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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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Overview

A moving celebration of the mother of African American literature, from the pen of a master storyteller and scholar.

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 ...

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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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Overview

A moving celebration of the mother of African American literature, from the pen of a master storyteller and scholar.

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.


About the Author:
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies and W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanitiesat Harvard University. His honors and grants include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Americans" list, a National Humanities Medal, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1999). His is the author or editor of many books including The Bondwoman's Narrative, The African-American Century (with Cornel West), The Signifying Monkey, and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (co-edited with K. Anthony Appiah).<%END%>

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Deseret News
“There's a wealth of history here… Gates has brought this absorbing information together in an accessible but comprehensive way.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465027293
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/15/2003
  • Pages: 129
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 7.68 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Colored People, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, and In Search of Our Roots. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • 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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