The Trials of Phillis Wheatley

America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers


By Henry Louis Gates

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In 1773, the slave Phillis Wheatley literally wrote her way to freedom. The first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in English, she was emancipated by her owners in recognition of her literary achievement. For a time, Wheatley was the most famous black woman in the West. But Thomas Jefferson, unlike his contemporaries Ben Franklin and George Washington, refused to acknowledge her gifts as a writer — a repudiation that eventually inspired generations of black writers to build an extraordinary body of literature in their efforts to prove him wrong.

In The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the pivotal roles that Wheatley and Jefferson played in shaping the black literary tradition. Writing with all the lyricism and critical skill that place him at the forefront of American letters, Gates brings to life the characters, debates, and controversy that surrounded Wheatley in her day and ours.


The African-American Century (with Cornel West)
Wonders of the African World
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man
The Future of the Race (with Cornel West)
Identities (with K. Anthony Appiah)
Colored People
Loose Canons
Figures in Black
The Signifying Monkey
The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts
Africana (edited with K. Anthony Appiah)
Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
by Harriet E. Wilson

For Sharon, Maggie, and Liza

This book is an expanded version of the Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities that I was privileged to deliver to the Library of Congress in March 2002. I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the National Endowment for the Humanities, its past chairman William R. Ferris, its current chairman, Bruce Cole, and the National Council on the Humanities for choosing me to deliver the Jefferson Lecture on the thirtieth anniversary of the series.
The Jefferson Lectures began in 1972 with Lionel Trilling’s address on “Mind in the Modern World.” As hard as it is to believe, the Jefferson Lectures are more than a tenth as old as the nation they serve. I am honored to occupy a line of succession that includes Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Toni Morrison, John Hope Franklin, and so many other luminaries.
It is humbling to receive what has been called the highest intellectual honor bestowed by the U.S. government. I feel especially humbled and appreciative because I interpret this honor as a statement about my field, African-American studies, which arrived in the academy only three decades ago.
I am especially proud to be a fellow country-man of Jefferson’s in several senses. As a citizen, like all of you, of the republic of letters. As an American who believes deeply in the soaring promise of the Declaration of Independence. As a native of Piedmont, West Virginia, and, hence, in a broad sense, a fellow Virginian.
Who knows? Judging from all the DNA disclosures of the last few years, I may even be related to him. For all of us, white and black alike, Jefferson remains an essential ancestor.
John F. Kennedy once famously addressed a group of distinguished intellectuals by saying they were the greatest gathering of brilliant thinkers to visit the White House since Jefferson dined alone. It’s a great line—but I don’t think Jefferson ever did dine alone. Even when no one was at the table with him, someone was cooking for him, someone was bringing him his food, and somebody was busy planning his next meal. And the chances are good that some of those people were African Americans. And it is Jefferson’s role in the shaping of black literary and political discourse that is the subject of this book.
I hope that readers will accept my challenge to recuperate Phillis Wheatley, the first African poet in English, from the long shadow of Jefferson’s misgivings about her gifts.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Cambridge, MA February 19, 2003

The Trials of Phillis Wheatley
It was the primal scene of African-American letters. Sometime before October 8, 1772, Phillis Wheatley, a slim, African slave in her late teens, met with eighteen gentlemen so august that they could later allow themselves to be identified publicly “as the most respectable characters in Boston.” The panel had been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: was a Negro capable of producing literature?
The details of the meeting have been lost to history, but I have often imagined how it might have happened. She entered the room—perhaps in Boston’s Town Hall, the Old Colony House—carrying a manuscript consisting of twenty-odd poems that she claims to have written. No doubt the young woman would have been demure, soft-spoken, and frightened, for she was about to undergo one of the oddest oral examinations on record, one that would determine the course of her life and the fate of her work, and one that, ultimately, would determine whether she remained a slave or would be set free. The stakes, in other words, were as high as they could get for an oral exam. She is on trial and so is her race.
She would have been familiar with the names of the gentlemen assembled in this room. For there, perhaps gathered in a semicircle, would have sat an astonishingly influential group of the colony’s citizens determined to satisfy for themselves, and thus put to rest, fundamental questions about the authenticity of this woman’s literary achievements. Their interrogation of this witness, and her answers, would determine not only this woman’s fate but the subsequent direction of the antislavery movement, as well as the birth of what a later commentator would call “a new species of literature,” the literature written by slaves.
Who would this young woman have confronted that day in the early autumn of 1772? At the center no doubt would have sat His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson, a colonial historian and a royal official, who would end his life in England as a loyalist refugee, was born in Boston into a wealthy family descended from merchants. (Anne Hutchinson was also an ancestor.) Young Thomas, we are told, preferred “reading history to playing with other children” and early on became an admirer of Charles I. So precocious was he that he entered Harvard College at the age of twelve, “where,” his biographer tells us, “his social standing entitled him to be ranked third in his class.” (Even back then, grade inflation loomed on the banks of the Charles River.)
Hutchinson was the governor between 1769 and 1774. Following the Boston Tea Party, Hutchinson went to London “for consultations.” His family joined him in exile in 1776. Just four years following this examination, he would receive an honorary degree from the University of Oxford on, of all days, July 4, 1776. Hutchinson never returned to his beloved estate in Milton, Massachusetts.
At Hutchinson’s side in the makeshift seminar room would have sat Andrew Oliver, the colony’s lieutenant governor (and Hutchinson’s brother-in-law through his wife’s sister). Oliver, who took the A.B. and M.A. degrees from Harvard, became—along with his brother and business partners, Peter and Thomas Hutchinson—leaders of the faction that dominated provincial Massachusetts politics until the eve of the Revolution. Oliver imprudently allowed himself to be publicly identified as a supporter of the Stamp Act of


On Sale
Apr 29, 2009
Page Count
144 pages
Civitas Books

Henry Louis Gates

About the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including Colored People, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, In Search of Our Roots, and the American Book Award-winning The Signifying Monkey. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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