At the center of Phillis Wheatley’s writings appears to be an acknowledged tension, which is the result of her own biography as an African-American slave living within a hegemonic context that is dominated by Western culture. In other words, when one first encounters Wheatley’s writings, the following question emerges: is this the case of an African-American writer acknowledged as a talent despite the profound systematic racism of the time because she mimics the Western concept of what constitutes poetry and in general art? Or, on the other hand, is Wheatley attempting to maneuver within this dominant space and articulate an authentic African voice, under historical conditions where such communication is impossible because of systematic racism?
Such a problem at the basis of Wheatley’s poetry appears, for example, when we read a work such as »To Maecenas.« From the very title of the poem, it is clear that Wheatley emerges herself in the imagery of Western civilization, Maecenas, for example, being a Roman political advisor. Furthermore, when Wheatley discusses poetic genius historically, her references are Western at the outset of the work, such as the reference to Homer, as the one who with his words, inspired by the “scared flame”, makes “Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear.” A critical reader of Wheatley would, from this perspective, suggest that her work falls in line with the discourse of dominant Western civilization, to the extent that references in her work are drawn from the Western canon, the precise same civilization that has developed into a systematically racist United States of America, which has enslaved the very race which Wheatley belongs to.
However, this would appear to be a superficial reading of Wheatley. She is fully aware of the games of “power relations” being played out within the context of culture. For example, when citing examples of great poetic and cultural achievements, examples which are entirely from the Western tradition, it would appear that Wheatley is covertly arguing for the superiority of this same tradition. What makes a work such as “To Maecenas” so interesting, however, is that Wheatley fully understands this ideology that is at work in the decision of what constitutes culture and what does not. Wheatley concludes this particular work with a reference to “Terence”, who the footnotes inform us was of African origin and then contrasts Terence with the Muses, the goddesses from the Greek tradition who inspire the production of culture. Wheatley writes: “The happier Terence all the choir inspir’d, His would replenish’d, and his bosom fir’d; But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace, To one alone of Afric’s sable race; From age to age transmitting thus his name With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?”
Wheatley now takes a radical shift of perspective: she critiques the Muses, a symbol for the Western hegemony that decides what is culture and what is not, and asks the following question: why have more African voices not been acknowledged historically for their cultural contributions? The question, however, is rhetorical for Wheatley. She understands the power relations at stake in history, which means that Wheatley here grasps that those who hold hegemony and decide who is ultimately human will also make judgments of what is culture and what is not. The absence of African voices is a symptom of the systematic racism of the Western culture. What appears to be an African voice speaking in a manner that the dominant West would approve is skillfully reversed by Wheatley, so as to become a powerful instrument of critique. We can recall an anecdote about Malcolm X, who was asked why he did not dress in traditional African costume when appearing in public debate, and instead dressed in the “Western style.” His response, to paraphrase, was to state that if he dressed in the traditional manner, the stereotypes of the West are so engrained that he would not even be listened to. This is a type of “camouflage”, in other words, so as to “enter the door” and spread a message of critique of the dominant normativities. It appears that this is the exact strategy Wheatley uses in many of her works, such as this particular example.
- Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Morals.