Wheatley and Race: Blind Spots

henry-louis-gates phillis-wheatleyIn The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003), Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses the various cultural trials that Phillis Wheatley (c.1754-1784) endured as a slave poet in order to “audition for the humanity of the entire African people” (27).[1] The first trial took place in 1772, before an eighteen-member panel of Boston’s civic and moral leaders. They wanted both to “verify the authorship of her poems” and to answer the question of whether blacks were capable of higher reasoning, thereby “producing literature” (5). Although Wheatley passed the trial, a skeptical Boston public still refused to print her work; she had to go to London to see Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) published, through a benefactor (30-31). As a result, English reviewers “condemned the hypocrisy of a colony that insisted on liberty and equality when it came to its relationship to England but did not extend those principles to its own population” (35).

The second trial occurred after Wheatley’s death, although Thomas Jefferson read her poetry in 1779 (Gates 41). Thanks to “blind spots,” the president’s opinion of blacks was already denigrating, since he “believed that Africans have human souls” but “lack the intellectual endowments of other races” (40, 44). In other words, Jefferson simultaneously accepted their humanity, moral equality, and “mental inferiority” (46). As a result, in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788), Jefferson said that Wheatley’s poetry was “below the dignity of criticism” (qtd. 42). Therefore, the fact that she wrote literature as an African was not enough to question or abolish slavery; the intellectual quality of her work was still debatable (49). Seizing Wheatley as a literary and cultural standard, nineteenth-century African-American authors tried to “prove Jefferson wrong,” but their efforts only confirmed the tenets of his argument (51). In his Appeal in Four Articles (1829), David Walker said that “you will either have to contradict or confirm [Jefferson] by your own actions,” since Americans “are waiting for us to prove to them ourselves that we are men” (qtd. 61). Gates himself notes the irony of trying to “demonstrate black equality through the creation of literature” (65-66).

The final trial began in the 1920s, when black authors tried to topple Wheatley off her pedestal (Gates 74-82). By the militant 1960s, this once-revered poet had become “the most reviled figure” in black letters (78). As a “cultural imposter” and “race traitor,” Wheatley was accused of having a “white mind” (78, 82). However, Gates argues “that there are no ‘white minds’ or ‘black minds’” (87). So, trying to resolve the question “who is black enough,” he asks readers to stop stereotyping Wheatley and “cast aside the mine-and-thine rhetoric of cultural ownership” (83, 85, 87).

thomas-jefferson phillis-wheatleyGates’ book is an excellent analysis on Wheatley’s mission and legacy, but it misses the point. The root of Jefferson’s “blind spots” was not racism but the sin of unbelief. By rejecting the timeless truth of imago dei (Genesis 1:27), Jefferson refused to believe that all people – red, yellow, black, and white – are created equal in mind, body, and spirit. We all came from Adam and Eve, so we share the same blood (Genesis 2:7, 21-22; Acts 17:26). Since we’re all human beings, we have the same moral, emotional, and intellectual capacities. We don’t need to “prove” our humanity to anyone through what we say or do. Humanity is our God-given birthright. Each person who accepts these fixed truths will treat others equally regardless of class, ethnicity, religion, or gender. They won’t create a sliding cultural standard for people to achieve and then judge them for their failures.

Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath, the African-American community today has its own “blind spots.” Most Americans of African descent would rather be “black” – whatever that means – than Christian. They would rather identify with MLK Jr. or Rosa Parks than Jesus Christ. They praise freedom of the body more than freedom of the soul, unaware that they’re slaves to sin. This is the real tragedy, not the history of slavery in America. Did Wheatley want to be free? Did she hate slavery? Yes. Through Christianity, however, Wheatley learned to be content with her lot because she valued freedom of the soul. No wonder she praised her adopted nation in “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1768). “The most reviled poem in African-American literature” isn’t culturally or racially “apologetic” (Gates 71, 88). Nor is it a “secret coded love letter to freedom” (89). The plain sense of each line is indictment enough.

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That 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.

Tall ShipEighteenth-century Africa was spiritually “pagan” and Wheatley knew it, since her “benighted soul … neither sought nor knew redemption.” In America, however, Wheatley discovered a savior in Jesus Christ, so she credited “mercy” with this great gift – even though it came through the horrific slave trade. Divine mercy often comes after suffering, and humble converts are grateful. Wheatley was no exception. If she had remained in Africa or been bought by anyone other than Susanna Wheatley, then she might never have heard the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The world would never have heard her name or read her poetry either. As a result, Wheatley could say like Joseph that “God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” and “has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:51-52, NKJV).

That critics like Gates wish Wheatley “had found a more veiled way to express her gratitude” and joy miss the point (82-83). In the last four lines, Wheatley tries to teach white Christian hypocrites a lesson. Some of them scorn the “sable race,” call their color a “diabolic die,” and consider “Negroes” as “black as Cain.” In other words, Africans are either of Satan or spiritually cursed. Wheatley uses the term “die,” however, to demonstrate that color is skin-deep and doesn’t represent her mind and soul. Therefore, unlike Satan and Cain, Africans can both “join th’ angelic train” and be culturally and intellectually “refin’d.” In conclusion, white America doesn’t have a monopoly on religion or culture. If Wheatley’s brilliant poem isn’t both a Christian and an intellectual indictment of racism, then I don’t know what is.

__________

[1] The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003. This book is an expanded version of Gates’ Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Library of Congress in 2002.

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