Saturday, November 7, 2009

Phillis Weatley & Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Making the life and work of Phillis Wheatley more available to the public has been one of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s recent preoccupations. His The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003), based on the Jefferson Lectures in Humanities that he delivered at the Library of Congress in 2002, will come out in paperback in 2010. The cover flap of the first edition of the book states: "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." Wheatley was put on trial in 1772 in Boston, before Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Andrew Oliver, Reverend Mather Byles, Joseph Green, Reverend Samuel Cooper, and others. Gates writes, "The panel had been assembled to verify the authorship of her poems and to answer a much larger question: was a Negro capable of producing literature?"

Henry Louis Gates Jr., "Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley," Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities (March 22, 2002).
"Henry Louis Gates, A Critic At Large," The New Yorker (January 20, 2003), p.82.
Brief biography of Phillis Wheatley, and four poems to read on-line from The Academy of American Poets (