Saturday, May 8, 2010
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
While telling the astonishing and ultimately tragic story of Phillis Wheatley, he includes an equally compelling meditation on how the questions of race and equality that haunted our Founders 250 years ago are considerably changed from how we think about race today.
With a good flair for storytelling, Mr. Gates jump-starts us ahead to a day in October 1772 when 18-year-old Phillis is brought before a panel of the most powerful government and cultural officials of the Bay Colony to decide a momentous issue that had become an international cause celebre: Was it possible that an African slave - and a female slave at that - had the intellectual capacity to write classical poetry in English?
This was not an idle question of literary quibbling, as Mr. Gates emphasizes. The issue at root was whether Africans were, according to many of the leading thinkers of the day - such as Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel - descendants of another "species of men," related more to apes than Europeans. The fundamental question of the basic humanity of African slaves underpinned the moral juggling that most found necessary to justify the forcible enslavement of fellow creatures.
That underpinning was already starting to crack. That same year, the British high courts ruled in the famed Somerset case that a slave brought into Britain could not be taken against his will out of the country and back to slavery. It was a long time before Britain outlawed slavery inside its borders, but the fact that anti-slavery advocates could bring such a legal action and win it was truly earthshaking.
As Mr. Gates tells it, the questioning of Phillis about her literary gifts was another such tremor that shook the moralistic justification for slavery. The incident also marked the seminal moment in the development of black American literature and, with irony, another of the trials she would undergo. As it turns out, the panel of Boston's great and good - most of them slave owners - came away convinced that the poems they examined had in fact been written by her.
It seems Phillis had been something of a prodigy from the start. John Wheatley testified that within 16 months of her arrival from Africa, Phillis had learned to speak and read English. Her first poem was written by the time she was 11, and at 13, she had her first poem published in a local newspaper. By 1772, Phillis was in correspondence with well-known literary figures in England and her owners were busy arranging for a London printer to publish a collection of her poetry, which became the first book ever to be published in English by a person of African descent. Its release in 1773 on both sides of the Atlantic made her a true international celebrity. MORE