- The Difficult MiracleReading Phillis Wheatley against the Master's Discourse
I. Who Is Phillis Wheatley?
The question is genuine, not rhetorical. One can answer by historical facts or by longstanding academic consensus. The facts say that "Phillis Wheatley" refers to the seven- or eight-year-old African girl that slavers kidnapped from the Muslim region of Senegambia, transported to Boston, and sold to John and Susannah Wheatley. No one knows her given name in Africa, because her owners name her after the slaveship that transports her, the Phillis, and give her their surname. She publishes her first poems by the age of 14. She continues to publish broadsides and occasional works drawing on several hybridized aesthetic, religious, and cultural traditions, though scholars tend to place her among early America's religious writers and neoclassical writers. When she releases Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, she becomes the first African American and [End Page 181] only the second woman in North America to publish a book of verse. She travels to and from Britain, sometimes with Wheatley family members and sometimes alone, to find funding for Poems and eventually receives the support of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Wheatley finds her freedom with the deaths of John and Susannah Wheatley. She maintains friendships with the likes of Obour Tanner and finds love with black freeman and entrepreneur John Peters. The couple faces many hardships during the American Revolution, though Wheatley believes in the fight for American independence. Some reports say that Phillis and John's children die in their infancy. Phillis dies in December 1784, not long after her third child's death, while business adversaries hold John in debtor's prison.
The most enduring scholarly consensus offers a much more heavy-handed and limiting answer, an answer that this essay aims to displace. The consensus formed in the 1920s, consolidated itself in the 1960s, and has lasted into the twenty-first century, as this essay will show through analyzing several anthologies and articles that grapple with Wheatley's place in literary history. One can call this consensus the "accommodationist description of Phillis Wheatley."
The accommodationist description makes Phillis Wheatley an important historical persona but not an important writer. Scholars who abide by this description tend to make the following claims: Wheatley plays a crucial role in combatting stereotypical representations of black people across the Atlantic World in the late eighteenth century. Her literary achievements are mixed, partly due to age and generation, because Wheatley publishes Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, well before the Romanticists take Anglophone poetry to new heights. With Blake and Wordsworth as models, instead of Pope, she might have maximized her poetic potential. Without these models, we may applaud Wheatley's attention to neoclassical form. We may only applaud lukewarmly, however, because Wheatley depends on Pope and similar authors too much, to the point of mere imitation. Whether poetic imitation distracts her, Christian devotion constrains her, or social norms assuage her, the scholarly consensus says Wheatley's poetry does not address the plight of black people, especially the enslaved, save in slightly subversive ways. The accommodationist Phillis Wheatley has impacted all levels of [End Page 182] American education, shaping academic and popular understandings of her as a poet.
Gene Jarrett says that "as meaningful as Phillis Wheatley's poetry may have been in her time and continues to be in ours, equally if not more meaningful" is her role as "a flashpoint for a broader intellectual debate over genius, race, and representation at the turn of the nineteenth century" (Jarrett 2011, 314–15). This essay holds that Wheatley is an equally meaningful "flashpoint" for theorizing the origins of African American letters as a field of literary productivity worthy of scholarly research. The consensus just described was essential to institutionalizing African American literary studies in the U.S. academy across the twentieth century. The accommodationist description fits squarely into a teleology in which African American literature begins with confused or racially misidentified writers, then finds its racial consciousness throughout the nineteenth century, and finally reaches its zenith in the civil...