Tasha C. Miller Phillis Wheatley Against All Odds: The Enlightenment, Triumph and Legacy of an African Slave The book here proposed for publication displays perhaps one of the greatest instances of pure unassisted genius that the world ever produced. –Archibald Bell
The world is made up of seven continents all beautiful in their own right, all proud of their natural resources and national treasures. But many have storied pasts that they would rather forget and never repeat. Africa, the world’s second largest and second most populated continent after Asia and widely regarded as the birthplace of the human race possesses an ugly past with wounds so deep that no amount of time will heal them. Slavery as early as the 7th century has snatched nearly twenty eight million Africans from their motherland. African slave labor contributed immensely to the commercial and industrial revolution in the United States. On the eve of the Revolution the town of Boston had approximately six hundred slaves, mostly house servants. One of those servants was a young girl named Phillis Wheatley. Even though sold into slavery and labeled an “uncultivated barbarian” from Africa, Phillis Wheatley’s achievements solidified not only her importance to Boston but to the world. Her ability to learn and create changed the belief that slaves were sub human, her encounter with Thomas Jefferson sparked an entire literary movement and her success played a role in forcing Boston to practice liberty and equality for all of its people. Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753. After being kidnapped off the coast of Guinea, Phillis arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761 on a slave ship bearing the name Phillis, (the origin of her new American name). Phillis was purchased by John Wheatley a prosperous tailor and merchant. Phillis’ duty was to serve as his wife’s servant. Phillis and her mistress, Susanna Wheatley rapidly developed a close personal relationship and Phillis, a willing participant in the stimulating environment of the Wheatley household thrived under their tutelage. The Wheatley’s encouraged Phillis to learn and instructed her in English, History, Greek, Latin classics and the Bible. Phillis, a quick learner flourished. Capable of far more than imitating or regurgitating as most whites believe of blacks at the time, Phillis kept pen and paper by her bed in the event that she was inspired to write in the middle of the night. While the true reason behind the Wheatley family’s unrelenting dedication to Phillis’ education and subsequent success is not widely known, John Wheatley was indeed a champion of Phillis. In the preface of her first collection of poetry he writes; Without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she, in sixteen months time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree, as to read…the most difficult parts of the sacred writings to the great astonishment of all who heard her. (Mason)
It is clear from reading John Wheatley’s own words how impressed he was with Phillis’ achievements. Within two years of arriving in America Phillis was fully literate and composing poems and letters. Some time in1772 John Wheatley’s devotion and enthusiasm to Phillis’ poetry led him to gather a panel to verify the authenticity and authorship of her poems. (Gates, 65) In order to understand the reason for the meeting one must understand the idea of race at the time and how it made whites incredulous of Phillis’ achievements. During the period Africans were very much considered creatures, or sub human, a type of species of man, but more related to an ape than to Europeans (Gates, 59). So the thought of an African or a Negro creating literature was a total impossibility. It is quite likely that during the time John Wheatley only wanted to prove Phillis’ capabilities as a literary artist but what he did was answer this question. Was any slave or Negro capable of producing literature? The exact details of the meeting are lost to history but historian Henry Louis Gates imagines the scene this way: No doubt the young woman would have been demure, soft-spoken, and frightened, for she was about to undergo one of the oddest oral examinations on record, one that would determine the course of her life and the fate of her work, and one that, ultimately, would determine whether she remained a slave or would be set free. The stakes, in other words, were as high as they could get for an oral exam. She is on trial and so is her race. (Gates, 59)
Even though no transcripts of the meeting with Phillis and her examiners exists it is a certainty that she passes their oral exam leaving none of them uncertain. After her examination by the eighteen men, a group made up of Massachusetts royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and sixteen other Bay Colony notables including John Hancock they drafted and all agreed to sign the following proclamation. (Nott, 21) We whose Names are under-written, do assure the world that the poems specified in the following page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is under the disadvantage of serving as a slave in a family in this town. She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them.
Undoubtedly it pained the men to write such a declaration, to publicly declare that the young Wheatley was indeed the author of the poems and not merely reciting another’s words from memory. Even in what must have been a moment of triumph for the young Phillis, she is referred to as an animal, “an uncultivated barbarian from Africa.” In what appears to have been a moment of defeat for the men they decide to strike back at Phillis seemingly in an effort to remind her and all who read their statement that regardless of her level of education and potential achievements, she was less than human. Phillis Wheatley’s achievements solidified not only her importance to Boston but to the world. Her ability to learn and have original thoughts gradually and against all odds changed the belief that African slaves were less than human. One can grasp the importance of the oral interrogation not only for Phillis herself but for all African slaves when Henry Louis Gates writes; 2
If she had indeed written her poems, then this would demonstrate that Africans were human beings and should be liberated from slavery. If, on the other hand, she had not written, or could not write her poems, or if indeed she was like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly, then that would be another matter entirely. Essentially, she was auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people. (Gates, 219)
It may perhaps be a stretch that Gates has placed the potential emancipation of slaves on whether or not Phillis Wheatley’s authorship could be proven. But, it is not such a stretch of the imagination to assume that if she had been a fraud, and proved all the white people right when they claimed Africans were not intellectually capable of writing poetry, she would have indeed failed to prove the humanity for an entire race of people. Phillis’ collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language, marking the true beginning of the African American literary tradition. The publication of her book of poetry was significant for various reasons, while not only the first book of poetry published by a black American, it has been argued to be the first book of any kind published by a black American, male or female. (Nott, 23) This accomplishment is made even more significant when one considers that Wheatley was one of only three Americans who were able to publish poetry and prose while still in bondage. (The other two were Jupiter Hammon[1711-179?] and George Moses Horton [1797-1883]). That only two others were able to achieve publication while still enslaved only heightens Wheatley’s successes. “With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley, almost immediately, became the most famous African on the face of the earth, the Oprah Winfrey of her time.” (Gates, 271) After the publication of her book in London (Even after her authorship had been proven at the oral examination still no American publisher would publish it.) Phillis was the toast of England. She met with the Earl of Dartmouth and Benjamin Franklin among other dignitaries. Even Voltaire was moved, in 1774, to write to a correspondent that Wheatley had proven that blacks could write poetry. (Gates, 264) Phillis Wheatley’s accomplishments were far reaching, even beyond her efforts toward her own personal growth; she was a source of inspiration for an entire race, a catalyst for change and the spark that helped set fire to a new movement in literature. Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of Phillis Wheatley has long been deemed a contributing factor to the start of the African American literary movement. Ironically, the pair never met, but Jefferson was peculiarly preoccupied with denouncing the work of Wheatley. “Jefferson’s denigration of Wheatley seems aimed at the antislavery writers who since 1773 had cited her so frequently as proof positive of the equality of the African, and therefore as a reason to abolish slavery.” (Nott) Jefferson an owner of slaves himself thought slaves had souls, but that merely the state of their existence, that of an African, a sub human, and a slave was “ample poetic material.” They were bankrupt of the ability to reflect and reason 3
and therefore were incapable of creating poetry. “It appears to me that in memory they are equal to whites, in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” (Gates, 335) Jefferson was harsh in his criticism of Wheatley, the power of her presence in his mind is apparent in his attack on her even years after her death. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. (Jefferson)
Jefferson was convinced that the entire race was mentally inferior to whites and that alone made the idea of an African having an original thought or creating what one would deem art simply ludicrous. As vehemently as Jefferson fought against the glorification of Wheatley and her written words, he did not know that he would inspire an entire race of people to rise up against him with words of their own. Henry Louis Gates writes; Jefferson’s comments about the role of their literature in any meaningful assessment of the African-American’s civil rights became the strongest motivation for blacks to create a body of literature that would implicitly prove Jefferson wrong. This is Wheatley’s, and Jefferson’s, curious legacy in American Literature. (Gates, 402)
Jefferson’s true intentions may have only been to prove the abolitionists wrong when they used Phillis Wheatley as a spokeswoman to force change. But when he refuted the equality of slaves by bashing a young Phillis who had become a symbol of hope and possibility to an entire race of people, he only fueled their fire. That same inherent misery that Jefferson claimed lied in Phillis and every wretched soul unlucky enough to be African and a slave produced not only a body of work but a movement in literature that has birthed some of the finest words ever to grace a page. Wheatley’s accomplishments and Thomas Jefferson’s preoccupation with denouncing her solidified her importance to the world and the literary community and that influence helped to change Boston. She was instrumental in Boston finally practicing the liberty and equality that it preached about to others. In Boston the elitist cried for the rights of men while they continued to enjoy the labor of slaves in their own homes. In 1771, for example, John Hancock one of the richest men in Boston paid taxes on two slaves and a leading Whig politician, Dr. Joseph Warren paid taxes on one slave. (Massachusetts Archives) Newspapers in Boston attacked tyranny in Britain but at the same time advertised slave auctions and ran notices of rewards for runaway slaves. Wheatley’s public presence in Boston affected the city politically. Boston newspapers and in particular the Boston Gazette is a case in point of the public sphere in operation. The Gazette’s main purpose was to control public opinion and force political leanings. Operating in this context the writing exceeded much more than mere personal 4
opinions. Mentions of Phillis Wheatley in the Gazette implied how intertwined she was in the political activity in Boston. Boston at the time was a small town, far from the metropolis of today and Wheatley knew many important politicians and religious leaders and perhaps even more important, they knew her. Not only had patriot, preacher, educator, and Caucus Club member Samuel Cooper attested to Wheatley's poetic abilities, he had baptized the poet in 1771. (Nott, 31) The Gazette’s notice of Wheatley's return from her voyage to London for the promotion of her book suggests that her public presence in Boston was just as much a political presence. During that visit to England during the summer of 1773 after the publication of her collection of poetry, agitation against slavery in Boston rose again, this time was marked by at least five petitions to the general court from African slaves seeking their liberation. (Akers, 404) The English, using Wheatley’s book as a point of evidence, had condemned the hypocrisy of a colony that insisted on liberty and equality when it came to its relationship to England but did not extend those principles to its own population. The people of Boston,” wrote the reviewer, “boast themselves chiefly on their principles of liberty. One such act as the purchase of her freedom, would, in our opinion, have done them more honour than hanging a thousand trees with ribbons and emblems.” Anti-slavery emphasis, humanistic logic, and even persuasive pathos mix in these reviews. Wheatley was both the “rara avis” as well as the humanist’s proof of the universal nature of mankind. (Monthly Review, 458)
Apparently due to the pressure from England within a month of the publication of Phillis’ book and her celebrated return to Boston the Wheatley’s freed Phillis from slavery. Phillis Wheatley was not necessarily a willing spokeswoman for the cause. In context it could be argued that in comparison to the plight of her fellow African slaves Phillis was fortunate in that she was allowed to learn, and grow intellectually and ultimately to feed her mind. It was never her intention to represent her entire race with her actions or to be attacked by politicians to whom she had never met, or to spark a literary movement fueled initially by revenge and it is safe to assume that she had not set out to change the political landscape of Boston, but in the end she did it all. Phillis Wheatley had two parallel beginnings or fresh starts both set in Boston Harbor. The first when she arrived in 1761 as an 8 year old slave from Africa, an “uncultivated Barbarian” destined for a life full of labor and absent of freedom. And again in 1773 when she returned to Boston from London as an “extraordinary poetical genius”, the first published African American author and soon to be emancipated slave. Wheatley's public presence had undergone a significant transformation. (Nott, 21) Although a slave and labeled an uncultivated barbarian from Africa, Phillis Wheatley’s achievements solidify her importance to Boston and to the world. Her ability to learn and create changed the belief that slaves were sub human, her
encounter with Thomas Jefferson sparked an entire literary movement and most importantly, her successes literally forced Boston to practice liberty and equality for all of its people.
Akers, Charles W., Our Modern Egyptians: Phillis Wheatley and the Whig Campaign Against Slavery in Revolutionary Boston. The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 397-410. Print. Bell, Archibald, Advertiser in August, September 13, 1773. Print. London publisher who printed PhillisWheatleyâ€™s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is quoted in the Advertiser newspaper. Gates Jr., Henry Louis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003. Digital. Gates brings scholarly insight and a love of black literature to this examination of how Wheatley, the first published African American poet, has survived the judgment of past and contemporary critics. After her poems appeared in 1773, distinguished American citizens (mostly white male slaveholders) set out to determine if Wheatley, or for that matter any black person, was capable of the higher thoughts and emotions required to create poetry. Underlying the debate was the humanity of blacks, the justification for their enslavement, and the moral culpability of the slaveholders. While Benjamin Franklin and George Washington accepted Wheatley's talent, Thomas Jefferson remained skeptical, shifting the focus from the authenticity of her authorship to the quality of her work. Generations later, black nationalists would also focus on the ideological quality of Wheatley's work, vilifying her as an apologist for slavery. Source: Gates Jr., Henry Louis. "Amazon.com: The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers (9780465027293): Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Books." Amazon.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2010. <http://www.amazon.com/Trials-Phillis-Wheatley-AmericasEncounters/dp/0465027296/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271544371&sr=8-1>. Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia, (London, 1787). Print. Thomas Jefferson left at his death a printed copy of his Notes on Virginia, containing many manuscript notes, several plates and a map, intended apparently for a new edition of the work. Source: Preface of the publisher, Notes on the State of Virginia. Nott, Walt, From "Uncultivated Barbarian" to "Poetical Genius": The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley. MELUS 18.3 (1993): 2132. Print. Construed as an "uncultivated Barbarian," Wheatley was just another slave among thousands, and therefore hardly worth notice. Yet recognized as a "Poetical Genius," Wheatley's comings and goings became worthy of public report. In a very real sense, upon her re-arrival in America, Wheatley had begun to exist. Source: Nott Massachusetts Archives, CXXXII, 92-147. Print. Since 20 percent of the individual valuations are missing, it is not always possible to know how many slaves were held by individual Whigs. Monthly Review (London) 49 (December 1773): 458. Print. John Wheatleyâ€™s biographical statement concerning Phillis in the preface to her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) is reproduced in Julian D. Mason, Jr., The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Chapel Hill, 1966). Print. Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston from Africa at the age of seven. Although John and Susannah Wheatley bought her as a slave, they recognized her intellectual gifts and educated her with their two children. The publication in 1773 of her "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" marked the first published book by an African American. Writing under her own name instead of anonymously or using an assumed name was also unusual for a woman in that period. The classical and religious themes in Phillis' poems reflect her New England education and upbringing; the only reference to racial injustice appears in "On Being Brought From Africa to America." Source: "Digital Collection -"Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral"." American Centuries: History and Art from New England. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2010. <http://www.americancenturies.mass.edu/collection/itempage.jsp?itemid=5758>.