Phillis Wheatley Chooses Freedom
History, Poetry, and the Ideals of the American Revolution
Published by: NYU Press
240 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- ISBN: 9781479879250
- Published: September 2018
The dramatic story of Phillis Wheatley, a free, black poet who resisted the pressures of arranged marriage, truly embodying the ideals of the American Revolution
There is an uncomfortable paradox at the heart of the American Revolution: many of the men leading the war for independence were slave owners, contradicting the ideal of freedom that they claimed to represent. Meanwhile, abolitionist sentiments of the time contained contradictions as well. Abolitionists encouraged freed Christianized slaves to return to Africa. In this way, they hoped to send more missionaries to Africa in order to Christianize the continent and, at the same time, to send free blacks away from America.
This tension is revealed through the dramatic story of Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet who refused to marry a man she had never met and return with him to Africa as a missionary. She was enslaved in Africa as a child and transported to Boston, where she was sold to an evangelical family. Agreeing to the proposed marriage – arranged by Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins – would have echoed the social mores of the time, particularly those for enslaved black women. However, due to her prodigious talents as a poet, Wheatley won her freedom a year prior to Hopkins’ arrangement, allowing her to take her future into her own hands.
G.J. Barker-Benfield considers Wheatley’s story and Hopkins’s plan in the broader context of the American Revolution. The ideals of the revolution motivated Hopkins and some of his contemporaries to propose freeing African slaves and thus address the “monstrous inconsistency” fundamental to the white slave owners leading the revolution. In so doing, they presented themselves as freedom fighters who resisted the threat of slavery at the hands of British tyranny. Wheatley challenged this inconsistency and, taking the revolutionaries’ rhetoric seriously, called for liberty for all human hearts: women’s and men’s, blacks’ and whites’.
"In Barker-Benfield’s imaginative and skillful telling, the full intellectual and historical stature of Phillis Wheatley is revealed for all to see. This acute and cleverly-crafted study confirms Wheatley’s trans-Atlantic importance. Here is an African voice, fired by personal anger and deep religious sentiment, speaking the truth of slavery to the educated world of late 18th century. This is a study of major importance for anyone interested in the history of Anglo-American sensibility, the emergence of anti-slavery sentiment and the remarkable networks of Africans scattered throughout the slave diaspora."-James Walvin,University of York