For this year's Jefferson Lecture, given each year by a distinguished American intellectual, Henry Louis Gates Jr. transported his audience back to 1772.
The place: A room in Boston. The central character, Phillis Wheatley, an African American who was essentially on trial for impersonating a poet.
Gates, a Harvard University literary scholar, unspooled the story: A board made up of influential citizens had questions about the authenticity of Wheatley's work. Could she really have written it?
That session was just the start of Wheatley's rocky relationship with critics, one that continues in some literary and academic circles until this day. Gates said he chose her story as the focus of the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored annual lecture, given Friday night at the Ronald Reagan Building, because more than the young woman's literary skills were being questioned.
Wheatley was a slave owned by a well-to-do tailor and merchant. As a young girl, she arrived in Boston in 1761 and was taught to read by her master's children. By 1765, she had written a poem. In 1767 she published her first poem, in a Rhode Island newspaper. By 1772 the Wheatleys wanted to have 28 of her poems published. Other Bostonians doubted she had the intellect and talent to do the writing. That is why the tribunal was called.
"If she had indeed written her own poems, then this would demonstrate that Africans were human beings and should be liberated from slavery. If, on the other hand, she had not written, or could not write her poems, or if indeed she was like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly, then that would be another matter entirely," Gates said. "Essentially, she was auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people."
The hearing concluded successfully. In 1773, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," a collection of 39 works, was published in London and stands, said Gates, "as the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language." An African American literary tradition was born, and Wheatley's accomplishments gave the antislavery movement a tangible example of African equality.
"With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley almost immediately became the most famous African on the face of the Earth, the Oprah Winfrey of her time," said Gates, prompting supportive laughter from the standing-room-only audience at the talk.
Gates is one of the most visible scholars in the country, a prolific critic and writer, and director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. One of his specialties is rediscovering forgotten works by African American writers.
Wheatley had critics who surfaced from time to time over the next 200 years. Gates found a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the namesake of the humanities lecture, that dismissed her poetry: "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." Her work often was caught in what Gates called "the politics of authenticity." When black critics in the 20th century began to define a black aesthetic, they said Wheatley didn't fit the bill. Literary figures such as James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Amiri Baraka, Stephen Henderson and Addison Gayle all said her work was an example of self-hatred.
"Precisely the sort of mastery of the literary craft and themes that led to her vindication before the Boston town-hall tribunal," Gates said, "was now summoned as proof that she was, culturally, an impostor."
Gates blamed this all on "On Being Brought from Africa to America," an eight-line poem that she wrote in 1768. "Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand" are two frequently quoted lines.
But, however embarrassing those sentiments are today, Gates said, Wheatley deserves revisiting. And Wheatley may have had the last laugh. Gates said a freelance writer told him the poem was actually an anagram, pleading for the end of slavery.
"It's fun to think that the most scorned poem in the tradition, all this time was a secret, coded love letter to freedom, hiding before our very eyes," said Gates. So give Wheatley another chance, he suggested.
"The challenge isn't to read white, or read black; it is to read. If Phillis Wheatley stood for anything, it was the creed that culture was, could be, the equal possession of all humanity. It was a lesson she was swift to teach, and that we have been slow to learn. But the learning has begun."