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5.4: “How Phillis Wheatley Beat All Expectations” -- Kovie Biakolo

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    “Before Phillis Wheatley published her renowned collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, she’d had to withstand an interrogation by 18 men deemed ‘the most respectable characters in Boston.’ Their task was to determine whether an enslaved girl, estimated to be about 18 or 19 years old at the time, had in fact written the poems herself, given widespread disbelief that a person like her—African, Black, female, young—could deliver such exquisite words.”

    The quote above from Biakolo’s essay on Phillis Wheatly, part of the Smithsonian’s special report on women who shaped history, demonstrates how deeply rooted dominant ideologies can be. As we noted in response to the previous memoir “The Butler,” many of us are plagued by doubts about our own abilities and worthiness to be published authors. As we contemplate where these notions come from and why ideologies surrounding publication and authorship can be so exclusionary, it’s illuminating to extend this inquiry to early historical figures like Wheatly. In doing so, we find similar ideologies at work. That is, Wheatley encountered profound disbelief that a young African girl who was enslaved could have written such powerful poetry. This reality was not possible within the ideological frame of those in power—white, “respectable” men.


    Before Reading

    As critical literacy scholar Fairclough (2001) says, communication is “the mechanism of emancipation and the struggle against domination” where unequal power relationships exist (p. 75).

    Make a prediction: How do you think that writing, poetry, and publishing can serve as a way of challenging the opinions or beliefs of people that exert control or domination over others? Note your thoughts below.

    ­­­­­­­­As you read Biakolo’s text, take note of the following: 1) In which ways is language/literacy used as a form of resistance? 2) Are there any connections you can make between Phillis Wheatley and other authors/texts that you’ve read about in this guidebook?


    After Reading

    1) Throughout Phillis Wheatley’s brief account, language and literacy were utilized as a form of resistance in multiple ways. In which ways is language/literacy used as a form of resistance? Which examples of this did you observe?

    2) How did language and identity intersect in Wheatley’s life? What role did language play in shaping her identity? How did she use her literacy skills to create a counternarrative of her ascribed identity?

    3) Why do you think that language itself becomes the site of struggle for and against domination? Can you think of any recent examples or current events of this struggle?

    As you learned in the text, despite Phillis Wheatley’s intellectual abilities and her proficiency in Greek and Latin, she was not able to find a publisher for her poetry and thus had to search for publication opportunities in Britain. Even after finding a London-based publisher who was willing to review her work, Wheatley was required to provide “proof that she’d written the poems herself.”

    Ultimately, it was pressure from the patrons of her poetry that led John Wheatley to emancipate her. Therefore, it could be argued that literacy and language were both sources of domination and liberation for Phillis Wheatley, as has been the case for other authors included in this book. Since language and power are inherently linked, the critical acts of questioning and challenging are needed to interrogate privileged positions, especially in ways that critique the “legitimacy of unequal power relationships . . . and social structures that keep power in the hands of a few” (Hinchey, 1998).

    Throughout the next several texts, authors will demonstrate other ways of utilizing language and literacy towards these ends.


    Additional Resources on Wheatley

    Biographical Information on Phillis Wheatley:

    Link to Wheatley’s poetry:

    “On Being Brought from Africa to America”

    “A Hymn to the Evening”

    5.4: “How Phillis Wheatley Beat All Expectations” -- Kovie Biakolo is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.