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  • Phillis Wheatley and the "Miracle" of Miltonic Influence
  • Reginald A. Wilburn

In "Blueprint for Negro Writing," twentieth century novelist Richard Wright explains that black writers "must have in their consciousness the foreshortened picture of the whole, nourishing culture from which they were torn in Africa and of the long, complex … struggle to regain in some form and under alien conditions of life a whole culture again."1 His assessment of black writers' struggles in literary tradition points toward the Middle Passage and its linguistic terrors as a salient feature of African American writing. This assessment also brings John Milton's Paradise Lost to mind. African American writers invoke Milton's epic by contributing to a literary blueprint drafted by generations of artists in the black tradition whose writings attest to a cultural project of regaining an African paradise that was plundered by colonialist practices of enslavement. On the basis of their forced migration to the Americas and their colonized status, transplanted African writers and their African American descendants produce writings that mark colonialist civilizations as fallen and separated from God. Select writers in the early African American tradition articulate this Miltonic subtext directly in their works. Alluding [End Page 145] to, troping with, and sometimes justifying Milton as a racialized intertext of literary influence, such writers periodically signify on Paradise Lost to evoke recollections of the transatlantic slave trade that plundered an Africa that, for many, originally figured as a primordial paradise. Phillis Wheatley is a founding literary mother in this Africanist tradition of regaining paradise through speech acts of self-invention as evidenced by her numerous Miltonic engagements in Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773). She engages Milton in her extant poems "To a Gentleman of the Navy," which appear in two issues of the Royal American Magazine. These poems reveal Wheatley's ongoing commitment to writing in the epic tradition, a genre of sublime poetry she "neither sought nor knew" until arriving on American shores after surviving the physical traumas associated with the Middle Passage.2

The term "Middle Passage" refers to the forced migration of enslaved Africans to the New World. This horrific adventure across the Atlantic Ocean began with slave traders capturing and then transporting Africans to the New World in the darkened hulls of slave ships. Stephanie E. Smallwood regards this passage as a "setting for brutality and death, but also a locus of unparalleled displacement."3 Such a passage exceeds in scope Satan's horrific voyage through Chaos in book 2 of Paradise Lost. Wheatley survived the physical horrors of the Middle Passage only to experience the difficulty of linguistic variation in the form of learning English as a second language in colonial Anglo-America. Her Poems, the first book published by an African American, attests, to a limited degree, to Wheatley's triumphs in overcoming the linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage. As her poems to a British Navy gentleman demonstrate, Wheatley continued her struggles to overcome these barriers by actualizing her epic ambitions in these works. These poems especially showcase Wheatley's intellectual ability to claim a home space in the epic tradition. She not only inspires and justifies a Miltonic reading of herself and her work but also implicates Milton as an intertext of the Middle Passage along routes of literary influence echoing those of the transatlantic slave trade.

Writing about the "difficult miracle of black poetry in America," June Jordan comments on the "persistence" required of Wheatley, [End Page 146] who "dared to create [herself] a poet."4 It is a persistence, she explains, where black poets resolve to produce poetry whether or not they are "published …, loved, or unloved."5 Wheatley performs this difficult miracle despite having no African American literary tradition upon which to rely. In other words, as a cultural outsider to Western traditions, she must break the barrier of writing as an Africanist Other in such a way as to be understood by audiences of white readers prone to read or evaluate her work as intellectually inferior. These social contexts give poetic voice to the linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage. Undeterred by these formidable challenges, Wheatley resorted to "testing and testifying" with the...