Phillis Wheatley on Trial

By Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. | The New Yorker, January 20, 2003 | Go to article overview

Phillis Wheatley on Trial


Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., The New Yorker


It was the primal scene of African-American letters. Sometime before October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley, a slim African slave in her late teens who was a published poet, met with eighteen of the most influential thinkers and politicians of the Massachusetts Colony. The panel had been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: Was a Negro capable of producing literature? The details of the meeting have been lost to history, but I've often imagined how it all might have happened. Phillis walks into a room--perhaps in Boston's Town Hall, the Old Colony House--and stands before these New England illuminati with a manuscript consisting of twenty-odd poems that she claims to have written. She is on trial, and so is her race.

Wheatley's poems had been appearing in periodicals and newspapers in New England and Britain since she was fourteen. One of her adolescent works, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," displays her typical subject matter and the hallmarks of her early style--religious piety wrapped in heroic couplets. The eight-line poem has been widely anthologized in collections of African-American literature in this century, most recently in James G. Basker's "Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems About Slavery, 1660-1810" (Yale; $45). It is a modest and not particularly sophisticated paean to her Christian education, and expresses a forgiving, even grateful attitude toward human trafficking:

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.Some view our sable race with scornful eye,"Their colour is a diabolic die."Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

She had arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761, on board the Phillis, a slaver that was returning from Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Isles de Los, off the coast of Guinea. Most likely a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast, she was "a slender, frail, female child," naked except for a kilt made from "a quantity of dirty carpet," as a descendant of her owners wrote in 1834. She had lost her front teeth, and so was thought to be about seven or eight years old. Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a prosperous tailor and merchant, John Wheatley, acquired her as a house servant, and named her after the slave ship.

John and Susanna Wheatley had teen-aged twins, Nathaniel and Mary, who were living at home when Phillis arrived. Phillis spoke no English, and Mary, apparently with her mother's encouragement, began to teach her to read, tutoring her in English, Latin, and the Bible. By 1765, Wheatley had written her first poem; in 1767, when she was thirteen or fourteen, the Newport Mercury published a poem that Susanna Wheatley submitted on her behalf. In 1770, when she was about seventeen, an elegy she wrote on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, a popular English preacher who was a leader of the evangelical movement in England and America, was published in newspapers in Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia. Whitefield had been the personal chaplain of an English philanthropist, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Wheatley shrewdly apostrophized the Countess in the Whitefield elegy and sent her a letter of condolence with the poem enclosed. With the poem's publication in London, in 1771, Wheatley suddenly had a wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic.

As her literary reputation grew, however, so did doubts about her authenticity, and the Wheatleys, attempting to publish her manuscript, were unable to elicit the number of book orders that printers in those days required. Eighteenth-century philosophers like David Hume believed that blacks were a different species, and there was widespread incredulity at the idea of a black litterateur. It was John Wheatley who assembled the illustrious group of interrogators, hoping that they would support Phillis's claim of authorship, and that the opinion of the general public would follow. …

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