Authenticity of Phillis Wheatley

Authenticity of Phillis Wheatley


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As to the Christian conversion of Africans, Wheatley’s beliefs coincide

with Cotton Mather’s (1663-1728) Rules for the Society of Negroes (1693).



An Examination of the 

Authenticity of Phyllis Wheatley

By Anna Schmidt


On Being Brought from Africa to America

By Phillis Wheatley

‘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.

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In “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773), Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784) calls herself a pagan in need of conversion. She says that Africans are “black as Cain,” making reference to the biblical story of Cain who was cursed by God for killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8-12). Wheatley’s claim that she was living in darkness and as a pagan while in Africa stands in contrast with her contemporary, John Wesley (1730-1791), a Christian missionary and founder of the Methodist church. In Thoughts Upon Slavery (1774) Wesley writes that the people he met in Africa were “far from being the stupid, senseless, brutish, lazy barbarians, the fierce, cruel, perfidious savages they have been described.” On the contrary, he describes them as “eminently civil and courteous,” “just and honest in their dealings,” and “generally practicing…justice, mercy, and truth.”

As to the Christian conversion of Africans, Wheatley’s beliefs coincide with Cotton Mather’s (1663-1728) Rules for the Society of Negroes (1693). In these rules, Mather, a Puritan minister, insists that Negroes convert to Christianity and attend church services every week. Similarly, Wheatley claims that all Africans need a Savior. Wheatley’s religious beliefs are surprising when compared with the Ifá religion that was common in West Africa. 

According to Fatunmbi’s Oshun: Ifá and the Spirit of the River, Ifá “refers to a religious tradition, an understanding of ethics, a process of spiritual transformation and a set of scriptures that are the basis for a complex system of divination.” If this religion was a foundation for societies in West Africa, it is unlikely that Wheatley would have accepted Christianity so readily.

The authenticity of Wheatley’s poetry has been questioned since the earliest publication of her poems. In 1816, Wheatley was mockingly called “the muse of poetry” by Governor Enoch Lincoln (1788-1829) in his Appendix to The Village: A Poem. Recently, in “A Critic at Large: Phillis Wheatley on Trial” (2003), scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. addresses the first trial of Wheatley’s veracity in 1772. 

According to Gates, one of the men present at this trial was Reverend Mather Byles, a poet and Cotton Mather’s nephew. Gates does not state the significance of him being present in the trial, but he is an important figure in Wheatley’s trial. After examining the trials that Wheatley’s poetry has undergone in the past and present, Gates writes that Wheatley did author her poetry and that people should read her “with all the resourcefulness that she herself brought to the craft.”

In “The Triumphs and Travails of Phyllis Wheatley” (2003), Lucas Morel comments on Gates’ essay. Morel remarks that Gates did not offer an interpretation of Wheatley’s poetry itself, preferring instead to give an account of her life. Morel claims that “On Being Brought from Africa to America” has an ironic tone. He says that Wheatley did not consider Africa a pagan land, but actually, she wanted her readers to see the truth about how white Americans viewed Africa.

In contrast to the opinions of Gates and Morel, Professor Arthur Graham argues in Subliminal Racism (2005) that Wheatley never existed. He claims that white American men created Wheatley “to demonstrate the benefits of slavery both to master and to slave” (91). He continues by saying that “Phillis becomes a sort of blind faith lover of her masters and her masters’ religion” (94). To support his argument, Graham explains that there were no black eyewitnesses who came into contact with Wheatley (86-7).

Graham’s argument is further supported by Sonia Sanchez’s “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values” (1985). Sanchez claims that a poet has the power “to create, preserve or destroy social values.” She also calls Wheatley an “accomodational” poet because her poems reflect the religious values of white American men. Sanchez says that Wheatley had to write that way in order to survive, for “survival often meant pretended or affected agreement with reality as written by the master.” In light of this, it is easy to understand Graham’s claim that Wheatley was created to uphold the social values of white America.

Additionally, Wheatley fits into the category of contemporary mythology. In “The Meanings of ‘Myth’ in Modern Criticism” (1953), Wallace W. Douglas quotes the idea that “the myth helps [people] in their beliefs…[and] satisfies a desire or a need.” Along Graham’s line of reasoning, Wheatley is a myth created to defend slavery and promote Christianity. Graham calls Wheatley a “Negro cipher” whose purpose is to advance conversion.

It is interesting to note the discrepancies that exist when comparing “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to writings by Wheatley’s contemporaries. For example, the question remains: What is Wheatley’s self-identity when juxtaposed with Wesley’s perspective of African culture? In light of writings by her contemporaries and recent scholars, there is a possibility that Wheatley’s poetry is not authentic. 

posted 20 November 2005

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Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784), enslaved at the age of eight, is widely known as the first African-American woman in United States history to have her poetry published. Constant themes in Wheatley’s poems are death, religion, and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. Wheatley also composed many poems that are a type of tribute to admirable figures or influential persons in her life. Wheatley traveled to London and back, with flexibility rare to other enslaved persons, and held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London as well as other delegates. Wheatley’s works, at the time, were respected in the realm of literature and impressed all who did not believe a young slave could produce such works.

Although the date and location of her birthplace is not perfectly documented, it is believed that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753, somewhere in West Africa, most likely somewhere in present-day Gambia. Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis, which was owned by Timothy Finch and captained by Peter Gwinn. At the age of eight, she was sold to wealthy Bostonian merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife, Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. Phillis began her education being tutored by the Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary. John Wheatley, known as a progressive throughout New England, and the rest of the Wheatley family’s open-mindedness allowed Phillis to receive an unprecedented education for not only an enslaved person, but for a female of any race.

By the age of twelve, Phillis was already reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Amazed by her literary ability, the Wheatley family made Phillis’ education an important concern, and left the household labor to the other enslaved persons that the family owned. Influenced heavily by the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley’s studies began to gravitate toward the realm of poetry.—Wikipedia

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The Trials of Phillis Wheatley

 America’s First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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

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