The Triumphs and Travails of Phillis Wheatley

Lucas Morel

December 1, 2003

Today marks the 219th anniversary of the death of one of America’s most famous poets, Phillis Wheatley. At the tender age of 31, she passed this earth a poor widow, but not before achieving international renown for poems few believed possible for a former African slave. Thanks to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University and director of its W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, we now have a splendid little volume that reflects upon Wheatley’s struggle to make poetry her livelihood amidst an American people unbelieving in more ways than one.

The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers ($18.95, Basic Civitas Books) offers an engaging account of the triumphs and travails of Phillis Wheatley, an African slave girl who quickly mastered the English language upon arriving in the United States at the age of eight. Within a few years, she not only taught herself to write but to compose poetry that begged the credulity of New England’s powers that be. So much so, she could not solicit enough subscribers to purchase her book of poems because few thought an African could have written them. A trial of sorts was set up to determine the veracity of the teenager’s claims, which Gates uses to explore this and later controversies surrounding the young poet’s life.

To see why her poetry remains so controversial, one need only read “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which Wheatley penned in 1773 at the age of 14:

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die,”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

The poem focuses on Providence and salvation: specifically, the poet’s conversion to Christianity as a consequence of her surviving the infamous middle passage from Africa to America. She was later criticized for defending the slave trade as a means of civilizing Africans brought to America. But to this reader’s lights, further reflection upon the poem suggests that its true intention is to move the reader to think more soberly, candidly, and conscientiously about the supposed benefits of the notorious middle passage. In sum, how is “being brought from Africa to America” (note the passive voice) a betterment of the African’s condition?

Wheatley’s poem raises several important questions: In what way is being brought from Africa to America an act of God’s “mercy”? If Africa is really “Pagan,” what makes America a land of “Christians” who offer a “Saviour” to the African slave? If Wheatley’s “benighted soul” can be “taught” to “understand” the truths of Christianity, does this not establish her equal humanity, thereby refuting claims that Africans are not moral, rational beings? In short, do Americans really believe in America? Read this way, the poem becomes rife with irony. It gets the reader to agree almost too quickly with its premises in order to move them to conclusions they have yet to act fully upon. To agree with the poem is to leave one to reconcile American principles—religious and political—with American practice toward the African.

Gates recounts other obstacles to Wheatley’s path to fame, arguing that Thomas Jefferson’s public doubts about her (or any African’s) capacity to produce true art both set back and stimulated black literature for subsequent generations. For his part, George Washington, upon reading a poem Wheatley dedicated to him during the Revolutionary War, replied: “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.” But an ironic case in point involves black militants who, two centuries later, set themselves up to judge her merits. Suffice it to say, her “authenticity” as a poet remains a matter of concern in the 21st century.

This reader wished Gates, author of The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), had spent more time offering his own evaluation of Wheatley’s artistry. Her experience as an African-slave-turned-American-citizen wends its way both overtly and covertly into her writings, offering a perspective on the early American republic worthy of serious reflection in our racially troubled times. That said, Gates’s short but sparkling narrative, which first saw light as the Jefferson Lecture delivered at the Library of Congress in 2002 (and then as a New Yorker article in January 2003), offers a thoughtful introduction to an important person and subject of American history.

Lucas E. Morel is associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.