What are the themes in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates Jr.? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please clearly identify at least 3 themes and devote a separate paragraph to a discussion of each one
The Othering of Black Americans
Thomas Jefferson's views—along with those of other prominent men—are discussed at length in "The Trials of Phillis Wheatley." It's clear that many of them thought of black Americans—and black people in general—as other than white people. They saw them as having souls, perhaps, but not that moral, intellectual, and artistic depths that white people had. Some even saw them as more closely related to animals than men. By making them the other, they could relegate them to slavery and inhuman treatment. They could disregard their cultural contributions or doubt the legitimacy of them.
Phillis Wheatley's Cultural Importance
Phillis Wheatley and her work has been criticized for various reasons at various times. When she was writing, she was too black for many publishers. They didn't think her work would sell or they weren't interested in publishing a black author to begin with. Gates argues that she's very important culturally. He says that she should be considered an important black author in American history. Gates makes it clear that it took a long time for the discussion of black literature to move from white critics to black critics. However, he argues for a reading of texts that isn't racial. He says that first Phillis was deemed to black to be important; later, she was deemed too white to be relevant.
Acknowledgment of Black Literature
One disturbing trend that perhaps started with Phillis Wheatley is the importance of white acknowledgment of black literature. If she had been decried as a plagiarist—even without evidence—Phillis's writing could have been lost to history. Though she was ultimately supported and legitimized by a group of white men, she still couldn't find a publisher in America. In 1773, her book of poetry titled Poems on Subjects Religious and Moral was published in London, and she became the first black woman to publish a book of poems. This was only possible because white people like the Countess of Huntingdon were willing to acknowledge her literary value and champion her.
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