Henry Louis Gates, Jr. opens his book by describing the trial that Phillis Wheatley had to undergo in Boston. A group of influential men gathered to determine whether the young slave girl had actually written her own poetry. Many of them didn't believe that a black person had the same capability to write as a white person and that she was plagiarising or mimicking. He says:
No doubt the young woman would have been demure, soft-spoken, and frightened, for she was about to undergo one of the oddest oral examinations on record, ont hat would determine the course of her life and the fate of her work, and one that, ultimately, would determine whether she remained a slave or would be set free. The stakes, in other words, were as high as they could get for an oral exam. She is on trial and so is her race.
Wheatley was eventually found to be the author of her poems. This didn't help her personally. She was freed from slavery but had difficulty becoming published because of her race. Her life was one of hardship; her children died young and she died relatively young and in poverty. However, the men's acknowledgment that she wrote her own poems was one of the influential moments for black literature in America. It was a recognition that black people did have the same capabilities as white people.
As the years went by, though, Wheatley was decried by black critics because of her views on her life and slavery. She wrote a poem about the positive experience of being brought to America as a slave, for example. She didn't condemn slavery in strong enough terms. Gates says:
Too black to be taken seriously by white critics of the eighteenth century, Wheatley was now considered too white to interest black critics of the twentieth. Precisely the sort of mastery of the literary craft and themes that led to her vindication before the Boston town-hall tribunal was now summoned as proof that she was, culturally, an impostor. As new cultural vanguards sought to police and patrol the boundaries of black art, Wheatley's glorious carriage would become her tumbril.
He disagrees with this take on her work. He believes that she was an influential black artist who was shaped by her time, her religion, and her own experiences. He doesn't see her as an imposter. Wheatley influenced black literature by forcing a group of powerful white men to acknowledge her skill and humanity. In the opposite way, Gates argues that Thomas Jefferson influenced black literature by saying that black people weren't capable of great art on the same level as white people. He said this presented a challenge that people worked to overcome. According to Gates, Wheatley was treated unfairly by both white and black critics. He says:
And so we're reminded of our task, as readers: to learn to read Wheatley anew, unblinkered by the anxieties of her time and ours. That's the only way to let Phillis Wheatley take the stand. The challenge isn't to read white, or read black; it is to read. If Wheatley stood for anything, it was the creed that culture was, could be, the equal possession of all humanity. It was a lesson she was swift to teach, and that we have been slow to learn.
Gates argues for a scholarship that is colorblind. He believes that racial readings of texts miss the point. He says that literature belongs to everyone—including Phillis Wheatley, who wrote from her own perspective and with such talent that her writing became an issue in post-colonial America. At the end of his deliberation, he says that she should be included in the ranks of important black American writers.