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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1702

This essay is an expanded version of the lecture Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presented at the Library of Congress in March, 2002, as one of a series of the prestigious Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities. In his analysis of the controversy surrounding Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, Gates demonstrates that theoretical issues...

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This essay is an expanded version of the lecture Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presented at the Library of Congress in March, 2002, as one of a series of the prestigious Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities. In his analysis of the controversy surrounding Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, Gates demonstrates that theoretical issues debated in the academy are indeed relevant to the everyday lives of Americans. Gates, chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is a prominent intellectual. In his preface he states that the National Endowment for the Humanities, in honoring him by inviting him to lecture, acknowledges the importance of African American studies in the intellectual life of the United States.

His extended argument is crafted to explain how Thomas Jefferson and Wheatley were instrumental in founding the tradition of African American literature. An exchange of letters between a French diplomat and Jefferson debated the question of the intellectual potential of African slaves. The controversy continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and was a central issue in the abolitionist movement.

Gates has demonstrated throughout a prolific publishing career his mastery of a variety of literary genres, from personal memoir to academic critical theory. In this essay he writes for a general audience, presenting his argument in forceful, eloquent prose. He tells a compelling story, with frequent witty references to topical issues. Although securely grounded in his identity as an African American, Gates argues that the reading and interpretation of literature must be free of racial bias. Despite the explosive growth in the past thirty years of publication of creative works and literary criticism in African American studies, many readers will not be familiar with Wheatley’s life and work, so Gates provides the necessary biographical and historical background.

On October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley was called before a committee of eighteen prominent Bostonians who had gathered to judge whether the celebrated young poet was an imposter. The larger issue at stake was one widely debated in eighteenth century America and Europe: Did Africans have the intellectual capacity to create literature? At the heart of this question was the contemporary belief that Africans were a subspecies, existing somewhere between the apes and civilized humans. The confrontation between Wheatley and her interrogators was important. If she, an African, could create original literature, she must be recognized as fully human. Slavery, justified at that time by assuming the racial inferiority of Africans, would therefore be morally indefensible.

Wheatley had arrived in Boston on a sailing ship from West Africa in 1761. She was estimated to be seven or eight years old at the time because she had lost her front baby teeth. Although her birthplace was unknown, Gates speculates that she spoke Wolof, a West African language. She was purchased as a house slave by John Wheatley, a successful merchant, for his wife Susanna, who named the child Phillis after the ship that had brought her to America.

The Wheatleys’ daughter Mary taught Phillis to read and write both English and Latin. She was, without question, an immensely gifted child. In 1767 she began publishing her poetry in periodicals and broadsheets, poems printed on a single piece of paper and sold on the street. The public in both England and America gave her poetry an enthusiastic reception. She wrote primarily elegies and panegyrics, or praises for current events and well-known people. Her predominant form was the heroic couplet, pairs of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter, in the style of English poet Alexander Pope.

Placing Wheatley in the context of eighteenth century racial beliefs, Gates draws on the complex theories of such philosophers as Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume to frame the public debate on the question of the humanity of Africans. He quotes extensively from contemporary texts to illustrate popular beliefs, many of which would appall twenty-first century readers.

In the light of this controversy, Wheatley was a disturbing force in a society that questioned her humanity. The outcome of this trial by eminent Bostonians would have important social and political implications and would, Gates argues, revolutionize American literature. Because no transcripts of the event exist, Gates imagines how the proceedings might have occurred. Present among the eighteen prominent citizens were Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts; Andrew Oliver, a supporter of the Stamp Act of 1765; the Reverend Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather; Joseph Green, a satirical poet; and James Bowdoin, a friend of Benjamin Franklin. Many were Harvard graduates, representing the intellectual and political power elite of the eastern establishment, and most were slaveholders. They questioned Wheatley on the content of her poems, probably asking her to explain her allusions to the Bible and to classical Greek and Latin literature as proof that she was the author.

The committee’s verdict was favorable; all signed a document agreeing that Wheatley was indeed the author of the poems. Gates notes this as an early example of the custom requiring well-known white people to testify to the authenticity of the slave narratives that were published to support the cause of the nineteenth century abolitionist movement.

Although Wheatley was freed by her masters and enjoyed a brief period of fame, her life was one of hardship. The Wheatleys, unable to find a publisher for Phillis’s poetry in America, took her to England, where her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was the first volume of poetry published by an African American. As a popular figure in America before the Revolution, she met and spoke with many well-known people, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and John Hancock, She married a black man, John Peters, and had three children who died in infancy. Abandoned by her husband and unable to find publishers for her later poems, she died in poverty at the age of thirty.

Gates focuses his argument on the theoretical encounter between Phillis Wheatley and Thomas Jefferson, concluding that the controversy about her work inspired the beginnings of African American literature. Jefferson, he says, had always fascinated African Americans because of the essential contradictions of his life. The author of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming the equality of all men, he owned slaves on his Virginia plantation. It was a popular belief among black people that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, and some African Americans claimed Jefferson as an ancestor.

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, first printed privately in Paris in 1785, then in the United States in 1788, was inspired by his earlier correspondence with a French diplomat, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois. Jefferson disagreed with Marbois’s praise for Wheatley’s poetry, stating that although black people were gifted in music, they were intellectually inferior to the white race and to American Indians. While he did not doubt that Wheatley, like all African slaves, had a human soul, her art was imitative, not original. He said: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whatley [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” That is, Jefferson believed that while slaves had souls and were capable of having religious experiences, they lacked the qualities of originality and imagination that would make them the equal of white people.

Jefferson’s views challenged black intellectuals to prove him wrong and generated a body of writing that demonstrated their creative abilities. Although Wheatley and Jefferson never met, Gates sees this public discussion of Jefferson’s life and Wheatley’s poetry as the foundation for the tradition of African American literature. He lists numerous examples of this literature. David Walker wrote An Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Couloured Citizens of the World (1829) in which he praised Jefferson’s intellectual gifts and called upon black people to use the Declaration of Independence as a model for achieving their own freedom. Frederick Douglass, in a famous speech in 1852, said that he refused to celebrate the Fourth of July but at the same time praised Jefferson’s genius in writing the Declaration of Independence. A popular novel by William Wells Brown, Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853), furthered the rumor of Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings and included a scene in which he sold his own daughter.

Wheatley’s poetry, originally praised by black intellectuals as evidence of the creative powers of African Americans, underwent a revision in the early twentieth century. At issue was an early poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America (1768), in which Wheatley appeared to support slavery by saying that she had been redeemed into her life as a Christian when she was brought to America. Ignoring other poems in which she attacked tyranny and praised freedom, critics began to denigrate her work on the evidence of this one short poem. James Weldon Johnson and Wallace Thurman, influential writers of the 1920’s, saw her work as artistically inferior and timid in its failure to condemn slavery. Wheatley had been transformed from a symbol of black achievement to a representative of complicity with her white masters.

In Gates’s view, the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s was particularly vituperative in its criticism of Wheatley. Some critics of this period called her “an early Boston Aunt Jemima” and “a colonial handkerchief head.” Gates strongly criticizes such influential black critics as Amiri Baraka, Addison Gayle, and Dudley Randall for their racist standards of political correctness in literature, determining who is “too white” or “not black enough.”

Consistent with his philosophy in his other writings, Gates concludes with a plea for race-free criticism. “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.” He cites the difficulties of Wheatley’s life and her artistic achievement as the inspiration for other writers and urges that she be welcomed back into the history of American literature. A comprehensive bibliography includes references to the writings of and about Wheatley as well as references to racial issues in American history and biographies of the historical figures noted in the text.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1728.

The New Yorker, January 20, 2003, pp. 82-87.

Washington Monthly 35, no. 6 (June, 2003): 54-55.

The Washington Post, March 26, 2002, p. C8.

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