Sesay on Remembering Phillis Wheatley at @AAIHS

Chernoh Sesay Jr. on eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley in history and memory:

“After Wheatley’s death, black detractors have debated her significance at least since the late nineteenth century; however, the late twentieth-century emergence of Wheatley studies has evolved a debate about Wheatley that parallels, but also contrasts, mentions of her in broader public forums. The July 3, 1976 edition of the Chicago Metro News ran a short and admiring biography titled simply, “Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784, Colonial Poet.” Yet, 16 years prior, R. Lynn Matson responded to subtle and explicit critiques of Wheatley that came from such luminaries as Julian Mason, Jr., James Weldon Johnson, and Arthur Schomburg. Regarding Schomburg, Matson explains he graded Wheatley’s poetry as good but within what he believed was a mediocre American context. Yet, Schomburg also unequivocally praised Wheatley as a founding voice of an African American literary tradition. Eleanor Smith, in 1974, provided a more direct criticism arising from her question, “Did Phillis Wheatley do anything to sustain and perpetuate blackness, and give rise to Black people?” Smith answered no, and her position reflecting a range of critics including one of the leading figures of the Black Arts movement, Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones).  Wheatley became a controversial figure among critics that viewed her legacy as insignificant for thinking about modes of twentieth-century racial identity and political activism….”

Read it all: Remembering Phillis Wheatley | AAIHS

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