Phillis Wheatley, often perceived to be a problematic figure in American literature, has spearheaded years of debate among the literary elite. Questions regarding her significance as a pioneering poet and her placement within the literary canon are ones that have captivated critics since the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). The critic’s reticence to place Wheatley within the canon is due primarily to the “inability to find a constructive way in which to discuss the actual poetry itself” (Flanzbaum 72). According to a recent study surveying southeastern North Carolina educators, none of the respondents cited teaching Wheatley within the classroom; this is likely due to their inability to conceptualize her place within the literary canon. In order to assist educators in approaching Wheatley, then, items worth being familiar with include Wheatley’s stylistic influences and her place within the literary canon through knowledge of her contemporaries, the authors who preceded her and those who followed, allowing readers to compare Wheatley with her contemporaries and question her instability within the literary tradition.
What is perhaps most notable within Wheatley’s poetry is her finesse for the neoclassical mode of writing. Becoming well-versed in the ancient Greek and Latin classics provided Wheatley with a form through which she could express her own ideas. Dominated by heroic couplets, Wheatley’s poetry has been described as “nothing better than a derivative imitator of Alexander Pope” (Shields 257). Naturally, one would wonder—why read something if it pales in comparison to the original? Some critics, though, suggest Wheatley’s neoclassical influences are simply that—influences. For instance, Kristin Wilcox hints that not only does Wheatley use the heroic couplet form but she “manipulates [its] conventions within the context of American revolutionary politics” (1). While Pope and his contemporaries are products of ideologies stemming from the Enlightenment, Wheatley, too, has similar ideals. In addition to appeals to reason, issues of freedom and intolerance permeate much of Wheatley’s poetry.
As a slave, however, she has much more at stake concerning concepts such as liberty and freedom. For instance, in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley writes: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (7-8). Within these lines lies a sense of urgency; it is evident that Wheatley is crying out, hoping her white “peers” will acknowledge her in the same way she feels God will. The underlying premise, of course, is that if slaves can join their masters as equals in heaven, why then can they not do the same on earth? Critic Robert Kendrick brings forth another interesting point concerning these lines; he states, “Although ‘Christians’ may be read as an address to the audience, there is nothing that distances the category ‘Christians’ from ‘Negros’—no dash or full colon separates the command” (80). The words Christians and Negros are placed side by side, forcing readers to juxtapose these separate entities, thereby hinting at their equality. Even though “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is written within rigid constraints of the neoclassical style, it is Wheatley’s subtle nuances within the language that prove she is not “a hopeless imitation of the real neoclassical thing” (Watson 106); rather she has earned her placement within the literary canon.
When teaching Wheatley it is also important to discuss her contemporaries to provide students with a more comprehensive view of Wheatley’s place within America’s revolutionary era. How can one effectively teach the subtleties within Wheatley alongside the fiery rhetoric of Patrick Henry (Speech to the Virginia Convention ) and the urgent pathos of Thomas Paine (Common Sense )? Wheatley provides a good contrast for both Henry and Paine, both of whom strongly urge Americans to free themselves from the intolerable plight of the British. Indeed, Wheatley provides a considerable contrast for her revolutionary contemporaries. Take, for example, her poem “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth”: Wheatley writes:
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatched from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such was my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway? (24-31)
While slavery was an acceptable practice in the 18th century, it was an institution that inevitably wrought tremendous pain for slaves and their families. This pain is evident in the passage from “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” as it allows readers to see the emotional ramifications of slavery. In these lines the speaker yearns for no one else to feel the “tyrannic sway” she felt. Wheatley’s poem provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, forcing readers to evaluate their views on the institution of slavery. Just as the colonists are fighting for independence from tyranny, Wheatley and her fellow slaves are seeking freedom from their oppressors.
While it is necessary to familiarize students with background on neoclassicism and Wheatley’s contemporaries, it would also be beneficial to know what authors predate Wheatley. Prior to Wheatley, major canonical texts include Puritan poetry (Anne Bradstreet [1612-1672]), nonfiction pieces (William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation ), and sermons (Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God ). Prior knowledge of the Puritan era and its seminal texts enables readers of Wheatley to note how Puritan ideologies helped shape her work and how her work is a departure from these ideals. In her essay “Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology,” Mary Balkun asserts that Wheatley’s writing was for a bifurcated audience. She writes poems intended for her Christian audience, yet many of her poems use a variety of literary techniques to take “the audience from a position of initial confidence and agreement, to confusion and uncertainty, to a new ideological position at the conclusion of each poem” (Balkun 121). Through Wheatley’s poetry it is evident that she is a product of Puritan ideology, and through her writing (particularly her elegies) she appeals to that audience. However, it can also be clearly noted that she possesses many ideals stemming from Enlightenment ideals such as the preoccupation with freedom and equality, evident through her use of sarcasm and irony (Balkun 121).
Finally, some knowledge of the authors who follow Wheatley would be advantageous to students. Immediately following the revolutionary period in American literature is Romanticism, which heavily emphasizes individuality and the imagination. It is important to remember, as James Weldon Johnson writes in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), “Wheatley's poetry is the poetry of the Eighteenth Century [and] her work must not be judged by the work and standards of a later day, but by the work and standards of her own day and her own contemporaries” (30). This is one of the major problems facing Wheatley even today as editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature “insist that [Wheatley’s] work is of historical significance only” (Flanzbaum 73). Whether Wheatley’s poems are historical or artistic, they are here, and lend themselves to excellent classroom discussion.
II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO
In examining the works of Phillis Wheatley, there are certain skills and concepts that are important for one to know and do. Material in this section is both specific to a thorough review of the text and broad enough to cover transferable knowledge and skills. Despite critics’ cold reception of Wheatley’s work, “The literary quality of Wheatley’s poetry… was frequently cited by opponents of slavery and the slave trade… as evidence of the humanity and inherent equality of Africans” (Carretta xxxv). Not only is Wheatley’s work instrumental in negating the existing belief of African intellectual inferiority; it also provides students a lens through which one can examine an author’s craft, emphasizing how authors utilize a combination of personal experiences and preexisting conventions (i.e. poetic devices) to create a voice.
In determining information that is important to know and do, it is necessary to look closely at Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” In eight short lines, Wheatley is able both to examine deeply an issue that thematically connects much of her work and master an effective use of literary and poetic devices. Here, she addresses the issues surrounding the transatlantic slave trade in a manner that appeals to the slave-holder, as well as to the slave. As James A. Levernier notes, “Wheatley used her considerable linguistic talent to embed in the poem, at a very sophisticated level, a far different message than that which the poem superficially conveys” (25). It is through this artful manipulation of the English language that we are able to gain insight into the full genius of Wheatley’s work.
Although Wheatley’s skillful use of the poetic genre creates a poem that could be studied in isolation, it is important for students to be fully aware of Phillis Wheatley’s biographical information, as these are the events that ultimately shape her body of work. Although it is not heavily emphasized in many of her poems, one cannot neglect the reality that Phillis was brought to America as a young slave girl in 1761. Once in Boston, John and Susanna Wheatley purchased Phillis as a domestic servant. It was only with the insistence of her mistress that she was educated and later developed her craft as a poet. While Wheatley’s experience as a slave seemed pleasant, it does not counteract the fact that she was a slave, who was recognized and allowed to write only because of the benevolence of her master. Though she does write in the neoclassical mode of heroic couplets, the language of the white oppressor, it is her life history that personalizes her poetry and makes it her own. It is only with this background knowledge of Wheatley’s history and lifestyle that one can gain a full appreciation for her role in the development of African American literature. Failing to teach this poem in conjunction with the history of Phillis Wheatley greatly depletes it of the value that Wheatley and her contemporaries would have placed upon it. This is especially true of those who would have used Wheatley’s work as evidence of the mental capacity of slaves in America.
Not only is it essential to recognize that Wheatley was the first African American woman to have her work published, it is also important to recognize “that her work was in some way a prototype for all ‘race’ literature which followed hers” (Harris 27). If, indeed, Wheatley is granted this label, it is vital that one be made aware of the details of Wheatley’s life and struggles as a pioneer of her race. Doing so will provide an interesting springboard for conversation as readers can debate Wheatley’s appeal to various audiences. In view of her biography, the study of “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” takes on a new shape and interpretation. It is engaging and enriching for students, like many scholars, to note and address the question of Wheatley’s identity. Was she an African slave who fought to subtly attack the institution that raped her of her freedom, or was she a content Negro slave who respected her captors and willingly emulated the literary figures whom she most admired?
Additionally, Wheatley’s use of poetic and stylistic devices greatly enhances the overall effect of “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Identifying literary devices and understanding the effect they have on a piece of literature are important skills all readers of literature should have. This lasting skill will not only assist in the interpretation of Wheatley’s work, but also will transfer to other studies of poetry and enhance students’ skills of critical thinking, analysis, and evaluation. Asking students to first identify devices and then articulate how each element impacts the meaning of the poem elevates the study of Phillis Wheatley to encompass higher order thinking skills.
In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley convincingly utilizes allusions, irony, symbolism, connotation, denotation, style, voice and tone. Each of these elements is important in one’s comprehension of any piece of literature, but is especially specific to Wheatley’s work. By exploring the deeper message and ambiguity of Wheatley’s poetry (with the aid of her biography), one will gain an appreciation for her, not only as an African American poet, but as a pioneer, one who couples the poetic devices and conventions of her oppressor with the vices and triumphs of her own life, ultimately crafting a unique voice within the American literary tradition.
III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS
Understanding authors’ biographies, the conventions used within their writing to convey their ideas, and their place within the literary canon–though essential to understanding the texts themselves—are not understandings students will commit to long-term memory. In an era of the “3 Rs”—“rapport, rigor, and relevance”—it is necessary that when teaching any piece of literature that one make it relevant to the lives of the students. In teaching Wheatley, then, it is necessary to stress universal themes which speak to our diverse learning population.
Of all the themes present within Wheatley's work, the theme of identity is one with which all students can relate. Adolescence is often described as a transition period, often marked by “a host of cognitive, physical, and psychological changes” (Hall 216); it is also a period when students are developing their identity and sense of self. Just as Wheatley attempts to create a poetic voice in 18th century Boston, our students are struggling to establish an identity of their own “as they seek to understand their social roles in life” (Hall 216). Understanding Wheatley's struggles could help illuminate some of the very struggles students are finding within themselves. The primary tension present within Wheatley's poetry is the struggle to marry her religious convictions with her biting social commentary on her oppression as a slave. In the poem “On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age,” Wheatley writes:
From dark abodes to fair ethereal light
Th' enraptur'd innocent has wing'd her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This know, ye parents, nor her loss deplore,
She feels the iron hand of pain no more. (ll. 1-6)
This elegiac poem serves largely to remind Wheatley that there is a better life for her on the horizon. Though a slave, she, too, may one day travel from the “dark abodes” to the “ethereal light.” The use of light and dark imagery is a motif that recurs throughout Wheatley's poems. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” once again, she pens: “'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there's a God, that there's a Savior, too” (1-3). Here Wheatley writes about being taken from her “pagan land,” the “dark abodes” she speaks of in the previous poem. She has been brought from a world of darkness into “the light,” but the ending of the poem reminds readers that even though she, like her white oppressors, can “join th’ angelic train” (8).Should she be grateful for being ripped from her homeland? Should she be resentful? Should she be happy that she can one day be equal in the eyes of God in heaven? Should she despise the fact that she is oppressed on earth? These are the many ambiguities and questions present within Wheatley, just as there are many of these same issues facing our students today.
Because grappling with one's identity serves as the core that ultimately links Wheatley to our students, how can we effectively discuss our students' issues with identity in conjunction with Wheatley's? There is probably no better way to do so than through Wheatley's own medium of choice—poetry. In “There's a Better Word: Urban Youth Rewriting Their Social Worlds through Poetry,” Korina Jocson writes: “Poetry offers a place where youth can be themselves and embrace their own experiences” (700). Rather than concealing their thoughts and feelings, it would be extremely beneficial for teachers to provide students with opportunities to express themselves freely. After all, poetry writing is “a timeless, valued form of expression” (Jocson 700). While reading Wheatley's work and discussing its tensions and themes is valuable, it would be worthwhile for students to become active participants in the poetry writing process. Our students, as we know, are struggling with their own experiences; thus, rather than simply knowing how to explicate a poem for meaning, “they need to know how to write [a poem] and how to appreciate both its processes and various products” (Parr and Campbell 36). Through poetry we can provide our students with another outlet through which they can express themselves and communicate their ideas in a non-threatening, critic-free environment.
In sum, there are a variety of ways one can approach teaching Phillis Wheatley. While there are a number of activities one could do, it is important to make sure that the approach is one that is relevant to the students. Phillis Wheatley was indeed a poet of the 18th century, a product of the Enlightenment who was heavily influenced by Puritan ideology. Through her poetry she attempts to speak out and let America know who Phillis Wheatley is. Today we have pieces of her through her poetry, but we cannot really define who she is. Many critics have tried to define her, and in the process have essentialized her and marginalized her contributions. Our students grapple with many of the same issues regarding their identities as Wheatley did in the 18th century. Through Wheatley our students can see that identity is not forged through the thoughts of others, but it is buried deep within the self, a hidden treasure waiting to be uncovered.
Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.
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Jamie Baldwin earned her bachelor of arts in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and is a candidate for her master of arts in English education at UNC-P. She is a teacher of language arts at Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham, N.C. David Townsend is ...