Investigating the Life of America’s First Black Poetess
By Stacy Kish
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American poet to publish a book in English when she published “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” in 1773. Despite her place as one of the earliest African American writers in the Americas, many scholars have dismissed her contribution due to her use of affinity to the white Wheatley family that enslaved her.
Don Holmes, lecturer in writing and communication in the Department of English, felt compelled to dig deeper into Wheatley’s life to show the impact of her contribution to African American scholarship. His investigation is available in the August issue of the journal Early American Literature.
“Wheatley is a mysterious enigma and is often caught between representative extremes,” he said. “I think the issue is how we read her work. Some read her as an accommodationist, while other read her as a person dedicated to fighting for Black rights. On both extremes a lot has been written about her.”
Holmes aims to reframe Wheatley’s rhetorical approach in her poem, “On Being Brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.” In his essay, he argues that Wheatley provides a diplomatic negotiation between enslaved people and the wider evangelical Christian ecosystem in 18th century Boston. He posits her rhetorical approach was necessary for her survival as an enslaved woman who was expected to remain religious and morally isolated.
At the age of six, Wheatley was kidnapped and trafficked to the American colonies on the slave ship The Phillis, which docked in Boston Harbor in 1761. She was subsequently sold as human cargo to the Wheatley family where her intelligence was acknowledged and encouraged. She was taught to read and write. While she had little control over her faith or what she could read, Wheatley quickly developed strategies to navigate the foreign and often hostile world around her. In this tempest, she embraced Christianity as a tactic for survival.
According to Holmes, Wheatley saw her faith as a way to place herself on equal footing with those around her. She remained involved in public discourse around Christian morality.
“Wheatley had very few rhetorical options in the 18th century,” said Holmes. “She used Christianity as diplomatic leverage to rhetorically usurp the values of her enslavers in place of her own.”
Wheatly gained her emancipation after the publication of her book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” Within this collection, Holmes has focused his analysis on one poem — “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.” According to Holmes, this poem does not indulge in a psychological release. Instead, the poem leans into Wheatley’s negotiation between Africa and America to reveal the tumult in Wheatley’s religious and moral uncertainty.
“We are trying to figure out what it was about her writing that would become so endearing to us in the 21st century,” said Holmes. “To explore the life and writings of Phyllis Wheatley, we can see some of the chaotic-ness that was going on in the 18th century, and some of the foundation of issues that we have in our own lives today.”
Holmes stresses reviewing Wheatley’s work within the context of the time it was written. He argues that Wheatley used persuasive and tactful language from an African American perspective to recast Christianity as a moral heuristic to advocate for enslaved and oppressed people using the tone and diction that the white moral and religious leadership could hear.
Holmes points to Wheatley’s role as a diplomat to negotiate with the colonial and British public as well as political and faith leadership through a series of discourse that framed the barbarity of enslavement and the sources of comfort afforded to her — Christianity. She expressed this advocacy through her only means available — through the legacy of her pen.
“The power of words is something that is so innately human, and I think [Wheatley] understood that she could use her ability in poetry to effect some sort to change, change in people’s perception of her,” he said. “I felt like even if she was not conscious of some of these goals the steps she was taking suggests she understood that the work she was doing would be useful for someone down the road.”
Beyond her work advocating for enslaved people, Wheatley accomplished another feat. As a Black woman, she published poetry, which was judged and deemed worthy by some white men during the 18th century. This accomplishment remains staggering. However, the riotous debates about who she was and what her rhetorical goals were would continue in the wake of her death in 1784, compelling scholars to continue exploring Wheatley’s legacy on the American poetry tradition.
“Her body of work, though short and incomplete, still inspires a corpus of knowledge about her and about Black women living in 18th century,” said Holmes. “I call her America’s first poet laureate.”