By Richard NewmanThe noble ideal of Black History Month is that by extracting and examining key people and moments in the African American grain, we learn much about black achievement. But it is equally powerful to set black history in the grand swirl of events to see the many ways that African-Americans have impacted the nation’s political and cultural development. Take Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American author and the original poet laureate of black letters. Thanks to generations of great scholarship, we know more about Wheatley’s magical muse than ever before, especially her ability to distill the hopes and horrors of the black experience in lines of verse that dance off the page. (And English was not even her first language!) But what if we read Wheatley as part of America’s information revolution?
This thought came to me while reading through an old booklet at my soon-to-be new job as the director of the Library Company of Philadelphia—Ben Franklin‘s subscription library founded in 1731. The idea behind the library was simple: shareholders pooled money to buy books and thus gain access to the information revolution unleashed by the printing press. The booklet I was thumbing through, a reproduction of the “Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress, held in Philadelphia, September 5, 1774,” illuminated the first continental debates of those Americans careening (whether they knew it or not) toward revolution. But the introduction to the booklet contained something nearly as interesting about Wheatley. Just a few days before the delegates gathered in Carpenter’s Hall—which also housed the Library Company—the Librarian told shareholders that he had recently purchased the first-ever edition of Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
The story gets more interesting, for at that same meeting the Library Company’s directors decreed that its stacks of books on history, philosophy, politics, science, and now African American literature would be open to the delegates arriving in Philadelphia.
Just imagine: slaveholding Patrick Henry now had access to Phillis Wheatley!
Beyond such fanciful literary encounters, I was struck by a simple fact: members of Franklin’s library felt strongly about adding Wheatley’s work to their catalogue. In other words, they saw her literary struggles as an exciting new part of the information age. (Wheatley’s 1773 book was actually printed in London.) Why? While white abolitionists had already authored critiques of slavery, and various travel writers had crafted books on African society, African Americans were just beginning to write for themselves. Wheatley’s book shattered the abstract nature of societal debates about African American life and thought. She had to be crafty, savvy, politic—Wheatley would not threaten to burn down the master’s house with literary fire (though others would soon do just that!). But Wheatley’s way with words was still brilliant and brave. She claimed freedom as her birthright and liberty as her muse. While American colonists complained about being metaphorical slaves to the British, Wheatley wrote about the sadness of real bondage in America. And she noted that Americans must right racial wrongs lest they appear to the world as hypocrites.
Her book became part of a literary groundswell among Black Founders: men and women who launched the African American freedom struggle in the nation’s earliest years by writing, reprinting speeches, and producing poetry about racial oppression. The Black Antislavery Writings Project at the University of Detroit Mercy has gathered over 1800 documents authored by African Americans from the late 18th and early 19th centuries—an astonishing literary output for an oppressed people. Well before Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart, and Solomon Northup, black activists realized that, as Ishmael Reed would put it, “writin’ is fightin’”! Many of these books ended up in the libraries of American and British abolitionists. Wheatley herself enjoyed a marvelous publication history right up to the Civil War era, as new generations of black and white Americans looked back in wonder at her achievements.
I wonder what it must have been like in 1774, when Wheatley’s book was first placed on a Philadelphia library shelf, awaiting new readers in what would become the cauldron of the American Revolution. Did they realize that her words were revolutionary, too?
Richard Newman is Professor of History at Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers, as well as co-editor of the series, Race in the Atlantic World. He is the incoming Edwin Wolf Second Director of the Library Company.
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