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

Start Your Free Trial

Who are the characters in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates Jr.? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please write a separate paragraph of analysis for each key character you discuss.

Expert Answers info

Lauren Willson, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Professor

bookM.A. from Radford University

calendarEducator since 2017

write1,502 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Law and Politics

Phillis Wheatley

She was an enslaved African American woman and a poet. When she was about 18 years old, she was called to a trial to determine whether she was truly the author of her own poems. Many white people believed that it was impossible for a black person to author such works. They saw her as a plagiarist or imitator. At the end of the trial, they acknowledged that she had written her own poetry.

Wheatley was brought to America on a slave ship as a child and purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston. She was tutored by their daughter after they realized how intelligent she was. They sent her to England where her poems were published as a book. Back in America, she was freed. She married. They lived in poverty and her children died at young ages. She was unable to find another publisher or work that paid much. She died around the age of 30. Scholars still argue over her importance as a black writer and whether she was a cultural imposter. Henry Louis Gates, Jr argues in his book that she is very important and should be considered influential.

Thomas Jefferson

He was one of Wheatley's critics who didn't believe that she had written her own poems. He said that religion could create a Phillis Wheatley, but not a poet. He thought her an imitator. This belief was rooted in Jefferson's racist assumptions that black people were inferior to white people and not capable of great art. Gates says that Jefferson's viewpoints challenged black writers to show that he was wrong. Art is one way that black people proved their humanity to a racist society.

Mary Wheatley

She was the daughter of the family who purchased Phillis. She tutored Phillis.

John Peters

He was Phillis's husband.

John Wheatley

He was a merchant in Boston. He was the father of the family that purchased Phillis.

George Washington

He was an admirer of Phillis's who wrote to her and expressed his appreciation for her work.

Selina Hastings

She was the Countess of Huntingdon. She helped Phillis publish her poems when publishers in America rejected them.

Thomas Hutchinson

He was the Governor of Massachusetts and one of the men present at the trial. His lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, was also there.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial