capacity to create literature? At the heart of this question was the contemporary belief that Africans were a subspecies, existing somewhere between the apes and civilized humans. The confrontation between Wheatley and her interrogators was important. If she, an African, could create original literature, she must be recognized as fully human. Slavery, justified at that time by assuming the racial inferiority of Africans, would therefore be morally indefensible.

Wheatley had arrived in Boston on a sailing ship from West Africa in 1761. She was estimated to be seven or eight years old at the time because she had lost her front baby teeth. Although her birthplace was unknown, Gates speculates that she spoke Wolof, a West African language. She was purchased as a house slave by John Wheatley, a successful merchant, for his wife Susanna, who named the child Phillis after the ship that had brought her to America.

The Wheatleys’ daughter Mary taught Phillis to read and write both English and Latin. She was, without question, an immensely gifted child. In 1767 she began publishing her poetry in periodicals and broadsheets, poems printed on a single piece of paper and sold on the street. The public in both England and America gave her poetry an enthusiastic reception. She wrote primarily elegies and panegyrics, or praises for current events and well-known people. Her predominant form was the heroic couplet, pairs of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter, in the style of English poet Alexander Pope.

Placing Wheatley in the context of eighteenth century racial beliefs, Gates draws on the complex theories of such philosophers as Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume to frame the public debate on the question of the humanity of Africans. He quotes extensively from contemporary texts to illustrate popular beliefs, many of which would appall twenty-first century readers.

In the light of this controversy, Wheatley was a disturbing...

(The entire section is 1702 words.)