Phillis Wheatley, common good, abolition

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Phillis Wheatley and the Tragedy of Enslaved Creativity

The mother of the American Black literary tradition, without ever grasping the wealth of her ideas, could not breathe until she took her last breath.

Illustration by Meg Moglea

In the late 18th century, a young Black baby, whose birth name remains unknown, was born to a loving father and mother in Senegambia, West Africa. That region represented an ideal location, because of its geographic proximity to Europe and the British colonies, for shipping goods and services through a mass distribution system called the transatlantic slave trade. The French and British battled to establish control over the region, to secure access to the sale of the West African product. The Black baby’s childhood radically changed when enslavers stole her away from her parents. Nevertheless, the girl who would be known as Phillis Wheatley became one of the most prolific 18th-century poets and the mother of America’s Black literary tradition, all through the tutelage of persons with both pure and impure motives.

Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped at the age of six or seven from West Africa. She arrived on the shores of Boston, Massachusetts, famished and afraid after a treacherous two-month journey through the dreaded middle passage. Upon arrival, Wheatley and her caged African cohort entered a strange new world that associated blackness with ignorance and inferiority. As such, forced labor and abject poverty characterized their existence as chattel. European slavers considered their cargo “black gold” because of the lucrative slave market in colonial America. Slavers and buyers severed African families at will on those shame-inducing auction blocks. Some of these ravished Black bodies came with a hefty purse, especially if they were physically endowed, fertile teenage females. Small, prepubescent children, unfortunately, were less valuable and risked death by starvation. In his 2011 biography of Wheatley, Vincent Carretta reports that Susanna and John Wheatley purchased the African child as a refuse slave, which means she brought little pecuniary value to the seller because of her frailness.

During the auction, Susanna Wheatley laid eyes on the destitute child and, perhaps seeing her troubled lot, made a bid despite the obvious economic disadvantage. Some scholars propose that the previous death of a daughter caused Susanna Wheatley’s attraction to the enslaved girl. If this is true, then the girl became a viable replacement for the grieving mother who would eventually redefine her African identity. First, they renamed the child Phillis, after the schooner that imprisoned her, which arguably adds insult to injury. Second, the Wheatleys declared Phillis a household slave until her bartered, rather than benevolent, emancipation.

In the colonial slave market, Wheatley became chattel, which meant her captors controlled every aspect of her mental and physical being. The preeminent Black author and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, in his The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, explains how the wheels of early American economics rotated on the backs of suffering African peoples. Du Bois argued that semiotics of race and classism in 18th-century New England built the American economy. Both the slavers and buyers supported human trafficking in defiance of a distinctly biblical understanding of the imago Dei. Children, as Wheatley will subversively indicate, were ripped from their mother’s bosom in order to build the American economy.

One of Wheatley’s most popular poems is “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” In this musing, she contemplates the benevolence of God’s providential mercy in saving her soul from the fires of Hell while castigating the hellish reality of chattel slavery through subversive speech. She illustrates the ways in which her breathing became impaired by the strangle hold of chattel slavery. Perhaps analyzing this controversial poem from an afrosensitive framework will provide us a different reading. (See the full text above.)

Wheatley often employed subversive speech in the public square. She understood the difficulty of speaking truth to power as an enslaved African woman. In this poem, Wheatley rides the lyrical waves of kidnapping, captivity, and spiritual deliverance while chiding those who hold Christianity and chattel slavery in concert. To be sure, she avoids blatantly implicating all who support the economic system of human trafficking — a list that includes both Susanna and John Wheatley alongside Boston’s male elites who endorsed her captor’s product. We do well to remember that colonial elites advocated for the patriarchal rule of white men over every person of color, as well as over white women and children.

Wheatley gives attention to key terms in her title. According to Mary Catherine Loving, who has written an extensive academic analysis of “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” each term indirectly chastises the slave system which undergirds suffering and truncates human flourishing for Black people. Wheatley, for example, titles the poem in both lowercase and capital letters. Both writers and editors often used this stylistic technique for dramatic effect. As such, some interpreters surmise that one cannot steadfastly argue that Wheatley punctuated the text herself. However, if this was Wheatley’s doing, it highlights the theodical nature of her journey from “AFRICA” to “AMERICA.” Like many enslaved Africans, Wheatley presents a title that, as Anthony Pinn writes, “faced the classic difficulty of reconciling God with the experience of evil.”

Loving, whose essay offers perhaps Wheatley scholarship’s strongest interpretative insight, makes good sense in arguing for Wheatley’s subversive protest. She notes five rules of punctuation in her interaction with an early 19th-century grammar comically titled A Brief, Practical System of Punctuation to Which are added Rules Respecting the Uses of Capitals, Etc. also Observation on English Versification, Etc. for the Use of Schools. Loving points to how Wheatley used three of these rules in her writings. Most importantly is the rule concerning the capitalization of “principal words in the title of a book or essay.” Unlike many evangelical interpreters, Loving grasps the fact that Wheatley employs “a rhetoric of capitalization to position AFRICA and AMERICA as equal.” In so doing, the enslaved poet opposes both nativism and nationalism before the audience discerns the punch of this literary pugilist. Loving states, “[Wheatley] acknowledges, certainly, the influence of American culture on her African sensibility, but she also rejects the notion of American superiority over her African self. Wheatley’s choice of title is significant as well in that it provides an early frame of reference for the movement about to be more fully described. The protagonist’s movement was not merely to AMERICA; it originated in AFRICA, suggesting the protagonist’s cognizance of her life before such movement.” In other words, Loving correctly avers that Wheatley foreshadows the current ethnic appellation “African American,” which, unknown to most, describes the forced dispersion of Black souls and bodies worldwide via the dreaded middle passage.

Wheatley writes that the Lord’s mercy delivered her from paganism. But notice, in the original text, how she spells “Pagan.” She italicizes the term as if to say, “I only employ this language to fit your British-American racialized sentiments.” Wheatley highlights five words — Pagan, Saviour [sic], Christians, Negros, and Cain — to judge tacitly her audience’s ethical preoccupations.

In dialoguing with Wheatley, literature scholar Betsy Erkkila references Maya Angelou’s “Principle of Reverse”: “Anything that works for you can also work against you.” Erkkila seems to use this maxim to illustrate Wheatley’s ability to provoke streams of thought that are often contrary to African agency and then redirect them toward principles that honor Black humanity. Wheatley layers her verse with both commendation and condemnation — all unbeknownst to her hearers. Erkkila argues in a journal article titled “Revolutionary Women,” “Speaking as a black woman slave, Wheatley turns the racial codes of the dominant culture back upon themselves, giving them an ironic inflection. What appears to be repetition is in fact a form of mimesis that mimics and mocks in the act of repeating.”  

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‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too;Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. Some view our sable race with scornful eye, “Their colour is a diabolic die.” Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

‘One Being Brought from Africa to America’ by Phillis Wheatley

In his in-depth study, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests that some African-American thinkers despise Wheatley’s corpus because they assume she naively accepted slavery without reservation. But Loving refutes the possibility that Wheatley acquiesced to hateful epistemologies against Black people, expositing each line with text-critical care. For example, Loving contends, “the closing line of the first couplet is a transition into the second couplet’s” rendition of the dreaded two-month transatlantic voyage, a voyage which left the poor child emaciated and clinging for life to birth a nation. Loving questions, therefore, any interpretation of Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from AFRICA to AMERICA” that silences the wickedness of slavery.

Wheatley understood her audience, and like the astute Christian intellectual she was, she manipulates her pen to antagonize their prejudices without stifling an opportunity to be heard by the broader public. Public-square conversations for oppressed peoples in 18th-century Boston took courage and oratorical dexterity.

At the dawn of the American Revolution, several African diasporic evangelicals risked their lives contending for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” while calling for the immediate emancipation of Black bodies. It is important to understand that, from its beginning, evangelicalism supersedes race, class, and gender, and evangelicals have pursued justice on many fronts. African diasporic evangelicals, for example, rebut the myth that evangelicals were on the wrong side of slave history. Most critics do not realize their categorical error when such ideas are espoused. They envision evangelicalism in terms of the dominant “racial” class as opposed to theological orientation. Thus, scholars who criticize early American evangelicalism as virtually absent from social activism fail to separate evangelicalism, the revival movement, from its predominantly Caucasian constituency. Historian David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism provides a helpful redirection, unearthing the essential ingredients of evangelicalism without emphasizing race, ethnicity, social class, or gender.

Other evangelicals were more cautious in calling for emancipation. Wheatley, for example, balanced her veneration for the New Republic and vilification of Great Britain with extreme care. She called into question the hypocritical foundation of the American political economy. She exposed dual tyrannies against African flesh rather than repeating the sociologically shortsighted trope of “taxation without representation.” Wheatley criticized despotic edicts wrought by the British Crown and Parliament while chastising colonial oppression wielded at the hands of domestic and international slave traders. In Economic Shalom, for example, John Bolt reminds us “being a follower of Jesus Christ is incompatible with difference to the misery and pain of poverty, destitution, disease, and hunger. ... Loving Jesus obligates his followers to care for the poor.” Moreover, Bolt writes, “The freedom and dignity of the human person as the image of God has much to teach us about what we should look for in any economic system or policy.”

Wheatley’s socioeconomic plight is impossible for contemporary readers to comprehend without a rudimentary exposure to 18th-century mercantilism. Which is to say, mercantilism is economic nationalism based on the amount of gold or silver a country possessed, and people traded human life for gold and silver to build the wealth of this nation. The colonial British American economy thrived on imports and exports.

Economists and historians illustrate how human chattel became a profitable market, appealing to the affinities of financially stable British American families. These families purchased image-bearers who possessed absolutely no rights to life, liberty, or economic autonomy. In Common Sense Economics the writers state, “Life is about choices, and economics is about how incentives affect those choices and shape our lives. ... We must understand some basic principles about how people choose, what motivates their actions, and how their actions influence their personal welfare and that of others. Thus, economics is about human decision making, the analysis of the forces underlying choice, and the implications regarding how societies work.”

The veil of economic oppression covered people of color whether bond or free. And yet, the Spirit of Christ gave Phillis Wheatley eyes to affirm the Father’s providential care amid this wicked system of human trafficking. She uncharacteristically acknowledged the mercy of God in bringing forth salvation through an instrument as horrific as the transatlantic slave trade. Slavers envisioned Wheatley as meaningless cargo. But God, by his sovereign grace, lavished love upon her, as she states, making her “benighted soul to understand that there’s a God, that there’s Saviour too: Once I redemption neither sought, nor knew.”

In 1969, Maya Angelou wrote a poem called “Caged Bird,” which eventually became a best-selling book called, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In the poem, readers are struck by Angelou’s empathy for a caged bird whose bondage allays the freedom of individual expression. Angelou explores how the bird’s musical genius counterintuitively limited its liberation in a racialized society by playing on the relationship between bondage and freedom for Black and white citizens in America. She laments the spectator’s false admiration for the bird’s uncommon skill by exposing how one’s social location determines one’s ability to use knowledge for amusement by manipulating the faculties of the oppressed. In similar fashion, Wheatley’s poetic sagacity captivated the minds of her captors, who seem never to have imagined her as a “genius” held “in bondage,” to borrow a phrase from Wheatley’s contemporary, Ignatius Sancho. This reality is what Caretta highlights as the detrimental effects of paternalistic New England sentimentalism. Those in power were blinded by a false sense of superior benevolence in training oppressed children without ever factoring that they themselves were instruments of oppression.

This nation today finds itself in a debilitating medical and moral crisis. Earlier this year, we were struck down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of souls. To curtail the spread of this deadly disease, the United States of America locked governmental arms from state to state, establishing drastic in-house sheltering, school, entertainment, and business closures. Community solidarity was displayed in some amazing ways. Marketing strategies leaned into phrases such as “We are in this together” on commercials and in public spaces. Crisis made us appear compassionate toward one another. For a moment, no one seemed concerned about status of one’s race, class, or gender during these days of uncertainty.

Then, in May, a heinous display of police brutality occurred in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A police officer used his knee to strangle life from a detained citizen, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was arrested for offering a counterfeit $20 bill to a store owner. While Floyd struggled for air, he called for his mother and exclaimed, “I can’t breathe.”

In Wheatley’s day, the entire notion of British-American abolition confronted wickedness by tackling laws that weighed down and chocked out African personhood. Wheatley initiated the bartering of her own emancipation while on furlough in Great Britain. There, Granville Sharp, an evangelical New Testament scholar, legal theorist, and abolitionist, exposed Wheatley to laws that declared any enslaved person immediately emancipated once they set foot on British soil. With this knowledge, Wheatley knew she need not return to colonial tyranny in New England — because Old England offered equality under the law. But she did return. Some scholars believe Wheatley convinced her owners to free her once she arrived back in America. John Wheatley likely agreed because his wife was dying, and she desired care.

Yet once Wheatley stood on her own two feet, she discovered that a Black woman could not breathe in a society filled with the fumes of racism and sexism. As a freed poet, she never found a publisher in New England for her writings. One of the greatest Christian intellectuals on American soil was brutalized again, this time by an economic system that systematically destroyed human flourishing for diasporic Africans worldwide. She died with an infant child, in abject poverty, and was later buried in an unmarked grave. The mother of the American Black literary tradition, without ever grasping the wealth of her ideas, could not breathe until she took her last breath.

This story is from Common Good issue
05.
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