The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers

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9780465027293: The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers

The slave Phillis Wheatley literally wrote her way to freedom when, in 1773, she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in the English language. The toast of London, lauded by Europeans as diverse as Voltaire and Gibbon, Wheatley was for a time the most famous black woman in the West. Though Benjamin Franklin received her and George Washington thanked her for poems she dedicated to him, Thomas Jefferson refused to acknowledge her gifts. "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley," he wrote, "but it could not produce a poet." In other words, slaves have misery in their lives, and they have souls, but they lack the intellectual and aesthetic endowments required to create literature.In this book based on his 2002 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Library of Congress, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the pivotal roles that Wheatley and Jefferson have played in shaping the black literary tradition. He brings to life the characters and debates that fermented around Wheatley in her day and illustrates the peculiar history that resulted in Thomas Jefferson's being lauded as a father of the black freedom struggle and Phillis Wheatley's vilification as something of an Uncle Tom. It is a story told with all the lyricism and critical skill that have placed Gates at the forefront of American letters.

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About the Author:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.

From Booklist:

Gates brings scholarly insight and a love of black literature to this examination of how Wheatley, the first published African American poet, has survived the judgment of past and contemporary critics. After her poems appeared in 1773, distinguished American citizens (mostly white male slaveholders) set out to determine if Wheatley, or for that matter any black person, was capable of the higher thoughts and emotions required to create poetry. Underlying the debate was the humanity of blacks, the justification for their enslavement, and the moral culpability of the slaveholders. While Benjamin Franklin and George Washington accepted Wheatley's talent, Thomas Jefferson remained skeptical, shifting the focus from the authenticity of her authorship to the quality of her work. Generations later, black nationalists would also focus on the ideological quality of Wheatley's work, vilifying her as an apologist for slavery. But in this slim, lively volume, Gates extols Wheatley's enduring literary significance and Jefferson's contribution to spurring a tradition of black literature that was first aimed at proving equality and came to signify a black aesthetic. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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