Teaching Phillis Wheatley in Light of Freddie Gray

Noelle Trent wrote a great post about how to locate “the reality of students’ lives in the themes and trends of American history.” The murder of Freddie Gray, Noelle’s post and my students inspire this post also about Gray, history, and teaching. For a recent class in a freshman seminar on the religious and political perspectives of eighteenth-century African Americans, I had prepared a discussion comparing and contrasting Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano/Gustavas Vassa. The night prior to class, two students participated in a march responding to Freddie Gray’s death, the resulting unrest, and the growing revealed pattern of police violence against African Americans. The two students arrived to class asking if we could discuss Gray’s death and police violence. This was a discussion class of about fifteen students. I was of three minds. First, I was prepared to talk about eighteenth-century black writers in the contexts of slavery, race and religion. I was keeping up with events surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray; however, I had not prepared any formal remarks or thoughts that would even begin to integrate the case of Gray into my prepared plan. My second thought was that I should scrap my preparation on the spot given that it was students who enthusiastically and pointedly asked if we could discuss contemporary events. Third, I thought that I might allow 15 minutes for a discussion of contemporary events and then, with or without any appropriate segue, move to the prepared material. I followed my second reaction.

I entered the classroom thinking we would talk about issues of identity relative to Wheatley and Equiano. I felt that students were overly dismissive of Wheatley after reading her poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America, and I had wanted to discuss further the complexity in her thought. I had wanted students to apply James Sidbury’s distinction between filiative and affiliative identity to Wheatley and to think more about how Wheatley was identifying with a constructed idea of Africa while also differentiating herself from her birthplace.1  Africa was “pagan” and Wheatley was a Christian.

I also wanted to investigate parts of Equiano’s Narrative to think more about audience and representation and to think about how and why he refers to himself using three different titles, Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa and the African. I had hoped to discuss the worldliness of Equiano and relate this to the abolitionism displayed in his adulthood and expressed in his Narrative. I also wanted to explain the controversy arising from Equiano describing his West African origins even while baptismal records listed his birthplace in North America. 2  All of these concerns were to guide a discussion that would arise from a close analysis of text and that would link back to broader issues of identity, representation, community, and religion.

At the start of the period two of the students approached me and explained that because our class was about African Americans and issues of race, they thought it was appropriate to talk about Freddie Gray and the broader politics behind his death. Their request was polite and earnest. Without knowing how I would relate the eighteenth-century Atlantic world to the twenty-first century urban United States in a way that was directly relevant to the day’s topics I said yes. I allowed the two students to stand before the class and I sat amongst the other class participants. The student leaders described their participation in a march the previous night and explained the complex mix of frustration, motivation, solidarity, and inspiration that fed into and arose out of their activism.

After recounting their experiences at the protest and expressing their thoughts about the growing public revelations of police violence, the two students tried to link current anti-black brutality directly back to the issues of identity and representation relative to Wheatley and Equiano. Instead of following this path back to the syllabus, I allowed the entire class to engage in a discussion about current events. From my perspective, the discussion was extremely engaging but not well organized. I decided that rather than try awkwardly to reign in the themes of conversation, I would try to highlight comments that somehow related to the issues of historical continuity and change.  The ensuing conversation was wide ranging. Students made reference to continued racism and inequality. They discussed contemporary issues endemic to “the Black community.” They talked about racial profiling and issues of presentation and representation. They expressed frustration with efforts to combat racism and reduce poverty but they also argued for the necessity of action.

The conversation wandered and meandered and I did not successfully give any easily definable direction to the discussion. I would chime in and ask different students what they meant when they talked about community or about racism. I asked students how they thought we and society might best respond to and anticipate racism in its personal and structural manifestations. I also responded to comments that seemed to imply that historical study and history matter the most only when they can be made to speak directly to present events. I left class frustrated that I was not able to fashion a structured discussion and feeling as though I was failing in getting students to understand Wheatley and Equiano from their eighteenth-century experiences.

In the following class I was pleasantly surprised. I asked students to summarize the things they took from the previous class and this provided an excellent springboard to talk about forms of late eighteenth-century black abolitionism. I was reminded of how difficult it is to develop a critical historical empathy, imagining how past times, places, and even ideas could be seemingly similar but actually quite different from our own. By allowing the students to have a discussion about the present, they arrived to the following session by making their own non-teleological connections between the past and the present. Students explained that Wheatley and Equiano were writing against structures of power based upon racial subordination. They were able to articulate obvious differences between eighteenth-century and twenty-first century America, while being struck by the continuing problems of racial marginalization and oppression. In our conversation about different approaches to abolition, the students were able to understand better the difficulties faced by Wheatley and her subtle critique of slavery. The students also discussed the different ways that Wheatley and Equiano thought about community and forms of solidarity within the African Diaspora.

When I discussed my class experiment and my initial frustration with a colleague, the colleague explained that one of her students had expressed surprise when none of the student’s other instructors made any mention of the Michael Brown killing and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. This particular student was from Ferguson and wanted some kind of gesture from her teachers that explained or validated the significance of the events in her hometown. Not thinking that the happenings in Ferguson had direct relevance to the classes that I was teaching at the time, I had only made passing reference to Michael Brown. I figured that students, on their own, would make connections between the historical patterns of racism that I was introducing in class and the contemporary events they were experiencing. It can be tricky to balance student expectations against course requirements. Yet, I have been reminded that for some undergraduates, the present can be useful for developing a conceptual map of the past, even if the past is the eighteenth century. I think the past should not and cannot be a place wherein we can always identify our experiences. However, I was further reminded that allowing students to tell me about how they see themselves in the present is useful in getting them to engage with the past and then to think in nuanced ways about historical change and continuity.

  1. James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.17-39.
  2.   On this controversy see Vincent Carretta, Equiano, The African:  Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens:  University of Georgia, 2005) and Alexander X. Bryd, “Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation and Gustavas Vassa’s Interesting Narrative,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol.  63, Issue 1, January 2006, pp. 123-148.
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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.

Comments on “Teaching Phillis Wheatley in Light of Freddie Gray

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      Thanks, Historiann! I agree that the question of historical relevance is interesting and significant.

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    Thanks for the shout-out. Great post! The continued challenge of teaching the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is to relate the topics to contemporary America. It’s a process of trial and error as well as out of the box thinking.

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