The Trials of Phillis Wheatley Questions and Answers
by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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Do you feel Phillis Wheatley ran away "spiritually from her race" by writing to a wider, more diverse audience?

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It seems very harsh to say that Phillis Wheatley ran away “spiritually from her race,” when the most notable fact about her early life is that she was kidnapped physically from her race. Wheatley’s achievement is remarkable by any standards. Virginia Woolf famously said that a woman needed money and a room of her own to be a writer—Phillis Wheatley did not even own herself. John and Susanna Wheatley taught her to read and write and provided her with books by classical poets, Milton and Pope. It is scarcely surprising that she followed the models she was given, particularly in her early poems.

To condemn Wheatley for not writing for and about African Americans or slaves is to apply twenty-first-century standards to her work. It is certainly not clear that she could have done so if she wanted. Despite being a celebrity for a few years, Wheatley never had much freedom or economic power, and she died in poverty at the age of thirty or thirty-one.

Wheatley says several times that her kidnapping and enslavement were actually advantages, since they brought her to America and allowed her to become a Christian. While this is a very uncomfortable idea for the modern reader, it is clear that Wheatley’s Christian faith is the single most important concern in her poetry. When it comes to this spiritual point, she is insistent on racial equality. In one of the very poems where she celebrates her good fortune in being brought to America, she points out,

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their color is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join th' angelic train.

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