Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
"I've always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic," says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight."
Gates, this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, has been untiring in his quest. He has unearthed old periodicals, edited dictionaries and anthologies, and written a dozen books. For twenty years he and his colleagues have gathered fragments of a culture, amassing more than forty thousand texts for the Black Periodical Literature Project and enough material for fifty-two volumes on African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century for the Schomburg Center in New York. Gates's latest effort is a multimedia digital encyclopedia of African culture, Encarta Africana.
His projects travel with him in many instances. They are the corollary of a teaching career that has taken him from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard. Through all the work runs the dichotomy of race.
"I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me," he once wrote in an open letter to his daughters. "Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time--but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color."
It has been a remarkable journey from the mill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, where Gates grew up. After attending junior college in Piedmont, he studied at Yale and spent a year overseas working at a hospital in Africa. He was graduated summa cum laude in history in 1973 and went to Clare College at Cambridge University on a Mellon Fellowship. Gates earned a Ph.D. in English from Cambridge and became an assistant professor at Yale with a joint appointment in the English department and Afro-American studies. He is now the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities at Harvard and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research.
In 1981, when the MacArthur Foundation gave its first fellowships, Gates was among the recipients. He capped that achievement a year later with the rediscovery of the first novel in the United States written by a black person, Harriet E. Wilson's 1859 book Our Nig. He has recently acquired another long-lost manuscript from that period, The Bondwoman's Narrative, which will be published this spring.
In Gates's view, until stories like these are part of the American fabric, the country's literary heritage is not whole. "It is clear that every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and one low (literary and vernacular), but also one white and one black," he writes in Loose Canons. "There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well."
He sees the challenge in broad terms: "Our generation must record, codify, and disseminate the assembled data about African and African American culture, thereby institutionalizing the received knowledge about African Americans that has been gathered for the past century, and that we continue to gather, as we chart heretofore unexplored continents of ignorance. For our generation of scholars in African-American studies, to map the splendid diversity of human life in culture is the charge of the scholar of African American Studies."
Colored People: A Memoir
A Letter from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to his daughters Maggie and Lisa
I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis's fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You've seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and some reporter asked him, after the fight: "Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn't knocked Schmeling out?" And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat: "I'da run around him to see what was holdin' him up!"
Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time-but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group . . . but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.
© 1994 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars
Long after white American literature has been anthologized and canonized, and recanonized, our attempts to define a black American canon, foregrounded on its own against a white backdrop, are often decried as racist, separatist, nationalist, or "essentialist." Attempts to derive theories about our literary tradition from the black tradition--a tradition, I might add, that must include black vernacular forms as well as written literary forms--are often greeted by our colleagues in traditional literature departments as misguided attempts to secede from a union which only recently, and with considerable kicking and screaming, has been forged. What is wrong with you people, our friends ask us in genuine passion and concern; after all, aren't we all just citizens of literature here?
Well, yes and no. It is clear that every black American text must confess to a complex ancestry, one high and one low (literary and vernacular), but also one white and one black. There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound, it is intellectually sound as well. But the attempts of scholars such as Arnold Rampersad, Houston Baker, M. H. Washington, Nellie McKay, and others to define a black American canon, and to pursue literary interpretation from within this canon, are not meant to refute the soundness of those gestures of integration. Rather, it is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology, or a mystically shared essence called blackness, but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi, and tropes, a process that binds the signal texts of the black tradition into a canon just as surely as separate links bind together into a chain.
© 1992 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man
Broyard was born black and became white, and his story is compounded of equal parts pragmatism and principle. He knew that the world was filled with snippets and scraps of paper, all conspiring to reduce him to an identity that other people had invented and he had no say in. Broyard responded with X-Acto knives and evasions, with distance and denials and half-denials and cunning half-truths. Over the years, he became a virtuoso of ambiguity and equivocation. Some of his acquaintances knew the truth; many more had heard rumors about "distant" black ancestry (wasn't there a grandfather who was black? A great-grandfather?). But most were entirely unaware, and that was as he preferred it. He kept the truth even from his own children. Society had decreed race to be a matter of natural law, but he wanted race to be an elective affinity, and it was never going to be a fair fight.
Anatole spent his early years in a modest house on St. Ann Street, in a colored neighborhood in the French Quarter. Documents in the Louisiana state archives show all Anatole's ancestors, on both sides, to have been Negroes, at least since the late eighteenth century. The rumor about a distant black ancestor was, in a sense, the reverse of the truth: he may have had one distant white ancestor. Of course, the conventions of color stratification within black America--nowhere more pronounced than in New Orleans--meant that light-skinned blacks often intermarried with other light-skinned blacks, and this was the case with Paul and his "high yellow" wife, Edna. Anatole was the second of three children; he and his sister Lorraine, two years older, were light-skinned, while Shirley, two years younger, was not so light-skinned. (The inheritance of melanin is an uneven business.) In any event, the family was identified as Negro, and identified itself as Negro. It was not the most interesting thing about them. But in America it was not a negligible social fact. The year before Anatole's birth, for example, close to a hundred blacks were lynched in the South and anti-black race riots claimed the lives of hundreds more.
Here is a man who passed for white because he wanted to be a writer and he did not want to be a Negro writer. It is a crass disjunction, but it is not his crassness or his disjunction. His perception was perfectly correct. He would have had to be a Negro writer, which was something he did not want to be. In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy. We give lip service to the idea of the writer who happens to be black, but had anyone, in the postwar era, ever seen such a thing?
Broyard's friend Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist and a theorist of culture, says, "I think he believed that reality is constituted by style," and ascribed to Broyard a "deeply romantic view of the intimate connection between style and reality." Broyard passed not because he thought that race wasn't important but because he knew that it was.
© 1997 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
The Future of the Race
Twenty-five years ago, I left West Virginia for Yale University, to join the blackest class in the history of that ivy-draped institution. I drove up on my own, without my parents. They were never comfortable in that island of leaded glass and Gothic spires, although you might say they spent much of their lives making sure I arrived there. My father worked two jobs-loading trucks at a paper mill, plus a night shift as a janitor for the phone company-to keep us well fed and well clothed, and to pay the premiums on "college insurance policies," a thousand dollars when we reached eighteen….By day--and it was still light when I first arrived in New Haven--the university is a tangible, mortar-and-stone manifestation of an Oxonian ideal of Gothic perfection. By night, the sense of enchantment increased: the mammoth structures, strangely out of keeping with the surrounding town, guarded their streets with bearded shadows made by the half-light of the lampposts. At Yale, battle hymns were Congregational, with delicate changes of key. The building that just had to be the college cathedral turned out to be Sterling Library. Every feature of the place was alarming and exhilarating. Welcome to Never-Never Land, I told myself. This is your world, the world you've longed for and dreamed of. This was where the goods and entitlements of the American century were stored and distributed. It was the grown-up version of the world of Captain Midnight Decoders; the repository of all those box tops I used to ship off to Kellogg's in fair exchange for laser guns. If college was a warehouse for what we've modishly learned to call "cultural capital," the question wasn't how to get it but what to do with it.
© 1996 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
The Signifying Monkey
The black Africans who survived the dreaded "Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these Africans nevertheless carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they chose, by acts of will, not to forget: their music (a mnemonic device for Bantu and Kwa tonal languages), their myths, their expressive institutional structures, their metaphysical systems of order, and their forms of performance. If "the Dixie Pike," as Jean Toomer put the matter in Cane, "has grown from a goat path in Africa," then the black vernacular tradition stands as its signpost, at that liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa meets Afro-America.
Common sense, in retrospect, argues that these retained elements of culture should have survived, that their complete annihilation would have been far more remarkable than their preservation. The African, after all, was a traveler, albeit an abrupt, ironic traveler, through space and time; and like every traveler, the African "read" a new environment within a received framework of meaning and belief. The notion that the Middle Passage was so traumatic that it functioned to create in the African a tabula rasa of consciousness is as odd as it is a fiction, a fiction that has served several economic orders and their attendant ideologies. The full erasure of traces of cultures as splendid, as ancient, and as shared by the slave traveler as the classic cultures of traditional West Africa would have been extraordinarily difficult. Slavery in the New World, a veritable seething cauldron of cross-cultural contact, however, did serve to create a dynamic of exchange and revision among numerous previously isolated Black African cultures on a scale unprecedented in African history. Inadvertently, African slavery in the New World satisfied the preconditions for the emergence of a new African culture, a truly Pan-African culture fashioned as a colorful weave of linguistic, institutional, metaphysical, and formal threads. What survived this fascinating process was the most useful and the most compelling of the fragments at hand. Afro-American culture is an African culture with a difference as signified by the catalysts of English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, or Spanish languages and cultures, which informed the precise structures that each discrete New World Pan-African culture assumed.
Of the music, myths, and forms of performance that the African brought to the Western Hemisphere, one specific trickster figure recurs with startling frequency in black mythology in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. This figure appears in black cultures with such frequency that we can think of it as a repeated theme or topos. Indeed, this trickster topos not only seems to have survived the bumpy passage to the New World, but it appears even today in Nigeria, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the United States. There can be little doubt that certain fundamental terms for order that the black enslaved brought with them from Africa, and maintained through the mnemonic devices peculiar to oral literature, continued to function both as meaningful units of New World belief systems and as traces of their origins. We lack written documents the historical questions of how this occurred, questions about the means of transmission, translation, and recuperation of the ensuing difference. Nevertheless, this topos functions as a sign of the disrupted wholeness of an African system of meaning and belief that black slaves recreated from memory, preserved by oral narration, improvised upon in ritual-especially in the rituals of the repeated oral narrative-and willed to their own subsequent generations, as hermetically sealed and encoded charts of cultural descent.
© 1988 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.
Dictionary of Global Culture
And we believe that in a world that is increasingly free of domination by "the West," we will be able both to acknowledge more frankly the evils that were done in the course of Europe's expansion and to celebrate the very real achievements of those Western cultures--and at the same time to take pleasure in the benefits of the creation of a global culture under the steam of the economic, technological, religious, and cultural ideas of Europe and her heirs.
In coming to this recognition, however, we shall also come increasingly to see that, largely because of Europe's involvement in half a millennium of trade and of empire, her economy, technology, religion, and culture are not the products only of "white" people, of Europeans and their descendants outside Europe. Take two entirely different, but representative, examples: that the rebirth of European philosophy in the European Renaissance owed a great deal to the Arab scholars who had kept alive Greek classical learning during the European "Dark Ages"; and that the idea of democracy in the United States was refashioned in part out of the contributions of African Americans whose understanding of freedom was deepened by their understanding of the Old Testament and by their experience of racial slavery. In the vast process of the development of the modern global system, cultures and traditions have mixed and melded to produce in many places--but perhaps above all in the old centers of power, in the United States and Western Europe--new kinds of culture that draw on traditions from all over the planet. It may be true that in some parts of Africa and Asia contemporary cultures are still local traditions with only a thin veneer from the West; but in the United States, at least, both "high" culture--literature, music and dance, painting and sculpture, film and television--and the everyday life of "ordinary" culture--of cuisine, of language, of games and sports--draw on contributions that are an inextricable mixture of elements from Europe, Africa, America, and Asia, and draw also on and endless stream of new ideas in the creative glory of humankind. . . . Our idea in making this book was a simple one: to give those people (to give ourselves) a sampler of cultural contributions from around the globe. In doing so, we have placed some of the achievements of Western culture alongside those of many other cultures and traditions. We have done this in part because those juxtapositions enrich our understanding and appreciation of the achievements of "our" culture; in part because we think that in preparing the new generations for a culture that is more global, it is essential for them to learn about William Shakespeare as they learn about Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Murasaki Shikibu from Japan, Rabindranath Tagore from India. As we in the West develop a more global culture, we do so in the context of Western traditions: we do so because an understanding of other cultures enriches, without displacing our own
© 1996 by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Used by permission of of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is this year’s Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. He spoke recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the growth of African American studies in this country. Gates, who is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities at Harvard, is the author of twelve books, among them The Signifying Monkey and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.
Bruce Cole: You’re described as a cultural critic, a literary historian, various labels. If you were sitting next to someone on a plane and they asked you, “What do you do?” what would you say?
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: I would say I’m a literary critic. That’s the first descriptor that comes to mind. After that I would say I was a teacher. Both would be just as important.
I liken the role of the scholar of African American studies today to a Talmudic scholar, someone whose job it is to preserve the tradition, to resurrect the texts and key events of the past and to explicate them. I’ve always thought of myself as both a literary historian and a literary critic, someone who loves archives and someone who is dedicated to resurrecting texts that have dropped out of sight. As it turns out, there are a huge number of those texts. At the beginning of my career I didn’t realize quite how many there were.
Cole: What kind of history were you interested in then?
Gates: I was interested in American political history. My first degree was from Yale, in history, and John Morton Blum was my mentor. I was the scholar of the house. There are twelve scholars of the house at Yale, and I was one of the twelve. If you’re selected for that program, which in my day was very, very competitive and prestigious, you are relieved of all courses for your senior year and you are able to write a book, in my case, or compose a symphony or paint a portrait or create a ballet, whatever it may be.
I was selected to write a book about Jay Rockefeller’s gubernatorial campaign in West Virginia. I’m from West Virginia.
Cole: Yes. I’ve read your memoir.
Gates: I had met Jay Rockefeller when I interviewed to go to Exeter -- which I attended briefly -- and I really liked him. I love Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President. So, in my junior year, working with Blum, I decided that I would submit an application to be the scholar of the house, and my project was called “The Making of a Governor,” and the joke was, “by Theodore H. Black.” The only problem was that Jay didn’t win. So it was the unmaking of a governor.
I learned a lot about writing from John Blum, and I learned a lot about history from John Blum. It was like the laying on of the hands. That same year, my junior year, when I was thinking about this project, I also was writing a guest column for the Yale Daily News. That was our campus daily.
I had taken a year off from Yale in a special program called Five Year B.A. The only stipulation if you were chosen for this project was that you take the year off, that it was not an academic year, hence Five Year B.A.
I went to Tanzania, where I worked at a mission hospital for a year.
Cole: You were supposed to do something not academic?
Gates: Not academic. When I came back, I had to declare a major and I realized that I had taken six history courses and you only need twelve for a major, so I said, “Wow. I’m halfway there.” I decided to be a history major, a subject that I had always loved. On the way back, when I was sailing down the Congo River, I had written to Rockefeller saying, “I think you’re running for governor and maybe you’ll give me a summer job.” I was hitchhiking from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean with a guy who had just graduated from Harvard, who happened to have been a white guy named Lawrence Biddle Weeks, who’s now an Episcopal priest, having been a lawyer. We had run into each other by accident at the dock in Dar es Salaam. He said his fantasy was to go from the Cape to Cairo. Mine was to cross the Equator. We flipped a coin and the Equator won. We went from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean without ever leaving the ground.
Gates: Hitchhiking, yes.
Cole: That must have been quite an adventure.
Gates: It was amazing. It was about two-and-a-half months. I got deathly ill from amoebic dysentery. I must have lost twenty or thirty pounds. They thought I was going to die for a while.
Anyway, I get back finally to Piedmont, West Virginia, and there’s a letter, to my astonishment, from Jay Rockefeller. He’d offered me a job. So I went down and I worked for Jay in Charleston, and then I came back to Yale. My senior year, I wrote a book -- which I never published -- on his first gubernatorial campaign, which is called “The Once and Future King.”
But that’s a long way of saying that I had a very strong preparation in archival work. I remember that John Blum told me, when I finished my project, that I could either be an academic or a journalist. I said, “Well, isn’t there a big difference in the quality? Are you saying that on a good day I’m an academic and on a bad day I’m a journalist?” And he said, “Oh, no, no. I mean the best of journalism.”
Cole: You had been writing for a time.
Gates: Yes. When I came back from Africa, all my friends were seniors and I was a junior. One of my friends was the editor of the Yale Daily News. He asked me to start writing about my experience of living with these missionaries in the bush, way out in the center of Tanzania. So I did. It became a column and I got a lot of attention on campus.
One day John Blum called me out from the podium of this huge class, Politics and Culture in Twentieth Century America. This was a class that everyone took. It was packed. He said, “Is Mr. Gates in the room?”
I said yes. I stood up and he said, “I really enjoyed your essay in today’s student newspaper.” Everyone looked at me like, who’s that guy? I went like, wow, man, you know? But I had to sit down all cool, and go like, “Oh, yeah, it happens to me every day.” Inside I was hooked. I went to him and said, “Would you be my adviser?”
Cole: What happened next?
Gates: Then what happened was I got a Mellon Fellowship to go to the University of Cambridge. I was the first African American to get a Mellon Fellowship, and I called my parents.
Cole: In your memoir, you write about the closeness of your family in Piedmont.
Gates: When I was a kid growing up, my friends wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar. I didn’t know why. I just wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and I wanted to go to Oxford or to Cambridge.
I rushed back to Calvin College at Yale and I called home to Piedmont. My dad answered the phone. My father is one of the funniest people I know. My father makes Redd Foxx looks like an undertaker, right? I said, “Daddy, Daddy, put Mom on the phone.” She got on the extension and he said, “What, boy? What’s wrong?” I said, “I got a Mellon Fellowship. I got a Mellon Fellowship. I’m the first black American to get a Mellon Fellowship.”
And my father said, “A Mellon Fellowship? You’re the first black American?” He said, “Huh, they’re going to call it the Watermelon Fellowship from now on.” So armed with my Mellon Fellowship, I went off to the University of Cambridge, by way of Time magazine. I had written to the head of correspondence at Time magazine and said I was a columnist for the Yale Daily News. I enclosed my resume and a few of my columns. They brought me down to New York and, in two weeks, they gave me a job.
Cole: That is extraordinary.
Gates: The day after commencement at Yale, I jumped on the QE II and sailed to Southampton. All summer I wrote for Time magazine. After I’d been there about a week, I wrote to Anthony Lewis, who was writing his famous column from London, and I said, “Here I am” and “This is who I am” and he took me to the Athenaeum Club, where all the journalists meet. It was one of the great days of my life.
Anyway, I went up to the University of Cambridge and then I fell in love, not with history, but with the study of English literature. There was an African there called Wole Soyinka, who thirteen years later would become the first African to get the Nobel Prize. To me he was just a bushy-haired African who wore dashikis. I didn’t know who he was.
It turns out that he had fled Nigeria, having been imprisoned during the Biafran War for twenty-seven months, twenty-four in solitary confinement. He wrote a prison memoir called The Man Died. After he got out of prison and the book was published, the government was trying to kill him all over again, so he fled to Cambridge. It wasn’t really a pleasant experience because the English department denied him an appointment. They said African literature was, at best, sociology or socio-anthropology, but it was not real literature.
As he writes in the preface to a series of lectures he gave that year at Cambridge called Myth, Literature and the African World, I was his only student. I fell in love with African and African American literature.
Cole: There have been other influences as well.
Gates: I’ve worked with Raymond Williams and with the great George Steiner, and a man called John Holloway. I realized that if I could combine my love for archival work with the theoretical developments that were sneaking their way across the English Channel from France and the continent, that maybe I could make a contribution to both the study of literature in the academy and to a nascent field which was perilously close to dying called Afro-American studies.
Cole: And you had the scholarly training and grounding to work in the theoretical part.
Gates: That’s what I got at Cambridge. I didn’t even know what literary theory was. When I wrote my first essay, my supervisor said it was the worst essay she had ever read, because I didn’t know how to explicate a text. I went to her and I said, “Surely there must be books to teach me this method?” She said, “No, no, you’re born with it. It’s some sort of sensibility that you get through your genes.” Well, being a practical American, I went to the bookstore and I asked for the literary criticism section and I bought it-the whole section. I bought one discrete title of each book, and I went back and I read those books and I ended up doing very well, thank goodness.
Cole: But you saw the light.
Gates: I saw the light and I realized, going back to my Talmudic analogy, that if I could bring to bear these two skills which I was busy trying to learn, then maybe I could make a contribution.
Cole: Obviously, you’ve had inspiring teachers, who have led you in certain directions and have given you great training and the like. Let me ask you about yourself as a teacher. What do you teach and what do you find the relation is between teaching and your criticism and your scholarship?
Gates: I mentioned John Morton Blum, who more than anyone else is responsible for my even entertaining the idea remotely that I could be a writer, and my debt to him will never adequately be repaid. He’s a person I love.
Most of my mentors have been white people, outside of my mother and father, because I grew up in an Irish-Italian town, a paper mill town, and there just weren’t any black teachers. I had one black teacher in twelve years and she was the typing teacher. She was a very nice person, but typing wasn’t going to be my life. My great inspirations were people who happened not to be black, that is, happened not to look like me but people with whom I shared a certain sensibility. So it has never ever occurred to me that to be a mentor one must look like one’s subject or share the same religion. One must just share a similar sensibility and, fortunately, that’s not defined by ethnicity or gender or sexual preference or religion or any of those other things.
Gates: It’s a magical relationship that just happens. Along with John Blum, William McFeeley, the great historian, was important to me. He taught African American history-the introduction to African American history at Yale-in 1969 and 1970, my sophomore year. There must have been a couple hundred kids in the class and after the end of every lecture, some black militant with a big afro -- and I had a two-foot-high afro, too - would stand up and say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll ask it nice, but when are we going to get a black person in here?”
McFeeley was unflappable. If somebody said that to me, I would have been ticked off and I would have told them that they misunderstood the nature of learning and blah, blah, blah. But he was very, very patient. He said, “Look. We need to get more people of color into universities such as Yale, but in the meantime, I’m doing the best that I can.” And the man was brilliant. He’d gotten the Pulitzer Prize. He was a great scholar. But it was his patience in the face of political hostility, first, and second, his sheer brilliance.
Cole: That’s been a philosophy you have carried with you to Harvard.
Gates: Our notion of affirmative action is you hire the best person possible, without regard to race or gender, and that’s what we do in the department. Most of our students are white, most of the students in our Ph.D. program are white, and many of our faculty members are white. It can’t be real as a subject if you have to look like the subject to be an expert in the subject.
Cole: Yale in the 1970s was a world unto itself.
Gates: One of the great things about going to Yale was the library. I remember when I first walked in the Sterling Memorial Library, I thought it was the cathedral.
Cole: It is kind of a church, isn’t it?
Gates: Yes. I said, “What’s that? Is that the church?” And they go, “The church? Dummy, that’s the library.” I walked in and saw miles of card catalogs.
Then at the Beinecke Rare Book Library, where eventually I would write my Ph.D. thesis -- with a pencil because pens aren’t allowed in the Beinecke -- I realized that there was a huge archive on African American arts and letters called the James Weldon Johnson Collection. The great photographer, Carl Van Vechten, had been responsible for creating it.
There I found all this material on Bessie Smith. I was always fascinated with the blues, and I wrote a paper for McFeeley on her. He asked to see me and he said, “This is exactly the kind of scholarship, combining archival work with interpretation, that we want to see in this new field.” Remember, at this point, Afro-American studies as a discipline was two months old, three months old.
Gates: And he said, “That’s what we want to see happen.” You know, not just political rants, as was the wont at that time and it continues to be at some places.
Anyway, then later I had two fantastic black professors: Charles Davis, who was the first black master of John C. Calhoun College at Yale, and the first black American to get tenure in the English department. When I came back from Cambridge and dropped out of law school, Cambridge made him my dissertation supervisor. The other was the great historian, who unfortunately has died prematurely, John W. Blassingame, who also received many grants from the NEH.
Cole: It must have been very exciting to be there at that moment.
Gates: Oh, man. When I decided to drop out of law school, I went to see Charles Davis, and Charles’s mother- in-law was best friends with my great aunt, Pansy, who lived in New Jersey. They were part of this bridge club. My Aunt Pansy was married to a dentist and Jean’s father was a doctor and so they were in the same private clubs and that whole black social network. We were very close and they looked upon me as sort of a third son.
Charles said, “Look. I’m so glad you’re dropping out of law school. I’ll give you a job.” He said, “What can you do?” I said, “I can type.”
He said, “Well, I’ll give you a job as a typist.” I was secretary B in Afro-American studies from October 1, 1975 to June 30, 1976, at which time I was promoted to a lecturer convertible, as they say, which means I would become the assistant professor when I got my Ph.D. Davis joked it was the biggest promotion any secretary ever got in the history of Yale.
Cole: That typing class in high school paid off.
Gates: It sure did. Two years of typing, eighty-five words a minute, man. I was pretty good.
Cole: Actually, I remember my typing class. I thought it was one of the most useful classes I had in high school.
Gates: Anyway, Blassingame was the king of archivists. Blassingame believed that historical reality has actually been preserved on a reel and that reel was in a cave somewhere, and if you were a diligent enough historian, if you could cut through the wilderness and climb the mountain, you would find that. The idea that there was any ironic relationship between the observer and the observed, between the historian and the facts, he thought was just post-modern nonsense. He said those were the excuses bad historians have made.
Cole: A true positivist, right?
Gates: Total, totally positivistic. Then there was I, who saw myself as being part of a generation bringing continental theory from Europe not only to America, but to Afro-American studies.
Gates: We became best friends. He was a tremendous inspiration to me. When I finally authenticated the identity of Harriet Wilson, I conferred with Blassingame every day. Every day, Blassingame and I met, along with a few other scholars on Afro-American studies and other departments, at Naples Pizza Shop and had breakfast, which is right next to Afro-Am at Yale. I would say, “This is what I found yesterday.” And he would say, okay, do this, do this, do this, you know? He taught me so much.
Cole: Kind of a restaurant seminar.
Gates: Yes, you got it. From Wole Soyinka and George Steiner, to John Blum and John Blassingame, you can see that I’ve been blessed with a rainbow coalition of mentors.
Cole: Absolutely. Inspiring teachers.
Gates: Inspiring teachers. That leads me to your question about teaching. Because I’m a department chair, I teach two courses a year, which is the standard load here at Harvard.
I teach one graduate course each year and one undergraduate course. And I rotate a series of courses. I teach a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a course on the African American literary tradition, a course on autobiography, a course on the slave narratives, a course on African American women’s literature, a course on African literature, and a course on writing autobiography. I rotate them. But my bread and butter courses are a course on the Harlem Renaissance, a course on African American women’s writing, and a course on the African American literary tradition.
Cole: How does your teaching inform your research and vice versa?
Gates: Blassingame taught me a couple principles. One was that: teach what you write, write what you teach. The second one was: give it as a lecture, do your research, prepare it as a lecture, give it all year, as many times as you can, because then it becomes like second nature to you. You can realize the flaws.
Cole: You keep clarifying it, you have to articulate it.
Gates: Then make it an essay, publish it in a scholarly journal, a juried journal, and then that essay becomes a chapter in the book. That is the law of political economy of essays, I guess you would call it.
Cole: I think that’s true. You know that old adage: Teaching is to research like sin is to confession: without one you don’t have the other.
Gates: That’s good. And it’s true. So for me the challenge has been since I came to Harvard: How do I satisfy that love for the archives, yet become a responsible administrator? When I came, there was only one professor and one student. Now we have sixteen, and I’ve hired all those people, except for the one person who was here. That took a lot of work. One of the reasons I started writing for The New Yorker was that I’m addicted to writing, but I couldn’t really do the kind of archival research that I wanted to do, particularly in the first four or five years that I was here because it was such hard work building the department. I started writing for The New Yorker because I didn’t have to go to the library to do that.
Gates: I would interview people and it was a different kind of writing, though it was very challenging and it was a lot of fun. But I’m particularly pleased with the results of my research on the novel by Hannah Crafts, the finding of this 1850s novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative. It’s like I’ve come full circle from twenty years ago. 1982 is the year that I found and authenticated Harriet Wilson’s book, Our Nig. Now this second long-lost novel will be published. What’s curious about it is that it was a medical emergency that gave me the leisure time to do it. I was at home recuperating. Reading though an auction catalog, I saw this item, I sent a friend to buy it, and then I stayed at home and worked on my computer. It’s amazing.
Cole: I want to diverge a bit. You had said you wanted a chance to talk about the NEH and the role it has played in your life.
Gates: One of the reasons that this is such an honor to be chosen to give the Jefferson Lecture is because of the great tradition in which I fall. It’s remarkable, and I still can’t quite believe it. The NEH has played an amazing role in my career, from early on. I got a couple of chairman’s grants. When I had this crazy idea, in 1979, that Anthony Appiah and I- I was age twenty-nine, he was twenty-six-we could be W.E.B. DuBois’s legatees, and edit the Encyclopedia Africana. Joe Duffey [Former NEH Chairman Joseph D. Duffey] was there when I decided to do a huge research project called The Black Periodical Literature Project. This is an idea suggested by John Blassingame at those breakfasts at Naples Pizza Shop. He was trying to annotate Frederick Douglass’s speeches, and he was using black newspapers. The oldest black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was first published in 1827. There were hundreds and hundreds of these black newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century.
I needed to get this thing jump-started and Duffey gave me another chairman’s grant. Every two or three years, I would get another grant. It was through that that we were able to restore thousands, literally thousands, of black authors to the canon of American and African American literature. It was through the good graces of the NEH. Then there are all kind of other things that I did, you know, either as an adviser or a co-principal with the National Endowment. And I’ve always found the process fair, no matter who the president of the United States was. One of the most exciting days of my life was the invitation from Lynne Cheney [former NEH Chairman Lynne V. Cheney] to come down and lecture. We did an interview that was in the Humanities magazine, and we agreed to disagree and had lots of laughs about our different political stances.
Cole: You actually found a lot of agreement?
Gates: Yes, we found a lot of agreement, much to the chagrin of certain sectors of my profession. But I don’t think that ideology should be part of the deliberations for hiring a professor --
Cole: I agree.
Gates: -- or awarding a grant, and I thought that that was important and I think the NEH has an admirable record, in terms of walking that very fine line.
Cole: That’s very gratifying to hear. I think the review process at the NEH is the jewel in the crown here.
Gates: The staff was very supportive. One of the things that I learned early on was so many scholars will sit and fantasize in a vacuum, and they’ll write these five-hundred-page proposals, which nobody is ever going to fund. This way I can call and I can say, “This is what I want to do,” and they will say, “Well, you know, we don’t really have a program for getting black people to the moon; but we do have a program for this.” Doug Arnold, for example, with our Civil Rights Summer Institute, has been particularly good over the years in terms of answering my phone calls and saying, “Well, we can’t do that, but we can do this” and “How about this?” and “Why don’t you think about that?” Having a staff that not only possesses the strongest administrative skills but also strong academic skills is all too rare. I must have dealt with five hundred foundations in my career and there’s nothing like the National Endowment. It makes it even better for me to be honored in this way, because I wouldn’t be here without the National Endowment.
Cole: That’s wonderful to hear. One of the reasons I wanted this job is to be able to work with this staff, which is highly professional and dedicated and learned in many areas. It’s very gratifying to hear you say that.
Gates: It’s just the truth. If you made a list, you would find that the institutionalization of Afro-American studies has been enabled to a degree larger than any foundation by the NEH.
If you look at the great papers projects, twenty years ago there were no collected papers of African American scholars or thinkers or public figures or writers. None. Zero. Nada. Today, the Marcus Garvey papers, the Frederick Douglass papers, Martin Luther King papers, the black abolitionist papers, the Freedman’s Bureau papers, all of those were supported by NEH.
Cole: I agree. The publication of these papers is one of the most important things we do, and our funds, with the help of terrific scholars, make that possible. We’re very, very proud of those papers.
Gates: I am, too, and I happen to own all of them as well. Again, going back to mentorship, Blassingame’s role in the creation of the Frederick Douglass papers, and the coalition that he put together with the heads of each of those other papers projects, was very influential in shaping my understanding of the agenda for Afro-American studies as we sought to move it from a feel-good politically based, ethnic cheerleading orientation to a real academic discipline. You can’t do that without archives. You can’t do that without the organizational work.
Cole: That’s all from your archival training and your historical training and the like. And then your approach to theory through that historically grounded part of your education.
Gates: Absolutely. When I came back from England, there were very real worries that Afro-American studies -- because of its origins as an appeasement for political demands, by and large, throughout the academy -- would not survive. Many cynical administrators set it up so it wouldn’t survive. But because of people like Davis and Blassingame and others throughout the country, it has survived and now it’s in its golden age, really. It’s quite exciting to be a scholar in this field.
Cole: You’ve got to take credit for some of that yourself.
Gates: Well, I could never do that. But the thing I’m proudest of is that for us Afro-Americans, it is not only making a contribution to African American studies. All of us have joint appointments. We are transforming the traditional disciplines as well. The notion of what constitutes the canon of American literature is fundamentally different now because of the growth of Afro-American studies or the growth of women’s studies.
As you know, I am very conservative when it comes to values. I believe that not all texts are created equal, that a person who can’t tell the difference between pulp fiction and James Joyce shouldn’t really be teaching literature. There’s a big difference between popular African American literature and Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison deserves the Nobel Prize because she’s a formal genius. She redefines the way the language of the novel itself unfolds, its very possibilities. Other people tell a good riveting story, which is good to read at the beach. If a scholar can’t tell the difference, explain the difference, teach the difference to a student, then that person, to me, is not doing their job.
Far too often in the culture wars, we threw the baby out with the bath, and that’s not something that we do in our department and not something that our students are allowed to do.
Cole: Let me talk a little bit about something that you just touched on, and that’s aesthetics and art. I’m particularly interested in that because I am an art historian. Sometimes I think that art historians take the art out of art history. Is that a danger in literature, too?
Gates: When I went to Cambridge, my first choice was to read, as they say, the history of art. I’ve always been interested in art.
Gates: Yes, I live in a mini art gallery. I collect African and African American art. I would venture to say we have the only department of Afro-American studies that has not one, but two art historians as professors. It also overlaps with my own personal interests. I happen to be a former member of the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, I’m on the board of the Whitney, and I’ve been on the board of other museums, as well. I love art as both a scholar and as a collector.
So I’m very interested in the discourse of art history, and many of my friends are art historians. My rule is that if someone outside of my discipline writes an essay that I think that I could have written, there’s something wrong with that essay, by which I mean not in terms of the insight --
Cole: I understand that, yes.
Gates: -- but in terms of the whole tools of the trade. What I’ve found in a lot of art history was that people -- as a reaction to formalism or formalist criticism -- became so contextual that they forgot all about the text, that they weren’t talking about what made the art work as art. This was particularly true in African American art scholarship. Let’s say if you were writing about, as I have done, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Well, I can write an essay on the history of migration. I don’t need an art historian to tell me that. I need to know what produces this peculiar effect? Why is this a classic work? How does this redefine the ways that we see, the ways that we represent, on the one hand, black workers or migrants or subjects from the 1930s, on the other hand, why this particular use of color and shape? What did Lawrence do for his peers by representing the human form and the human experience in these particular colors and shapes? Did that change the way subsequent painters could represent human experience and human form? If not, then what good is it, because if you can reduce a work of art to an essay, then I don’t think that that work of art is successful.
Cole: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that’s terrific. You’ve got two big projects -- the African art database and the project on photo archives. How are they going?
Gates: I want to talk about the archive just briefly. When I came to Harvard, I said to President [Neil] Rudenstine and Dean Jeremy Knowles-if we want this to be a major center for African American studies, we need an archive. And by a major center I meant comparable to Yale. Yale was the mark.
It just objectively, I think, had the best Afro-American studies program in the country, certainly under Charles Davis and John Blassingame in the seventies and eighties. They had the James Weldon Johnson collection, the Big Bertha of all archives for black studies.
Cole: It was a large challenge for you to meet.
Gates: We’re Johnny-come-latelies here. There were no archives for black people, virtually, in 1991 at Harvard. So Rudenstine said, “Well, what do you have in mind?”
And I said, “Well, there’s this huge archive in Houston, Texas, called The Image of the Black in Western Art."
Cole: That was the de Menil --
Gates: Yes, Madam Dominique de Menil was looking for a home and the museum director, a very able director, Karen Dalton, happened to be marrying a prominent Boston architect. This was like dynamite. We negotiated and they made me go out and raise an endowment of, I don’t know, three million dollars, and I was able to do that with a lot of help from people here at Harvard. We moved that archive here, and we have twenty-six thousand images of black people in high western art, from the ancient Greeks to yesterday. That’s amazing.
Cole: You’ve already done four volumes?
Gates: Yes. They did four volumes and then four more volumes will be published from the archive here at Harvard.
This was of crucial importance. It’s the magnet effect: once you start with one archive, then you get others.
Gates: Now we have the papers of Wole Soyinka, the papers of Albert Murray, the papers of Chinua Achebe, the papers of John Wideman, and, most recently, we purchased the papers of Shirley Graham DuBois, W.E.B. DuBois’s second wife. If I could, I would buy the papers of W.E.B. DuBois, but they’re already gone.
Cole: So you are establishing an archival base that is visual, documentary, and literary.
Gates: Yes. For us in the humanities, history and literature are the twin pillars of Afro-American studies. In the arts, it is visual art and music that are the twin pillars.
Cole: It’s been fascinating having this conversation with you. Thank you so much.
"Mister Jefferson And The Trials of Phillis Wheatley"
Tonight marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Jefferson Lectures, which began in April 1972 with Lionel Trilling's address on "Mind in the Modern World." As difficult as it is to believe, the Jefferson Lectures are more than a tenth as old as the nation they serve. I am honored and humbled to join a line of succession that includes Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Toni Morrison, John Hope Franklin, and so many other scholars and writers whom I deeply admire, and I'd like to thank the NEH and the National Council on the Humanities for choosing me to deliver this year's lecture.
I stand here as a fellow countryman of Thomas Jefferson, 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--housed so near to us in the National Archives; and as a native of Piedmont, West Virginia--two hours up the Potomac--and hence, in a broad sense, a fellow Virginian. Who knows? Judging from all the DNA disclosures of the last few years, I'm probably even related to Jefferson. (Actually, I am more interested in the Gates DNA connection…like maybe in Redmond, Washington.) For all of us, white and black alike, Jefferson remains an essential ancestor.
President Kennedy 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 nobody 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. Jefferson's relation to African Americans has received a great deal of attention of late, most notably in discussions about his putative paternity of Sally Hemings's children. This is not my subject this evening. Rather, I want to discuss with you one of the most dramatic contests over literacy, authenticity, and humanity in the history of race relations in this country, a contest in which Jefferson himself played a small role.
Bear with me as I try to recreate imaginatively a curious scenario indeed. The historical record is sparse; for our purpose, let us elaborate upon it with a tissue of conjecture. On October 8, 1772, a small, delicate African woman, about eighteen years of age, walks into a room, perhaps in Boston's Town Hall, the Old Colony House, to be interviewed by eighteen gentlemen so august that they could later allow themselves to be identified publicly "as the most respectable characters in Boston." 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 and direction 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 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, governor of the colony. 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, Robert M. Calhoon tells us, 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," Calhoon continues, "his social standing entitled him to be ranked third in his class." (Even in its first century, then, grade inflation had reared its ugly head on the banks of the Charles River.)
Hutchinson was the Massachusetts governor between 1769 and 1774. Following the Boston Tea party, Hutchinson went to London "for consultations…." His family joined him in exile; 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 this beloved estate in Milton.
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, who took the A.B. and A.M. degrees from Harvard, in 1724 and 1727. Oliver became--along with his brother and business partner, Peter, and with Thomas Hutchinson--"leaders of the Hutchinson-Oliver faction, which dominated provincial Massachusetts politics until the eve of the American Revolution," as Calhoon tells us. Angry crowds ransacked the homes of both Hutchinson and Oliver in response to the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, uprooting Oliver's much admired garden. A year and a half after this meeting, Oliver would die of a stroke, not unrelated, it was assumed, to Boston's political climate on the eve of revolution.
The Reverend Mather Byles, still another Harvard graduate, was the first and only minister of the Hollis Street Congregational Church in Boston between 1732 and 1775. Byles was the grandson of Increase Mather; Cotton Mather was his uncle. Like Hutchinson and Oliver, Byles was a Tory Loyalist, and would lose his pulpit when Massachusetts finally rebelled.
Byles was highly regarded for his wit, but would become famous, too, for delivering eulogies at state funerals. As a student, he had corresponded with Alexander Pope and Isaac Watts, and in 1744, published his own book of poetry, Poems on Several Occasions. Byles was sentenced to banishment, later commuted to house arrest, for his Loyalist views. (Ever the wit, Mary Rhinelander McCarl tells us, Byles called the sentry stationed just outside of his home his "Observe-a-Tory.") He died in Boston, dependent upon the charity of his friends.
The Reverend Samuel Cooper received his A.B. and A.M. from Harvard in 1743 and 1746, respectively. He was the only minister of the Brattle Street Church between 1747 and his death in 1783. Known as "the silver-tongued preacher," Cooper was Minister to no less than "one-fourth of Boston's merchants and more than half of Boston's selectmen," as Frederick V. Mills tells us. Mills continues: "Cooper was at the center of an inner circle consisting of James Otis, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Adams, who showed outward respect for Governor Thomas Hutchinson at the same time they kept agitation against British policy focused." So pivotal was Cooper's role during the Revolution in encouraging an American alliance with France that he would receive a stipend from Louis XVI until his death.
The august James Bowdoin was included in this circle of inquisition as well. Bowdoin was one of the principal American exemplars of the Enlightenment. A close friend of Franklin, he was a student of electricity and astronomy, as well as a poet, publishing a volume entitled A Paraphrase on Part of the Oeconomy of Human Life in 1759 and four poems in the volume entitled "Harvard Verses" presented to George III in 1762 "in an attempt to gain royal patronage for the struggling college, as Gordon E. Kershaw notes. His remarkable library contained 1,200 volumes, ranging in subjects from science and math to philosophy, religion, poetry, and fiction. By the time of this interview, he had become a vocal opponent of Governor Hutchinson's policies. Bowdoin would become head of the new Massachusetts government in 1776. In addition to opposing the policies of the Royalists in the room, Bowdoin was also a steadfast foe of "his old political enemy," John Hancock, who preceded him as governor of the Commonwealth.
Hancock needs little introduction to this audience. Like Bowdoin, Hancock prepared for Harvard at Boston Latin, then graduated from Harvard in the class of 1754, the second youngest in a class of twenty, in which he ranked fifth, William Fowler notes, as "an indication of his family's prominence." Upon his Uncle's Thomas's death in 1764, John assumed the leadership of the House of Hancock, which grew rich by trafficking in whale oil and real estate. Hancock would go on to become the third president of the Continental Congress, and the first governor of the Commonwealth.
The Reverend Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather, graduated from Harvard College in 1723. He was Thomas Hutchinson's brother-in-law. Mather's career as a minister was quite controversial--he was charged with "improper conduct" in 1741, and though found innocent, was dismissed that same year from his pulpit at the Second Church in Boston. (Misbehavior among Boston clerics was regarded less leniently than would later be the case!) Mather is principally remembered for his library, which Mason I. Lowance describes as "one of the greatest in New England." But he is also remembered, Lowance concludes, as "the end of that dynasty" that had commenced with his great-grandfather Richard in 1630.
Three poets would have been present that morning: in addition to Samuel Cooper, and the Reverend Mather Byles, there was the Loyalist scribe Joseph Green. David Robinson calls Green "the foremost wit of his day," and he and Mather Byles often exchanged satiric poems and parodies. Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, Green fled to London, in 1775; he died in exile five years later.
What an astounding collection of people were gathered in the room that morning--relations and rivals, friends, and foes. Here truly was a full plenum of talent and privilege, cultivation and power. There were six staunch loyalists, and several signal figures in the battle for independence. Of these eighteen gentlemen, nearly all were Harvard graduates and a majority were slaveholders: one, Thomas Hubbard had actually been a dealer in slaves. Another, the Reverend Charles Chauncy, in 1743 had attacked the Great Awakening because it allowed "women and girls; yea Negroes….to do the business of preachers." In the hands of this group, a self-constituted judge and jury, rested the fate of a teenage slave named Phillis Wheatley, and to a certain extent the destiny of the African American people, on that October day in 1772.
Why had this august tribunal been assembled by John Wheatley, Phillis's master? They had one simple charge: to determine whether Phillis Wheatley was truly the author of the poems she claimed to have written.
And to understand how fraught this moment was, we need to turn from the judges to the one they were judging.
The girl who came to be known as Phillis Wheatley came to town on July 11, 1761, on board a schooner, named the Phillis. The ship had recently returned from gathering slaves in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Isles de Los, off the coast of Guinea. Among its cargo was "a slender frail, female child," a Wheatley relative would write, "supposed to have been about seven years old, at this time, from the circumstances of shedding her front teeth." It's a fair guess that she would have been a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast. Mrs. Susanna Wheatley, wife of the prosperous tailor and merchant, John Wheatley, in response to advertisements in the Boston Evening Post and the Boston Gazette and Country Journal in July and August, went to the schooner to purchase a house servant. Mrs. Wheatley acquired the child at the wharf on Beach Street "for a trifle," one of her descendants tells us, "as the captain had fears of her dropping off his hands, without emolument, by death." The child was "naked," covered only by "a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a fillibeg." The two boarded "the chaise of her mistress" and returned to the Wheatley mansion located on the corner of King Street and Mackerel Lane, just a few blocks from the Old State House. Both the Stamp Act riots of 1765 and the Boston Massacre of 1770 took place down the street from her front door. Wheatley's loving biographer, William Robinson, estimates her purchase price as less than ten pounds. Susannah Wheatley named the child "Phillis," ironically enough, after the name of the schooner that had brought her from Africa.
According to Robinson, Phillis's Boston consisted of 15,520 people in 1765, 1,000 of whom were black. Of this black population only eighteen, as of 1762, were free. Between Phillis's arrival in 1761 and her death in 1784, "no black children," Robinson continues, "could be counted among the more than 800 young scholars enrolled in the city's two grammar or Latin schools and the three vocational writing schools."
John and Susannah Wheatley had eighteen-year-old twins, Nathaniel and Mary, who were living at home when Phillis arrived. For reasons never explained, Mary, apparently with her mother's enthusiastic encouragement, began to teach the child slave to read. Phillis, by all accounts, was a keen and quick pupil. Mary tutored Phillis in English, Latin, and the Bible. William Robinson aptly calls her "rewardingly precocious." As her master would write in 1772 of her intellect and her progress in letters:
Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.
As to her Writing, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a letter to the Reverend Mr. Occom, the Indian Minister, while in England.
She has great Inclination to learn the Latin tongue, and has made some progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.
Recall that this seven-year-old slave spoke no English upon her arrival in 1761. By 1765, she had written her first poem; in 1767, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, she published her first poem; in 1770, at the age of sixteen or seventeen she immortalized the Boston massacre in her poem, "On the Affray in King - Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770": It reads in part:
Long as in Freedom's Cause the wise contend,
Dear to your unity shall Fame extend;
While to the World, the letter's Stone shall tell,
How Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav'rick fell.
That same year, her elegy on the death of the Reverend George Whitfield would be published within weeks of his sudden death in Newburyport, Massachusetts, during a speaking tour. This exceptionally popular poem was published as a broadside in Boston in 1770, and then again in Newport, four more times in Boston, and a dozen times in New York, Philadelphia, and Newport. It was this poem that gained for Wheatley a wide readership both in England and the United States.
Delighted with her slave's dazzling abilities and her growing fame, Susannah Wheatley set out to have Phillis's work collected and published as a book. Advertised in the Tory paper the Boston Censor on February 29, March 14, and April 18, 1772, was a list of the titles of twenty-eight poems, which would make up Wheatley's first book, if enough subscribers--perhaps 300--could be found to underwrite the cost of publication. But the necessary number of subscribers could not be found, because not enough Bostonians could believe that an African slave possessed the requisite degree of reason and wit to write a poem by herself.
To understand why Wheatley's achievement prompted such incredulity, it helps to know something about the broader discourse of race and reason in the eighteenth century. To summarize a vast and complex body of literature, many philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were vexed by the question of what kind of creatures Africans truly were--that is, were they human beings, descended along with Europeans from a common ancestor and fundamentally related to other human beings, or were they, as Hume put it in 1753, another "species of men," related more to apes than to Europeans? I quote Hume:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences.… Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning [Francis Williams]; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishment, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.
Just ten years later, Kant, responding directly to Hume, expanded upon his observations:
The Negroes of Africa have, by nature, no feeling that rises above the trifling…So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color…. [if a] man [is] black from head to foot, [it is] a clear proof that what he said was stupid.
The question of the humanity of the Africans was essentially related to the possession of reason, in a tradition inaugurated by Descartes: but how were we to recognize that faculty of reason? Increasingly after Hume voiced his doubts about the African's capacity to create "arts and sciences," the question turned on whether or not Africans could write, that is, could create imaginative literature. If they could, this line of reasoning went, then they stood as members of the human family on the Great Chain of Being. If they could not, then the Africans were a species subhuman, more related to the apes than to Europeans. Even Thomas Jefferson had associated Africans with apes: black males find white women more beautiful than black women, Jefferson had argued, "as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black woman over his own species." As the Reverend Robert Nickol would put it in 1788, "I have not heard that an ourang outang has composed an ode." Not so, says Nickol, and poetry is the proof.
All of this helps us to understand why Phillis Wheatley's oral examination was so important. If she had indeed written her own poems, then this would demonstrate that Africans were human beings and should be liberated from slavery. If, on the other hand, she had not written, or could not write her poems, or if indeed she was like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly, then that would be another matter entirely. Essentially, she was auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people.
Some of the most skeptical had already conducted their own examinations of Phillis, one-on-one. Thomas Woolbridge, an emissary of the Earl of Dartmouth, was among those who visited the Wheatley mansion. Woolbridge wrote to Dartmouth about his encounter: "While in Boston, I heard of a very Extraordinary female Slave, who made some verses on our mutually dear deceased Friend [Whitfield]; I visited her mistress, and found by conversing with the African, that she was no Imposter; I asked if she could write on any Subject; she said Yes; we had just heard of your Lordships Appointment; I gave her your name, which she was well acquainted with. She, immediately, wrote a rough Copy of the inclosed Address & Letter, which I promised to convey or deliver. I was astonished, and could hardly believe my own Eyes. I was present when she wrote, and can attest that it is her own production; she shewd me her Letter to Lady Huntington [sic], which, I dare say, Your Lordship has seen; I send you an Account signed by her master of her Importation, Education &.c They are all wrote in her own hand."
Boston's reading public remained skeptical, however. As one of Phillis's supporters in Boston put it in a letter to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia, Wheatley's master "could not sell it by reason of their not crediting ye performances to be by a Negro."
And so the bold gambit in the Old Colony House--the decision to assemble some of the finest minds in all colonial America to question closely the African adolescent about the slender sheaf of twenty-eight poems that she and her master and mistress claimed that she had written by herself. We have no transcript of the exchanges that occurred between Miss Wheatley and her eighteen examiners. But we can imagine that some of their questions would have been prompted on the classical allusions in Wheatley's poems. "Who was Apollo?" "What happened when Phaeton rode his father's chariot?" "How did Zeus give birth to Athena?" "Name the Nine Muses." Was she perhaps asked for an extemporaneous demonstration of her talent? What we do know is that she passed with flying colors. Indeed, five among the group--Bowdoin, Cooper, Hubbard, Moorhead, and Oliver--would be immortalized in verse by the young woman herself, either in elegies or in occasional verse. But after interrogating the poet, the tribunal of eighteen agreed to sign the following attestation:
We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them.
That attestation was absolutely essential to the publication of Wheatley's book, and even with the attestation, the book would be published first not in Boston but in London, where it appeared in the fall of 1773. Five advertisements in The London Morning Post and Advertiser in August all point to this statement as proof that Phillis is the volume's "real Author." What's more, everyone knew that the publication of Wheatley's book was an historical event, greeted by something akin to the shock of cloning a sheep. As her printer, Archibald Bell bluntly put it in the same newspaper on September 13, 1773: "The book here proposed for publication displays perhaps one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted genius, that the world ever produced." For, he continues, "the Author is a native of Africa, and left not the dark part of the habitable system, till she was eight years old."
And so, against the greatest odds, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language, marking the beginning of an African American literary tradition. Given the context of the Enlightenment conversation on race and reason, it should come as no surprise that the book was widely reviewed and discussed in Europe and America. Even Voltaire was moved, in 1774, to write to a correspondent that Phillis Wheatley had proven that blacks could write poetry. John Paul Jones, on the eve of sailing to France in June 1777, sent a note to a fellow officer, asking him to deliver a copy of some of his own enclosed writings to "the celebrated Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [Muses] and Apollo."
With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley, almost immediately, became the most famous African on the face of the earth, the Oprah Winfrey of her time. Phillis was the toast of London, where she had been sent with Nathaniel Wheatley in the summer to oversee the publication of her book. There she met the Earl of Dartmouth, Granville Sharp, and Brook Watson (who would three years later become the Lord Mayor of London), among many others. A planned visit with King George and the royal family had to be aborted because of the sudden illness of Susanna Wheatley. Before returning to Boston, however, she had an audience on July 7th with Benjamin Franklin. So taken with Franklin was she that Wheatley decided to dedicate her second volume of poetry in honor of Franklin himself. In 1774, her owners granted Phillis, this celebrated prodigy, her freedom.
Franklin was just one of the four Founding Fathers who would cross Wheatley's path in one form or another. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a letter and a poem she had written in his honor, to General George Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge. The letter reads as follows:
<.blockquote>Sir [George Washington]
I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in, I am,
Your Excellency's most humble servant,
Phillis Wheatley [October 26, 1775]
On February 28, 1776, Washington responded, acknowledging the gift of the poem and inviting Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge:
Your favor of the 26th of October did not reach my hands, till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming but not real neglect. I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints.
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom nature has so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great respect, your obedient humble servant.
According to Benson J. Lossing, "Washington invited her to visit him at Cambridge, which she did a few days before the British evacuated Boston…. She passed half an hour with the commander-in-chief, from whom and his officers she received marked attention." Thomas Paine published this poem in his Pennsylvania Magazine in April 1776, along with Wheatley's letter to the general. The poem is noteworthy in several ways, but especially for its description of Washington as "first in peace" and in its often repeated final couplet:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
But no encounter with a Founding Father would prove to more lasting in its impact than that with Thomas Jefferson, whom she never met. (I should say that when we discuss the blind spots of giants like Jefferson, we must do so with the humility of knowing that, in future decades, others shall condescendingly be discussing our own blindspots, if they bother discussing us at all.) Jefferson's criticism of Phillis Wheatley was occasioned by the inquiries of a French diplomat and his regular correspondent, the Marquis Marbois. On August 28, 1779, in a journal entry subsequently sent to his fiancée in Paris, Marbois captured the sense of wonder that Phillis's accomplishment elicited.
…I shall tell you instead [of his political associations with the Adamses, General Horatio Gates, and General John Hancock] about Phyllis, one of the strangest creatures in the country and perhaps the whole world….
at the age of seventeen, [she] published a number of poems in which there is imagination, poetry, and zeal, though no correctness nor order nor interest. I read them with some surprise.
Jefferson acknowledges that it was Marbois for whom he wrote his Notes on Virginia, in response to several letters sent to him in 1781, among them one inspired by Wheatley's poems.
In Query XIV of the Notes, Jefferson set out his views on the mental capacity of the "varieties in race of man," including Indians and blacks. "In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection," Jefferson writes about blacks; he continues:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to whites, in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
Echoing Hume and Kant, he argues that blacks are exposed daily to "countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree," yet they have absorbed little or nothing from this exposure. On the other hand, Jefferson has qualified praise for the African's musical propensities.
In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch…. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.
Jefferson's criticism of Phillis Wheatley seems aimed at the antislavery writers who since 1773 had cited her so frequently as proof positive of the equality of the African, and therefore as a reason to abolish slavery. Jefferson's critique of Phillis is unusually harsh:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.
Phillis is, for Jefferson, an example of a product of religion, of mindless repetition and imitation, without being the product of intellect, of reflection. True art requires a sublime combination of feeling and reflection.
Jefferson compares the slaves in America to those of ancient Rome and Greece, who lived under even greater duress. "Epictetus, Terrence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites." No, slavery is not to blame: "It is not the Blacks condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction."
"I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." And he reaches these conclusions, in some part, from his reading of Phillis Wheatley's poetry. Yes, he cedes, she may very well have written these works, but they are derivative, imitative, devoid of that marriage of reason and transport that is, in his view, the peculiar oestrum of the poet. By shifting the terms of authenticity--from the very possibility of her authorship to the quality of her authorship--Jefferson indicted her for a failure of a higher form of authenticity. Having survived the tribunal of eighteen in 1772, Wheatley now finds her genuineness impugned by a larger authority, subjected to a higher test of originality and invention. And the complex rhetoric of authenticity would have a long, long afterlife.
To be sure, Jefferson's opinions generated scores of rebuttals: "reactions to Jefferson were immediate and they quickly proliferated," Robinson says. "Indeed, much of the early Wheatley criticism is essentially rebuttal of Jeffersonian disdain." If Phillis Wheatley was the Mother of African American literature, there's a sense in which Thomas Jefferson can be thought of as its midwife. Indeed, we could analyze, had we the time this evening, scores of commentators who sought to refute Jefferson's arguments in Query XIV, from the 1780s through the twentieth century. Moreover, Jefferson's comments about the role of their literature in any meaningful assessment of the African American's civil rights, became the strongest motivation for blacks to create a body of literature that would implicitly prove Jefferson wrong. This is Wheatley's, and Jefferson's, curious legacy in American literature.
But what's important, for our purposes, is that even black authors accepted the premise that a group, a "race," had to demonstrate its equality through the creation of literature. When the historian David Levering Lewis aptly calls the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s "art as civil rights," it is Jefferson who stands as the subtext for this formulation. Or listen to these words from James Weldon Johnson, written in 1922:
A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced…. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.
In their efforts to prove Jefferson wrong, in other words, black writers created a body of literature, one with a prime political motive: to demonstrate black equality. Surely this is one of the oddest origins of a bellestric tradition in the history of world literature. Indeed, when Wole Soyinka received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, a press release on behalf of the Nigerian government declared that--because of this prize--no longer could the world see Africans as distinctly inferior. The specter of Thomas Jefferson haunts even there, in Africa in 1986, as does the shadow of Phillis Wheatley.
Now, given all of the praise and attention that Wheatley received, given her unprecedented popularity and fame, one might be forgiven for thinking that Wheatley's career took off with the publication of her poems in 1773, and that she lived happily ever after. She did not: she died in 1784 in abject poverty, preceded in death by her three children, surrounded by filth, and abandoned, apparently, by her husband, John Peters, a fast-talking small businessman who affected the airs and dress of a gentleman and who would later sell off Phillis's proposed second volume of poetry--the one to have been dedicated to Franklin--which has never been recovered. Am I the only scholar who dreams of finding this lost manuscript?
And what happens to her literary legacy after she dies? Interwoven through Phillis Wheatley's intriguing and troubling afterlife is a larger parable about the politics of authenticity. For, as I've said, those rituals of validation scarcely died with Phillis Wheatley; on the contrary, they would become a central theme in the abolitionist era, where the publication of the slave narratives by and large also depended on letters of authentication that testified to the veracity and capacities of the ex-slave author who had written this work "by himself" or "by herself."
One might be forgiven, too, for imagining that Phillis Wheatley would be among the most venerated names among black Americans today, as celebrated as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, or Dr. King. It was probably true that, as one writer claimed several years ago, "historically throughout black America, more YMCAs, schools, dormitories and libraries have been named for Phillis Wheatley than for any other black woman." And, indeed, I can testify to the presence before 1955 of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Ridgeley, West Virginia, a couple of hours up the Potomac, near Piedmont, where I grew up--though it took until college for me to learn just who Miss Wheatley was.
That Phillis Wheatley is not a household word within the black community is owing largely to one poem that she wrote, an eight line poem entitled "On Being Brought from Africa to America." The poem was written in 1768, just seven years after Phillis was purchased by Susanna Wheatley. Phillis was about fourteen years old.
The eight-line poem reads as follows:
"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.
This, it can be safely said, has been the most reviled poem in African American literature. To speak in such glowing terms about the "mercy" manifested by the slave trade was not exactly going to endear Miss Wheatley to black power advocates in the 1960s. No Angela Davis she! But as scholars such as Robinson, Julian Mason, and John Shields point out, her political detractors ignore the fact that Wheatley elsewhere in her poems complained bitterly about the human costs of the slave trade, as in this example from her famous poem, "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth."
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breasts
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
And there is Wheatley's letter to the Reverend Sampson Occom, "a converted Mohegan Indian Christian Minister" who was the eighteenth century's most distinguished graduate from Moor's Charity Indian School of Lebanon, Connecticut, which would relocate in 1770 to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it would be renamed after the Earl of Dartmouth (and its student body broadened, against many protests, to include white students). Wheatley's letter about the evils of slavery was printed in The Massachusetts Spy on March 24, 1774; it reads in part:
In every Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, - I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine."
Despite sentiments such as these, the fact that Wheatley's short poem has been so widely anthologized in this century has made her something of a pariah in black political and critical circles, especially in the militant 1960s, where critics had a field day mocking her life and her works (most of which they had not read).
We can trace this tendency to the late nineteenth century, when Edward Wilmot Blyden, one of the fathers of black nationalism, wrote contemptuously of her. A few decades later, James Weldon Johnson, writing in 1922, complained that "one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land," finding instead a "smug contentment at her escape therefrom."
But what really laid her low was ultimately a cultural critique of her work--less what she said than the way we said it.
Wallace Thurman, writing in 1928, calls her "a third-rate imitation" of Alexander Pope: "Phillis in her day was a museum figure who would have caused more of a sensation if some contemporary Barnum had exploited her."
Vernon Loggins, in his masterful history of Negro literature, published in 1930, echoes Jefferson when he says that Wheatley's poetry reflects "her instinct for hearing the music of words" rather than understanding their meaning, "an instinct," he concludes, "which is racial." She lacks the capacity to reflect, to think. For Loggins, as E. Lynn Matson puts it, Wheatley is "a clever imitator, nothing more."
By the mid-sixties, criticism of Wheatley rose to a high pitch of disdain. Seymour Gross, writing in 1966 in Images of the Negro in American Literature, argued that "this Negro poetess so well fits the Uncle Tom syndrome…. She is pious, grateful, retiring, and civil…."
Amiri Baraka, father of the Black Arts movement, in his seminal collection of essays entitled Home (1966), says that Wheatley's "pleasant imitations of 18th century English poetry are far, and finally, ludicrous departures from the huge black voices that splintered southern nights with their hollers, chants, arwhoolies, and ballits." For him, of course, these chants represent the authentic spirit of black creativity.
Stephen Henderson, writing in The Militant Black Writer, (1969), argues that "it is no wonder that many black people have…rejected Phillis Wheatley," because her work reflects "the old self-hatred that one hears in the Dozens and in the blues. It is, frankly," he concludes, "the nigger component of the Black Experience." Dudley Randall wrote in that same year that "whatever references she made to her African heritage were derogatory, reflecting her status as a favored house slave and a curiosity."
Addison Gayle, a major black aesthetic critic, wrote in The Way of the World (1975) that Wheatley was the first black writer "to accept the images and symbols of degradation passed down from the South's most intellectual lights and the first to speak from a sensibility finely tuned by close approximation to their oppressors." Wheatley, in sum, "had surrendered the right to self-definition to others."
And the assaults continued, the critical arrows arriving in waves. This once most revered figure in black letters would, in the sixties, become the most reviled figure. Angelene Jamison argued in 1974 that Wheatley and her poetry were "too white," a sentiment that Ezekiel Mphalele echoed two years later when he indicted her for having "a white mind," and said he felt "too embarrassed even to mention her in passing" in a study of black literature. Similarly, Eleanor Smith maintained that Wheatley was "taught by whites to think," thus she had "a white mind" and "white orientations." Here we're given Phillis Wheatley as Uncle Tom's mother.
And examples could be multiplied. But it's clear enough what we're witnessing. The Jeffersonian critique has been recuperated and recycled by successive generations of black writers and critics. Precisely the sort of mastery of the literary craft and themes that led to her vindication before the Boston town-hall tribunal, was now summoned as proof that she was, culturally, an impostor. Phillis Wheatley, having been painstakingly authenticated in her own time, now stands as a symbol of falsity, artificiality, of spiritless and rote convention. As new cultural vanguards sought to police and patrol the boundaries of black art, Wheatley's glorious carriage would become a tumbril.
Meet Phillis Wheatley, race traitor.
I am not the only scholar who has wished the teenage poet had found a more veiled way to express her gratitude to Susannah Wheatley for saving her from a worse form of slavery and for expressing her genuine joy at her full embrace of Christianity. But it's striking that Jefferson and Amiri Baraka, two figures in American letters who would agree on little else, could agree on the terms of their indictment of Phillis Wheatley.
For Wheatley's critics, her sacrifices, her courage, her humiliations, her trials would never be enough. And so we have come full circle: the sort of racist suspicions and anxieties that attended Wheatley's writing are now directed at forms of black expression that seem to fail a new sort of authenticity, as determined by a yardstick of cultural affirmation. Today the question has become "Who is black enough?" The critics I have cited were convening their own interrogation squad, as surely as Thomas Hutchinson did on that October day in 1772. We can almost imagine Wheatley being frog-marched through another hall in the sixties or seventies, surrounded by dashiki-clad, flowering figures of "the Revolution": "What is Ogun's relation to Esu?" "Who are the sixteen principal deities in the Yoruba pantheon of Gods?" "Santeria derived from which African culture?" And finally: "Where you gonna be when the revolution comes, sista?"
And this has not merely turned out to be a sixties phenomenon. Those haunting questions of identity linger with us still, much to the devastation of inner-city youth. I read with dismay the results of a poll published a few years ago. The charge of "acting white" was applied to speaking standard English, getting straight A's, or even visiting the Smithsonian! Think about it: we have moved from a situation where Phillis Wheatley's acts of literacy could be used to demonstrate our people's inherent humanity and their inalienable right to freedom, to a situation where acts of literacy are stigmatized somehow as acts of racial betrayal. Phillis Wheatley, so proud to the end of her hard-won attainments, would weep. So would Douglass; so would Du Bois. In reviving the ideology of "authenticity"--especially in a Hip Hop world where too many of our children think it's easier to become Michael Jordan than Vernon Jordan--we have ourselves reforged the manacles of an earlier, admittedly racist era.
And, even now, so the imperative remains: to cast aside the mine-and-thine rhetoric of cultural ownership. For cultures can no more be owned than people can. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it so poignantly:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what sole I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.
This is the vision that we must embrace, as full and equal citizens of the republic of letters, a republic whose citizenry must always embrace both Phillis Wheatley and Thomas Jefferson.
Frederick Douglass recognized this clearly; in a speech delivered in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Douglass argued that his contemporaries in the Confederacy selectively cited Jefferson's proslavery writings when convenient, ignoring the rest. For Douglass, black Americans were the true patriots, because they fully embraced Jeffersonian democracy; they were the most Jeffersonian Americans of all, allowing us to witness a new way to appreciate the miracle that is America. Here was Jefferson, whom Douglass called "the sage of the Old Dominion," cast as the patron saint of the black freedom struggle.
If Frederick Douglass could recuperate and champion Thomas Jefferson, during the Civil War of all times, is it possible for us to do the same for a modest young poet named Phillis Wheatley? What's required is only that we recognize that there are no "white minds" or "black minds": there are only minds, and yes, they are, as that slogan has it, a terrible thing to waste. What would happen if we ceased to stereotype Wheatley but, instead, read her, read her with all the resourcefulness that she herself brought to her craft? I can already hear the skeptics: that's all well and good, they'll say, but how is it possible to read Wheatley's "On Being Brought From Africa to America?" But, of course, there are few things that cannot be redeemed by those of charitable inclination. And just a few days after a recent Fourth of July, I received a fax, sent from a public fax machine in Madison, Connecticut, from a man named Walter Grigo.
Mr. Grigo--a freelance writer--had evidently become fascinated with anagrams, and wished to alert me to quite a stunning anagram indeed. "On Being Brought from Africa to America," this eight line poem, was, in its entirety, an anagram, he pointed out. If you simply rearranged the letters, you got the following plea:
Hail, Brethren in Christ! Have ye
Forgotten God's word? Scriptures teach
Us that bondage is wrong. His own greedy
Kin sold Joseph into slavery. "Is there
No balm in Gilead?" God made us all.
Aren't African men born to be free? So
Am I. Ye commit so brute a crime
On us. But we can change thy attitude.
America, manumit our race. I thank the
It's indeed the case that every letter in Wheatley's poem can be rearranged to produce an entirely new work, one with the reverse meaning of the apologetic and infamous original. "Could it be that Phillis Wheatley was this devious?" Mr. Grigo asked me. And it's fun to think that the most scorned poem in the tradition, all this time, was a secret, coded love letter to freedom, hiding before our very eyes. I don't claim that this stratagem was the result of design, but we're free to find significance, intended or no, where we uncover it. And so we're reminded of our task, as readers: to learn to read Wheatley anew, unblinkered by the anxieties of her time and ours. The challenge isn't to read white, or read black; it is to read. If Phillis Wheatley stood for anything, it was the creed that culture was, could be, the equal possession of all humanity. It was a lesson she was swift to teach, and that we have been slow to learn. But the learning has begun. Almost two and a half centuries after a schooner brought this African child to our shores, we can finally say: Welcome home, Phillis; welcome home.