Academic journal article MELUS

Phillis Wheatley, Diaspora Subjectivity, and the African American Canon

Academic journal article MELUS

Phillis Wheatley, Diaspora Subjectivity, and the African American Canon

Article excerpt

Critics generally agree in considering Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to author and publish a book, as the founding figure of African American literature. In his foreword to the Schomburg series on black women writers, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. goes so far as to acknowledge her as progenitor of African American literature (Gates, "In Her Own Write" x)--a label which not only gives her "first" credit, but also suggests that her work was in some way a prototype for all "race" literature which followed hers. Although "the overwhelming tendency in Wheatley criticism has been to upbraid her for 'not being black enough'" (Gates, Trials 81), a more thorough address of the questions inherent in Gates's assumption about progenitorship places Wheatley's writing at the heart of any definition of an African American canon. If Wheatley's writing can be considered a prototype, what diaspora traces or influences did she distill and reshape? And if, as progenitor, she transmitted a model for African American writing, what was that model? Finally, as progenitor of a body of literature rather than simply a participant in an American strain of poetry, how did this poet possibly influence African American prose writing--a mode of expression which was arguably uncontested in the African American literary canon until the Harlem Renaissance?

Few critics have attempted to account for the uniqueness of Wheatley's contributions to diaspora writing as a key to her foundational role as African American literary progenitor. Perhaps Katherine Clay Bassard comes closest to explaining Wheatley's landmark role within a diasporal context. Bassard, I believe accurately, suggests that Wheatley's writing represents an evolution in diasporal subjectivity. Bassard's argument does not chart this progression in terms of other African diasporal subjects and commentators. Bassard focuses on the declarative nature of poems such as "An Answer to the Rebus" (1773) as assertions of subjective autonomy. For example, she sees this poem as "a gesture of self-authentication" (31), while viewing Wheatley's adroit negotiation of blackness in poems like "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773) as an effort at "cultural mooring" (38-39). Bassard believes that Wheatley perfects this effort in her elegies, through an implied yet absented communal counterpoint (59-70). But as Bassard suggests, Wheatley's pivotal role in diasporal discourse must be understood as a "global" role as well (43). Why was Wheatley's poetry recognized even in England and France as a watershed literary feat? And why was it a focal point for discussion of diasporal literary accomplishment among the likes of Voltaire, John Paul Jones, and Frangois, the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois (Gates, Trials 33, 40-41), as well as among diasporal writers such as Ignatius Sancho (Edwards and Dabydeen 27-28)? To fully understand the phenomenon, the "arrival" of Wheatley as African American literary fore-parent must be reconstrued as a consequence of a diasporal phenomenon.

We may best understand Wheatley's emergence as a distinct literary figure by distinguishing her from her black literary contemporaries. Kidnapped from Africa when he was seven or eight years old as well, James Eliza John Capitein had earned several degrees in Holland by 1742, supported by a philanthropic Dutch merchant. In that year--approximately thirty-one years prior to the publication of Wheatley's book--Capitein published a volume of sermons and a Latin treatise which, oddly, defends slavery. Briton Hammon published his narrative (A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man [1760]) approximately thirteen years prior to Wheatley's book. Former slave James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw published his A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince, as Written by Himself (c. 1770), (1) just three years prior to the publication of Wheatley's volume of poetry. …

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