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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2003

    Informative, yet extremely elementary

    White America assumed slaves were nothing more than an inferior species; animals, jungle bunnies, that could never be taught to read or write, let alone live a civilized life. When reading and writing was accomplished, the credibility of Slaves' works was put to test, as Whites claimed the creative aspect of the writings was stolen from the Whites, and that Blacks truly had no true understanding behind the words they may write. All the while, slaves were always under public scrutiny. People most always call to mind Frederick Douglass, who was given an inch of knowledge by learning the alphabet, and allegedly taught himself how to read and write. Most always people tend to forget Phillis Wheatley. And, more importantly, people only read one or two or her poems in an African American Literature course, then never follow it with any worthwhile intelligent discussion. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s 'The Trials of Phillis Wheatley' express this matter-of-fact, while delving into the corrupt, and not-so-hidden agenda of political figures, allowing the reader to, perhaps take this newfound knowledge and apply it to our present country at-large. This nonfiction work tells us how, Wheatley, a slave, was raised to read and write by her mistress and master, and was among their supposed favorites-if ever a thing existed. Gates allows the reader to understand how an African American is always seen (by Blacks and Whites) as either 'too black' or 'too white' with their abilities, or lack thereof. Gates offers brief explications of Wheatley's somewhat controversial work, primarily focusing on how Wheatley described her skin like 'Cain's' and a 'diabolical dye'-a poem which became an outlet of Black criticism from then until now, opening a door for modern day Black folks to call Wheatley nothing more than 'Uncle Tom's Mother' or Aunt Jemima. Very informative prose, yet disappointingly and to some extent unexpectedly, Gates' writing is somewhat sophomoric in its essay-esque approach, scattered thoughts, and poor analogies (i.e., referring to Wheatley as a Toni Morrison of her time, then referring to Wheatley as the Oprah of her time). Though educational, it easily could have been written as a high school/college term paper, instead of this Harvard professor. However, this gives the layman writer hope, to rummage through his old college term papers and expand on old philosophies, only to result in the same quality of work as Gates.

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