Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Revolutionary Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

The following is part of a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.  I am  slowly reading though The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and writing about what I learn.  Here's what I learned today.

Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa, and was taken as slave to Boston in 1761, where she was bought by a wealthy tailor named John Wheatley for his wife, Susannah.  Though she was a slave, Wheatley was taught to read and write, and quickly proved to be something of a child prodigy.  In 1773, at age 19, she published her first volume of poems.  Wheatley was well-versed in classical Greek, Roman, and English literature, and her poetry reflects both her education, and her skill with language.  The exquisite quality of her poetry was a strong argument against negative stereotypes of both African Americans and women in the 18th century.  Her poetry deals with religious, literary, philosophical, and political themes.  She was an early advocate of the American Revolution, yet she was also keenly aware of the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of freedom, as she was herself a slave.  This idea is eloquently expressed in this excerpt from her poem "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America":

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancied happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parent's breast?
Steeled was that soul and by no misery moved
That from a father seized his babe beloved:
Such, such my case.  And can I then but pray
Orthers may never feel tyrannic sway?

This poem is amazing because it is both a call for American independence, and a stinging indictment of slavery, plus it was written to a government official for the English crown.  Phillis Wheatly is an important early American writer because she used her literary art to courageously challenge the social and political injustices of her day.  As the contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr writes: "Wheatley launched two traditions at once--the black American literary tradition and the black woman's literary tradition.  It is extraordinary that not just one but both of these traditions were founded simultaneously by a black woman--certainly an event unique in the history of literature."


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