Remembering Phillis Wheatley

Nineteenth century portrait of Phillis Wheatley featured in the Parisian journal, Revue des Colonies.  The Société d’hommes de Couleur published the journal from 1834 to 1842, and the journal was one of the first European journals published by people of African descent.
Nineteenth century portrait of Phillis Wheatley featured in the Parisian journal, Revue des Colonies.

In my last post, I commented on a specific newspaper piece from the May 18, 1827 edition of Freedom’s Journal, borrowed from another paper and listing prominent people of African descent. Of 20 men and women, Phillis Wheatley appeared on this list. Her mention was probably not a surprise given her contemporary prominence. However, my interest in memory studies and recent work on historical receptions of Wheatley’s work intrigues me. Certainly print culture studies, literacy and reading studies, literary history, literary criticism, and poetry studies all comprise parts of Wheatley studies, but my comment here is not motivated by responding to specific debates arising from Wheatley scholarship. Instead, I am wondering more about the many different contexts and reasons for which an individual gets remembered, and scholarly concerns play various roles within this broader context.

For the purposes of this brief reflection, I am less concerned with whether Wheatley understood race in ways that did or did not allow for an oppositional stance against slavery and racism. I am more interested in how the detailing and remembrance of Wheatley’s life serve as lenses to see competing interests and perspectives regarding the function of history and memory. Can the creation and employment of multiple Wheatley legacies cohere a narrative about forms and uses of remembering? If the answer to this is yes, then can this narrative tell us anything or itself raise useful questions about how and why certain groups of people have imagined, organized, and utilized the past?

“New London Notes,” 6 July 1886, New York Freeman (New York, New York), Readex: African American Newspapers Series 1, 1827-1998, Web.
“New London Notes,” 6 July 1886, New York Freeman

After her death, Wheatley’s name and work make scattered but continuous appearances in various contexts. African American newspapers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tended to mention Wheatley for positive reasons. As previously mentioned, Freedom’s Journal named Wheatley in a list of great historical figures of African descent. Here, like when she lived, the editors viewed Wheatley as an exemplar not only of black intelligence, but also of accomplishment achieved against the highest odds. The August 31, 1855 edition of the Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, included a letter to the editor written by someone who had seemingly by accident had, “just come across a little book of poems, written in the year 1773, by Phillis Wheatley.” This person explained of Wheatley’s poems that “the book contains some rare gems of thought, and displays a remarkable knowledge of history and literature, for one whose advantages had been so limited.” This theme of achievement in the face of marginalization and racial oppression constitutes a continuous thread in the fashioning, appropriation and employment of Wheatley and her legacy. In this case, the writer to Douglass saw value in the example of Wheatley. This person remembered Wheatley as being knowledgeable and as someone whose exertions proved illustrative of black genius and determination.

In his recent examination of the significance of Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. mentions the ubiquitous nature of Wheatley’s name in the title of many schools and public institutions devoted to the public support of literacy and child support.1. Educational schools discussed Wheatley’s work and women’s literary societies titled themselves using her name. The Washington D.C. newspaper, the People’s Advocate, on June 12, 1880, described the commencement exercises of a school for black children as including the presentation of a short essay on Wheatley. Six years later, the New York Freeman newspaper,  mentioned a debate between the Rose of New England Debating Society and the Phillis Wheatley Literary Society of New London. A recent on-line article from the September 21, 2013 edition of the New Pittsburgh Courier dated the origins of a current “Phyllis Wheatley Literary Society” in Duquesne, Pennsylvania to 1934 and explained that it was founded by “Judge Jillian Walker-Burke and six other women, all high school graduates.” The article describes the goal of the Duquesne Wheatley literary society as promoting “better reading habits and skills among young women.”

After Wheatley’s death, black detractors have debated her significance at least since the late nineteenth century; however, the late twentieth-century emergence of Wheatley studies has evolved a debate about Wheatley that parallels, but also contrasts, mentions of her in broader public forums.2 The July 3, 1976 edition of the Chicago Metro News ran a short and admiring biography titled simply, “Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784, Colonial Poet.” Yet, 16 years prior, R. Lynn Matson responded to subtle and explicit critiques of Wheatley that came from such luminaries as Julian Mason, Jr., James Weldon Johnson, and Arthur Schomburg. Regarding Schomburg, Matson explains he graded Wheatley’s poetry as good but within what he believed was a mediocre American context. Yet, Schomburg also unequivocally praised Wheatley as a founding voice of an African American literary tradition. Eleanor Smith, in 1974, provided a more direct criticism arising from her question, “Did Phillis Wheatley do anything to sustain and perpetuate blackness, and give rise to Black people?” Smith answered no, and her position reflecting a range of critics including one of the leading figures of the Black Arts movement, Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones). 3 Wheatley became a controversial figure among critics that viewed her legacy as insignificant for thinking about modes of twentieth-century racial identity and political activism.

(Copyright) Gary Settle, New York Times
Amiri Baraka (Credit: New York Times)

In contrast, recent work charts the marketing of Wheatley’s poetry and it’s contemporary responses. A full bibliography of this writing is too long to list here; however, scholars like John C. Shields, Sondra A. O’Neale, Mukhtar Ali Isani, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Joanna Brooks, Francis Vincent Carretta, Francis Smith Foster, James Rawley and others illustrate the importance of trying to understand Wheatley not on twentieth century terms but instead according to the conditions of the eighteenth century.4

This brief sketch of events illustrates how the significance of one figure can carry the weight of a narrative about memory and remembering. Different readings and historical examinations of Wheatley illustrate change, continuity, and competing claims regarding her importance. This complexity arises from the historical change that has shaped but also reflected debate amongst black people about the meaning of racial identity. To this end, a narrative about Wheatley’s legacy certainly can incorporate the attitudes and approaches of scholars. However, examining broader contexts of discussion and debate about Wheatley’s life and its relevance raises interesting questions about how different African Americans in different times and places have defined, redefined, appropriated and rejected a singular figure. That views of Wheatley have changed reveal important patterns and changes in how African Americans have unearthed, remembered, rejected, constructed, and forgotten ideas, events, and people of the past.

  1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounter with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 69-70
  2. Gates, 74-75.
  3.   Smith, Eleanor. “Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective.” The Journal of Negro Education 43, no. 3 (1974): 401-07; Le Roi Jones, Home: Essays (New York, William Morrow, 1966).
  4. Sondra A. O’Neale, “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phyllis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” Early American Literature, v. 21, 2 (September 1986), 144-166; The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Revised and enlarged. Julian D. Mason, Jr., ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989); Mukhtar Ali Isani, “The Contemporary Reception of Phillis Wheatley: Newspaper and Magazine Notices during the Years of Fame, 1765-1774,” Journal of Negro History, vol. 85, 4 (2000), 260-273; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounter with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003); Francis Smith Foster, “A Narrative of the Interesting Origins and (Somewhat) Surprising Developments of African-American Print Culture,” American Literary History, vol. 17, 4, (Winter 2005), 714-740; John C. Shields, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Background and Contexts (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008); John C. Shields, Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010); Joanna Brooks, “Our Phillis, Ourselves,” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, v. 82, 1 (March 2010), 1-28; Francis Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia, 2011).
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.