On PHillish Wheatley and HIstory Essay

Submitted By yogaandrew
Words: 1288
Pages: 6

Andrew Quintana
October 3, 2013
American Colonial History
Professor Brendan Goff
Phillis Wheatley Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book, is remembered because her intelligence helped the Revolutionary-Americans and the British further the cause of both abolitionism and independence. In every high school survey class of American history, this is probably as far as most students will get. Eric Foner's colonial history textbook, "Give Me Liberty," miscalculates by a decade the publication of Wheatley's poem "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth," which was a part of Wheatley's book, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." Her historical significance has been deemed insignificant by this textbook and, according to Foner, it doesn't really matter whether she published her poetry in 1773 or 1783. With mistakes like these, it is apparent how we ignore Wheatley the person, marginalizing her in the same way she was brushed off 250 years ago by the American public. Because talking about Wheatley as a political writer is a speculation at best, looking to contextualize her life in the rich narrative of pre- and post-Revolutionary abolitionism is difficult. Some scholars of Wheatley defend her subversive aesthetic; others criticize the lack of attention she gives to slavery. But no scholar has attempted to understand her in the context of an emerging American identity - primarily, because there is so little to work off. I will argue that a more nuanced approach to Wheatley's life is essential to understanding what role she plays in early American history and attempt to re-conceptualize her status as a patriotic-poet. The ideals of independence and abolitionism often coalesced but ultimately contradicted each other. Out of the growing class tensions of colonial society, slaves were just another mistreated class among indentured servants and poor yeoman farmers. In Virginia, radical ideas about taxation, representation, and rights rested upon the shoulders of a "dangerous free laboring class"1. Like with the white solidarity that emerged out of Bacon's Rebellion, this revolution hoped to extend political rights to a white majority of landowners. Thomas Jefferson, a promoter of gradual abolition, believed an "interim educational period" was essential for blacks to become citizens; this tied to his overall belief that only those who were instrumental to society should be allowed to participate in the political arena.2 This intellectual framework helped disenfranchise a majority of slaves, at the expense of white propertied Americans. And much like Evangelicalism separated itself from political turbulence, Wheatley mostly separated herself from controversial issues in her writing. It was her religious elegy in 1770 to evangelist preacher George Whitefield that launched her into prominence. By 1772, Wheatley had already written enough poems to merit a publication. Her owner Susanna solicited offers for publication in Boston but was ignored, turning to London where a Methodist revivalist leader sponsored the collection. Previously, the sponsor supported Ukawsaw Gronniosaw - acknowledged by Wheatley as her literary predecessor - an African author who espoused the benefits of Europeanization.3 This thorough line is found in her poem "On Being Brought From Africa to America." In it, she articulates a similar gratitude towards her captors, imploring the Great Awakening audience to help the indigenous join "the angelic train."4 Her poetry initially gained prominence in a spiritual vein, not a political one. But, Wheatley did articulate an anti-slavery sentiment in her book. Understood in the context of the emerging egalitarian democracy of the Revolution, however, her stance was not as radical as it appeared. The Wheatleys were a progressive New South Congregationalist family that lived in Boston teaching Wheatley how to read the classic authors like Homer, Virgil, Milton, and