The Brilliance of Phillis Wheatley


As I revealed at length in my previous post, I’m not good with 300-year-old literature. The Ye olde’s and Let thy’s and Thus attended’s and That he may be’s are overwhelmingly arcane, and my short attention span yields a very difficult reading process. Moreover, I’m not at all religious, and I’ve had very limited exposure to the bible (even as an English graduate student). So all of the evangelism and biblical language make reading Mather, Sewall, and Jupiter Hammon’s work like reading complex calculus theorems in Greek.

That being said, I can still get the gist of the writings. These two prominent, ivy-league, early colonial white men, Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, both wrote pamphlets on slavery. Mather wrote that teaching slaves Christianity would make them better slaves. Sewall wrote that slavery was wrong, using Biblical references, legal reasoning, and cost-benefit analysis as arguments. Both wrote in an evangelical Christian vein.

I can also understand why these works are important. These two men’s writings exemplify the precedent that 18th century whites set for African and African American slaves’ understanding of Christianity, as well as the precedent for writing about life and morality through the lens of Christianity. Jupiter Hammon’s writings apparently mark the first appearance of published African American writing. His works demonstrate the manifestation of these precedents unfolding. Hammon’s writing provides a remarkable example of how evangelical Christianity provided a lens through which African Americans could view the world and morality, as well a framework through which they could express themselves. In short, evangelical Christianity seems to have empowered African Americans by providing them with a means of self-expression and self-definition.

Now, Hammon’s writing, like Mather and Sewall’s, is particularly evangelical, so I found it particularly difficult to absorb. I was, however, able to pick up his main point – that devotion to God gave humans purpose and meaning, and that this devotion was a means to the ultimate end of Salvation – as well as his eventual and apparently sudden shift (though the evolution of his true beliefs is nowhere near explicitly evident merely through his published writings, which may have been edited for all we know) toward believing slavery to be a man-made sin. Hammon’s work is very rich, fascinating, and valuable in many respects, but it was not what interested me most.

Phillis Wheatley’s work struck me most powerfully. First, she appears to have been a child prodigy, having written sophisticated poetry by the age of thirteen. She appears to have significantly comprehended her potential and the implications of her talents, and to have been savvy enough to deftly navigate her eventual International celebrity. Most impressively, she appears to have been a remarkably capable, sensitive, brazen, clever, tactful, intelligent writer.

All of these qualities are evident in Wheatley’s writing, but it seems that readers and critics, both in her time and throughout history, have tended to miss these qualities, focusing more on presumed implications of her race, class, and socioeconomic status. Granted, she was recognized by many during her life as being brilliant (namely Voltaire), and I don’t want to presume that her work has stood the test of time merely because she was the first published African American female writer. It is a shame to think, though, that the quality of her writing may have been underestimated even among scholars who perhaps focused instead on the political, religious, or abolitionist motivations of her work.

Take, for example, her 1768 poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That 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, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I won’t go too deeply into this poem, except to say that it is remarkably elusive with regard to a central thesis. The poem seems to flow in a stream of consciousness – a terrifically poetic dream logic. She confoundingly dips into her cultural and religious origins, her conversion to Christianity, racism, and some curious notion of grace. She implicitly evokes the sin and inhumanity of the powers that be, and confidently advocates equality. By the end of the poem, I had forgotten the title, and revisiting the title redefined the whole poem over again. There are hints of sardonic wit, even irony, but the poem still maintains an earnest straightforwardness. So much is being said and evoked with such brevity; once I got past my expectations of the poem based on its evangelistic references, it read to me like a William Carlos Williams poem. This one in particular stood out to me as an example of Wheatley’s brilliance as a writer.

In any case, I found Wheatley to be not only a great writer and a remarkable woman, but also a great example of how evangelical writing gave minorities a powerful tool with which to define themselves and their position in the world. Most importantly, though, she was a phenomenally incredible poet.

Confessions of a Mediocre Student: Finding the Value of Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal of Madam Knight (1704)

sarah kemble knight

As a graduate student, I still struggle with the same rookie shortcomings I had as a high school student. Perhaps unwisely, I’ve tried to adapt those shortcomings to suit my methods as a “scholarly” student.

Here’s an example of one of my shortcomings: I can’t read stuff that was written 300 years ago. Take this single sentence from Sarah Kemble Knight’s The Journal of Madam Knight from 1704:

“So takeing leave of my company, tho’ wth no little Reluctance, that I could not proceed wth them on my Jorny, Stop at a little cottage just by the River, to wait the Waters falling, web the old man that lived there said would be in a little time, and he would conduct me safe over.”

Even now, after I’ve done all the work of reading, I’m paralyzed! It’s in English, obviously, but it’s like translating a foreign language with its own separate grammar. Imagine today’s English is a shallow pool. The water is the language; it’s clear, so the meaning, which lies at the bottom of the pool, is easy to discern, and if you wish to remove it from the pool and inspect it, you can reach right in and grasp it. The English of 1704, however (especially this particular English, which is relatively colloquial, and was written for a personal diary rather than for mass consumption), is like a swampy pond. The water is muddy, and you’ve got to do a bit of dirty work to discern the meaning. You’ve got to reach in and feel around a bit to grasp it, and then you’ve got to take it out and rinse it off to get a good look.

Here’s another shortcoming: when I get paralyzed at the sight of writing that takes so much work to read, I put it off. I watch True Detective. Just one episode. Then maybe just a couple more for good measure. Three hours later, I’ll be psyched up enough to read another sentence.

Here’s my point: I may never decide to just dive into a centuries-old bit of writing – to spend a good day poring over it, translating it, picking it apart, and mastering it. But I’ll certainly feel rotten for not being able to motivate myself to do so. So, in lieu of becoming a better student cold turkey, I’ve tried to offset my poor student habits by transforming my consequent guilt into self-motivation. This involves an excruciatingly drawn-out process in which I take on the reading piecemeal, sometimes sentence by sentence, punctuating the reading with bouts of entertainment followed by anxiety-fueled zone-outs in which I assure myself that there must be something about the reading that is of value, or else it would not be assigned, much less in a graduate level class taught by a leading scholar in the field of early American minority literature. This is where the guilt comes into play. As my bout of entertainment begins to lose its luster, the Gallant student to my Goofus student begins to take over. Here’s how it went in this case:

Detective Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective) points out that it’s impossible for humans not to judge; we’re always making value judgments about everyone we come into contact with. In trying to read Knight’s diary, I realize that, as a reader, I’m always making such judgments about the things I read. Most of the time, these judgments are cop-outs, driven by the impulses of my inner bad student. When I come across something like Sarah Kemble Knight’s diary, I immediately make a subconscious value judgment based on its readability. It is antiquated; therefore it must not be of value to me now. I then make a more conscious judgment based on its level of accessibility. This diary is not widely read enough to have a summary online; therefore it will be too much work to unpack it, because of its readability. Finally, I make a totally conscious self-judgment based on my previous judgments. You have gotten nowhere with your reading, despite knowing this work has value; therefore, you’re just making excuses, so just read it!

As scholarly readers, it behooves graduate students and academics to avoid making value judgments about any given reading, whether it’s about the author, the content, or the medium. I, however, agree with Detective Cohle; humans are incapable of not making value judgments. I think reading is enriched by allowing, examining, and questioning these judgments. Why is this reading so inaccessible? There may be many reasons for this, but perhaps the fact that this reading has been written out of mainstream history is grounds for giving it a closer look. Why do I have such difficulty reading 300-year-old writing so difficult to read? There are certainly many reasons for this, but why get hung up on how cumbersome it is to “translate” the work when you could look at how language has evolved over three centuries (especially in this case, in which we’re reading a diary entry, the colloquial nature of which gives even more insight into how people spoke and even thought on a day-to-day basis)?

As I questioned and unpacked my judgments of Knight’s diary, I began to read it less stiffly, and my reading process changed. I skimmed over frustrating bits and focused less on trying to make sense of grammar and narrative. Instead, I tried to absorb the author’s tone and a sense of the people and environments she was describing in order to glean some of the social dynamics of the time period. By the third day of the diary, I was done making judgments about the readability of the diary, and I had begun to make more interesting judgments about the author herself. For those who don’t know, this particular work is an excerpt from the diary of a relatively well-off woman named Sarah Kemble Knight, who undertook an unprecedented five-month journey on horseback with no continuous assistance from Boston to New York and back in 1704. This excerpt documents this journey. My judgments of this woman led to questions like, “Why is this lady so concerned over the comfort level of the ‘accommodations’ she’s lucky enough to come by on her travels?” I doubt there was an abundance of comfortable lodgings on the 1704 road from Boston to New York, and I doubt one travelling this road at this time would expect such. Also, what’s with the offensive generalizations? She describes one man as an “Indian-like Animal” who rides “a creature very much like himselfe.” First, was the man like an Indian, or was he an actual Indian? Also – not necessarily surprisingly – equating an Indian with an animal? Wow. Also, this lady seems quick to judge people based on their class, saying something to the effect of “Wow, my problems seem like a dream compared to these wretched people’s lives. Poor folks!” Also, why does she preface what is obviously carefully written rhyming prose with the claim that she said it “on ye very Spott”?

Now, none of this is particularly surprising, especially if you’re reading the work objectively, without judgments about the social norms of 1704. I would argue, however, that reading with judgment makes for a much more interesting and productive read, which, in the case of Knight’s diary, yielded (at least for me) insights about class, gender, and race dynamics, as well as the socioeconomic (and geographic) landscape of 18th century colonial New England. And the fact that it was a diary (the colloquial nature of which initially made it more difficult for me to read) ultimately made the read far more personal and fascinating than any pamphlet, sermon, or poem, simply because of my increased inclination to judge the author and her work.