Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (Basic Civita Books, PB 2010)

A meditation on Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) and her importance to her own time and ours, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers is an extended essay based on literary historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s 2002 Jefferson Lecture at the Library of Congress, first published in hardcover 2003.

Phillis Wheatley was taken a slave in West Africa, shipped to Boston on a slave ship, a ‘slender, frail, female child’ about seven or eight years old, and bought ‘for a triffle’ by the prosperous merchant John Wheatley as a personal servant to his wife, Susanna Wheatley, in 1761.  

Taught by Susanna Wheatley and her daughter Mary to read, Phillis proved to be ‘rewardingly precocious’, according to one of her biographers, William H. Robinson.

In 1767, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, she had a poem published. And five years later, by 1772, she had a manuscript of 28 poems ready for publication – but no publisher. Who could believe an African teenager intellectually and artistically capable of producing poetry?  

After all, David Hume, in 1753, had written: “There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” And ten years later Immanuel Kant had seconded Hume’s ‘suspicion’ on Negroes to be “naturally inferior to the whites”.

And so eighteen ‘authenticators’, led by the governor of Massachusetts, His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, assembled in Boston in 1772 to examine Phillis Wheatley as to whether these poems were indeed ‘written by herself’ as John and Susanna Wheatley, and Phillis herself, had claimed.

She was on trial, and so was her race, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes. She passed with flying colors – but still no American publisher. Eventually Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773, making Wheatley the first African American to publish a book of any kind. And within a month of publication, the Wheatleys freed her.

But Phillis Wheatley’s trials as a poet were far from over. Thomas Jefferson – like another founding father, George Washington, himself a slave owner – was not impressed: “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley, but it could not produce a poet.

The reason and creativity of African Americans are no longer an issue, but for more than 200 years writers and critics have been arguing with Jefferson on the merits of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.

I will go with poet June Jordan’s assessment of Wheatley in her essay: “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America; Or, Something Like  a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley” (see Massachusetts Review, Summer 1986, or On Call: Political Essays, South End Press, 1985).