Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology

Article excerpt

Sometime in 1772, a young African girl walked demurely into a room in Boston to undergo an oral examination, the results of which would determine the direction of her life and work. Perhaps she was shocked upon entering the appointed room.

For there, perhaps gathered in a semicircle, sat eighteen of Boston's most notable citizens. Among them were John Erving, a prominent Boston merchant; the Reverend Charles Chauncy, pastor of he Tenth Congregational Church; and John Hancock, who would later gain fame for his signature on the Declaration of Independence. At the center of this group was His Excellency, Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, with Andrew Oliver, his lieutenant governor, close by his side.

Why had this august group been assembled? Why had it seen fit to summon this young African girl, scarcely eighteen years old, before it? This group of "the most respectable Characters in Boston," as it would later define itself, had assembled to question closely the African adolescent on the slender sheaf of poems that she claimed to have "written by herself." We can only speculate on the nature of the questions posed to this fledgling poet. ... We do know, however, that the African poet's responses were more than sufficient to prompt the eighteen august gentlemen to compose, sign, and publish a two-paragraph "Attestation," an open letter "To the Publick" that prefaces Phillis Wheatley's book. ... (Gates vii-viii)

In his forward to The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, "In ... Her Own Write," Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes the scene he imagines having preceded the validation of Wheatley's authorship by eighteen prominent Bostonians, during which the poet was questioned in order to ascertain her ability to have written the works ascribed to her. While there may be no historical evidence to support his recreation, as Kirstin Wilcox asserts (10), Gates does manage to capture some of the important elements in Wheatley's life as a poet in his imaginative recreation.(1) In particular, the scenario Gates recounts indicates an awareness of Wheatley's dominant audience as well as the unique historical moment in which she wrote.

While Wheatley's was clearly a bifurcated audience, there can be little doubt that the eighteen men who signed for her represented a major constituency for her poetry, among those who read the broadsides and newspapers in which she published and who had the public ear.(2) She knew these men because they had visited the Wheatley home, because she had heard them preach, or because they had established public reputations in Boston. These were also men for whom she had actually written poems, either to celebrate personal accomplishment or to mourn the passing of a loved one. In addition, they were men whose experience would not have included a Phillis Wheatley, and who might well have wondered whether the young author was a "serious" poet or a front for abolitionists. For, as previous critics have pointed out, Wheatley's poetry is not devoid of racial awareness, as had long been suggested. Antonio T. Bly asserts that Wheatley used her poems not simply to "denounce the hypocrisy practiced by white Christians, but also [to] express a strong sense of black pride to her fellow slaves, who were often read her poetry by slave masters who thought that her writings were harmless" (205-06). A number of the poems can be seen as direct appeals to her black counterparts to accept the Christian God as a means of salvation, if not in this world then certainly in the next. However, critics have yet to consider fully the possibility that Wheatley might have crafted her poems to work specifically upon the white audience that would have constituted her main readership, aside from overt pleas to accept the possibility of black Christians.

A close examination of two poems in particular, "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England" and "On Being Brought from Africa to America," suggests that they were designed to manipulate this audience in very specific ways. …