THE TRIALS OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY: AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK POET AND HER ENCOUNTERS WITH THE FOUNDING FATHERS
Basic Civitas, $12.95
192 pages, paper
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES
I have never said this about any of the 100 or so books I have reviewed until now: Go out and buy this book immediately. If you have any interest in where this nation has been or where it is headed, this tiny pamphlet is the most clearly written, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful exposition about the American paradox about equality and race that you can find. Because it is small in size and modest in price, I predict many of you will want to buy multiple copies to give to your favorite dinner-table ranters because your own copy will find a permanent home on your bookshelf.
Ostensibly, this is the all too brief and sad story of Phillis Wheatley, a 7-year-old African slave girl brought in 1761 to Boston, where she was bought by the wife of a prominent tailor and merchant named John Wheatley. In the custom of those days, she was given her owner’s last name and, with some irony, called Phillis after the slave ship that had brought her into bondage.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard historian of black culture, manages with this book to erase some of the laughter that has followed him since his famous confrontation with the Cambridge, Mass., police. While telling the astonishing and ultimately tragic story of Phillis Wheatley, he includes an equally compelling meditation on how the questions of race and equality that haunted our Founders 250 years ago are considerably changed from how we think about race today.
With a good flair for storytelling, Mr. Gates jump-starts us ahead to a day in October 1772 when 18-year-old Phillis is brought before a panel of the most powerful government and cultural officials of the Bay Colony to decide a momentous issue that had become an international cause celebre: Was it possible that an African slave - and a female slave at that - had the intellectual capacity to write classical poetry in English?
This was not an idle question of literary quibbling, as Mr. Gates emphasizes. The issue at root was whether Africans were, according to many of the leading thinkers of the day - such as Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel - descendants of another “species of men,” related more to apes than Europeans. The fundamental question of the basic humanity of African slaves underpinned the moral juggling that most found necessary to justify the forcible enslavement of fellow creatures.
That underpinning was already starting to crack. That same year, the British high courts ruled in the famed Somerset case that a slave brought into Britain could not be taken against his will out of the country and back to slavery. It was a long time before Britain outlawed slavery inside its borders, but the fact that anti-slavery advocates could bring such a legal action and win it was truly earthshaking.
As Mr. Gates tells it, the questioning of Phillis about her literary gifts was another such tremor that shook the moralistic justification for slavery. The incident also marked the seminal moment in the development of black American literature and, with irony, another of the trials she would undergo. As it turns out, the panel of Boston’s great and good - most of them slave owners - came away convinced that the poems they examined had in fact been written by her.
It seems Phillis had been something of a prodigy from the start. John Wheatley testified that within 16 months of her arrival from Africa, Phillis had learned to speak and read English. Her first poem was written by the time she was 11, and at 13, she had her first poem published in a local newspaper. By 1772, Phillis was in correspondence with well-known literary figures in England and her owners were busy arranging for a London printer to publish a collection of her poetry, which became the first book ever to be published in English by a person of African descent. Its release in 1773 on both sides of the Atlantic made her a true international celebrity.
That year, the Wheatleys took Phillis to London, where she was lionized by the British establishment and anti-slavery advocates alike. While there, she met Benjamin Franklin, who, it is said, informed her that the Somerset decision meant that she did not have to return to Boston as a bondswoman. True or not, the Wheatleys cut short their stay and went home but freed Phillis shortly afterward.
While many Founders reacted with kindness and support as Phillis now faced the task of making her way in the world as a free woman, the notable exception was Thomas Jefferson, who just could not take aboard the common humanity of people of black African and white European descent. In something of a blessing, Phillis died alone and poor at the age of 30 and so probably was unaware that Jefferson had named her in a diatribe against all Africans whose intellectual capacities “are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”