Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Image courtesy of National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The following is an excerpt from an essay that first appeared in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s summer 2022 issue, Books That Matter II.
Without precedent in 1773 when released—its reception over nearly 250 years marked by astonishment, admonishment, and too-fleeting acclaim—Phillis Wheatley’s collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is surely a book that matters. It matters as the first book published by an American slave of African origin. It matters as an emblem of the complex political, moral, and philosophical debates at hand in the American colonies on the eve of revolution. It matters as an aesthetic achievement. And it matters, perhaps most of all, as evidence of the persistence of anti-Black racism and the discourse of white supremacy that have indelibly impacted the reception of this book from its eighteenth-century release to the present day.
A momentous “first” if there ever was one, Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral brings to mind the oft-quoted aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Many critics have rightly pointed to this book as an urtext of African American letters. Similarly, many authors have explicitly evoked their debt and laid their inspiration at Wheatley’s feet, noting how her achievement helped to lift their own aspirations when faced with a blank page. What’s not usually explored, though, is how the various responses to Wheatley’s poetry and the usages to which it has been put over two centuries also illustrate the historical endurance of white supremacy and its impact on African American literature. To riff on the well-worn cliché about tides, we would do well to remember that though the rising tide may well lift the boats, the ebb tide brings them all lower. Put another way, the persistency of the political discourse of white supremacy is not unlike the tide itself, marked by highs and lows, and seemingly eternal. The reception of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is an apt demonstration of this cycle.
The story of Poems on Various Subjects, like the story of its author, the slave girl named after the ship that brought her across the Atlantic, is a story that should both inspire and enrage. Phillis Wheatley’s story is a great American story. In one sense, hers is the story, if ever there was one, of a great American—historic, epic, transatlantic, heroic, and tragic. And her legacy—illuminated as it is through the critical reception she and her work have received over time—provides an enduring record of that Americanness. To learn of the accomplishments of a Black slave girl, snatched at age seven from her homeland, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to become in 1773 the first African American ever to publish a book, is certain to lift the heart and instill pride and amazement in her ambition and achievements. Indeed, one might imagine Phillis Wheatley having become a household name on the order of Frederick Douglas, Harriett Tubman, W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King Jr. Yet Wheatley’s critical history—the history of the cultural and political commentary about both her and her writings—tells a much different story with a much different outcome, for Wheatley has not—except during her own lifetime—enjoyed a level of notoriety consonant with her accomplishments.
Wheatley’s Poems appeared in a format that informed readers by the contours and circumstances of its material, physical presence that the work at hand was worthy of critical, aesthetic attention. In short, Poems on Various Subjects mattered precisely because it was a book. While critical responses to published broadsides were not uncommon in this age, a book positively demanded a response.
Wheatley’s achievement in this regard, being the first English-speaking person of African origin to publish a book, is an important point from which to begin to trace the story of critical responses to Wheatley’s work. The story, that is, of the ebbs and flows of her reception, of the cyclical tides of white supremacy and their impact on the boats bearing the hopes and achievements of African American literature. Wheatley’s critical history is our critical story. It is “our” story in the sense of the story of Black Americans variously surviving and achieving under the regime of racial slavery, its offspring white supremacy, and its first cousin white privilege. Crucially, it is also “our” American story of the way in which race and white supremacy have inflected our cultural politics—especially in the worlds of literature and literary criticism—from Wheatley’s time (that is, from the time of the formal establishment of the United States) to our present moment.
By briefly outlining the critical reception of this book, we gain a greater understanding of “our critical story” in the process: a story that exemplifies how American literary criticism—like African American literary criticism—was always already inextricably linked with the prevailing discourses of race, gender, and class. The very notion of “African American literary criticism” is itself a symptom of this racial reality. With each rise and fall of the discourses around race, literary expression and critical reception ebb and flow, like the tide. “Blacks,” “Negroes,” “slaves”—by which terms they were variously known—were considered an absolute Other, interpellated into identities with no access to nationality or citizenry. In the political grammar of the nation, they became known, first and foremost, as the racial difference that was marked by their very naming. The ramifications of these founding racialized characteristics at the center of the new nation’s historic state emergence—which survived even revolution—continue to influence, among other things, American and African American literature and literary criticism. And no single figure is, perhaps, better positioned for an exploration of this phenomenon than Phillis Wheatley.
Dr. Dwight A. McBride is the president of The New School.