The problem presented to readers by the late eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley is nearly as well known as her poetry. Alongside many readers’ expressions of admiration, others have registered suspicion and disapproval, first in the eighteenth and then again in the mid- and late twentieth centuries. And nearly all of Wheatley’s critics acknowledge the centrality of the poet’s life in responses to her poetry. Whether the questions were framed in terms of literary authorship in the context of racist assumptions (as they were in the eighteenth century) or racial (as well as gendered) authenticity in the context of assumptions about piety and predictable conventions of neoclassical poetry (as they were in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries), Wheatley has disturbed reader’s expectations in her moment and in ours. My own undergraduate students, for instance, frequently recall Alice Walker’s Wheatley from their US schoolroom curriculum. Brilliant, isolated, enslaved and deeply conflicted about her race and self, Walker’s Wheatley (shaped at least in part by the Black Arts Movement’s hostile reception) embodies Virginia Woolf’s ‘contrary instincts’, a fraught and unfortunately iconic representation of black women’s creative expression. In the widely reprinted 1974 title essay of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker presents Phillis Wheatley as a young black girl combing the golden hair of both her white mistress and the classical goddess of virtue, providing one moment among many when Wheatley served a particular rhetorical function for readers, writers and activists in the trans-Atlantic cultural milieu that first established her as a literary celebrity in 1771.
Imagining Transatlantic Slavery
Elrod, Eileen Razzari. "Phillis Wheatley’s Abolitionist Text: The 1834 Edition." Imagining Transatlantic Slavery. Ed. Cora Kaplan and J. R. Oldfield. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 96-109.