In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in the English language. It was yet another milestone in Wheatley’s extraordinary life, which began with a childhood in Africa, a passage on a slave ship, twelve years in Boston living as a slave, and then her unprecedented education and emergence as a poet. She was lauded by Voltaire and Gibbon and Ben Franklin; she exchanged admiring letters with George Washington; and she exposed some of Thomas Jefferson’s highest ideals and lowest shortcomings. Her appearance as a poet was so unlikely – and such a dangerous example for pro-slavery critics – that she eventually was put on trial to establish whether she truly wrote her poems. And yet, in spite of all these accomplishments and pioneering achievements, her legacy is a complicated one, as (in the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) she wrote what has been the most reviled poem in African American literature.
How did this happen? And what does it tell us about Phillis Wheatley, her critics, her champions, and ourselves?
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