Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote this essay to present it at the 2002 Jefferson Lecture sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rather than focus on Thomas Jefferson, Gates took the opportunity to highlight the contributions of one of the Virginian’s contemporaries, an enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts...
Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote this essay to present it at the 2002 Jefferson Lecture sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rather than focus on Thomas Jefferson, Gates took the opportunity to highlight the contributions of one of the Virginian’s contemporaries, an enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts who gained fame as a poet in the colonial era. Phyllis Wheatley’s contributions to American literature, Gates argues, include not only her poetic works but the resistance she had to overcome when white people refused to believe her capable of writing those works.
Rather than treat Wheatley as an anomaly or “genius,” Gates contextualizes the individual woman within the larger late 18th-century intellectual and social world. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was taken to the British colonial North America as an enslaved child; her original name has been lost. From Wheatley’s situation, Gates extends outward to show how differing religious and social attitudes toward innate ability shaped the slave owner’s behavior toward those they enslaved, including the important question of education. He interrogates the bases of Enlightenment thought that systematically denigrated the intelligence of African people specifically and of all dark-skinned people more generally. While the author uses the “trial” concept broadly to mean challenges or obstacles that African American writers faced, he also means it literally: Wheatley was called before a committee to defend herself against charges of fraud, as many eminent Bostonians refused to believe that an African person could write poetry—and sophisticated, beautiful poetry at that.
The fact that the committee was persuaded and signed a document attesting their belief in her author status is significant, Gates shows, not only in its own time. This custom became increasingly important over the next nine decades as the colonies turned into a nation, and that nation was divided over the question of black equality. Testaments from white people were increasingly required as support for abolitionist policies that proved crucial to U.S. government-mandated emancipation. Gates encourages the reader to question the attitude that Africans’ intelligence required “proof” from whites. Instead, he recommends, we should read and appreciate Americans’ early literary achievements, as well as delve deeper into the reasons that such production was severely constrained and considered threatening to whites’ self-conception of intellectual superiority.