The Brilliance of Phillis Wheatley

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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.

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