The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers

ISBN: 0465027296
ISBN 13: 9780465027293
By: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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African American Biography Black Studies Currently Reading History Non Fiction Nonfiction Poetry Slavery To Read

About this book

The slave Phillis Wheatley literally wrote her way to freedom when, in 1773, she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in the English language. The toast of London, lauded by Europeans as diverse as Voltaire and Gibbon, Wheatley was for a time the most famous black woman in the West. Though Benjamin Franklin received her and George Washington thanked her for poems she dedicated to him, Thomas Jefferson refused to acknowledge her gifts. "Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley," he wrote, "but it could not produce a poet." In other words, slaves have misery in their lives, and they have souls, but they lack the intellectual and aesthetic endowments required to create literature.In this book based on his 2002 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Library of Congress, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the pivotal roles that Wheatley and Jefferson have played in shaping the black literary tradition. He brings to life the characters and debates that fermented around Wheatley in her day and illustrates the peculiar history that resulted in Thomas Jefferson's being lauded as a father of the black freedom struggle and Phillis Wheatley's vilification as something of an Uncle Tom. It is a story told with all the lyricism and critical skill that have placed Gates at the forefront of American letters.

Reader's Thoughts

Asha Hedrington

** spoiler alert ** This book was extremely good. It helped me understand the dgrading effects of slavery, and how slaves were underestimated. Phillis Wheatley was an highly intellegent slave that learned the english language in a quick manner. However many white people did not think that her poetry was her work, and found excuses stating that she was incapable of making it. It is yet another novel that influenced me to value my education.


This is a short and sweet book about Phillis Wheatley and some of the difficulties she encountered surrounding her poems and their questioned authenticity. I have mixed feelings about Wheatley's work and though I understand the HOW and WHY, I still consider many of them to be self loathing. However, I still say she was undoubtedly an example of perseverance under miserable circumstances; her story is revolutionary in itself and her works are exquisite examples of use of poetic devices.A great starter book for children learning their history.

Kristine Buckheit

"The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers" by Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a very inspirational book. It describes the life of an African American woman, who decides to become a scholar. Although she was born a slave, she had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Many people enjoyed reading her poetry, but some didn't. One of these people was Thomas Jefferson. He thought that Phillis based her poetry solely on the Bible and was convinced that she did not write it herself. Phillis did not let these accusations bother her, she was determined to keep on writing with the support of her masters and readers. Throughout this novel, there is constant judgement on those of different races, beliefs, and cultures.


While this excerpt I read for my English class was not exactly entertaining, it wasn’t meant to be. The purpose of “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers,” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was to show an emphasis on race and the clear distinctions people make because of it. They question their beliefs and culture, and argue who the “top dog” is. Phillis Wheatley was born a slave, yet was different from many. She had the privilege to learn how to read and write. Bringing into question the validity of her poems, Thomas Jefferson believed her to be a mere copycat, who used the Bible for her own needs. Wheatley, however, still had support from her masters and others who had witnessed her powerful writing skills.Throughout the novel, equality and “othering” were two major themes. “Othering” can be represented through Wheatley herself, as Jefferson believed she was not capable of being a poet because of her skin color. He “othered” her and her race, making them inferior and dehumanized. Jefferson represented the every day white man’s fear of having a slave be educated enough to revolt against their masters. Wheatley went to trial, but her trial was not merely people believing she was guilty of plagiarizing, rather it was a trial in which they questioned just how humane the blacks were.


Henry Louis Gates Jr, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley was one reading that I learn a tremendous amount from. I would never have guessed that white people would consider someone incapable of writing something they published, based on their race. From this text I realize blacks went through a lot as far as proving themselves of being capable of being a powerful force in literacy. This reading made me have more respect for all types of genres in the world of literature. It also makes me want to find more about the backgrounds of various types of writing. I would recommend this text to everyone trying to improve their writing by learning about where it derived from first.


Awesome debates over the authenticity of one of the country's first African, female poets. I was shocked at the last 20 or so pages of Gates' speech, where he chronicles other unexpected "Wheatley haters". So much was at stake at the time of those original 1772 Boston Town House hearings and so much continues to be at stake for Wheatley and her legacy.

Mohammed Hussian

** spoiler alert ** Henry Louis Gate Jr. does a prodigious job in demonstrating that the amazing works of black intellects were discredited. Henry does this by talking about “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, America's First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers.” Phillis Wheatley is a very well known poet, however many others think otherwise. She was doubted by others and received very harsh criticisms. Primarily, Thomas Jefferson discredited her superb poetry. He claimed that she was intellectually inferior and incapable of producing such works, and thus assumed that someone has helped her. He also claimed that her poetry was nothing but just a reiteration of “biblical verses.” She was criticized plethora of times because the superior and elites in society didn’t want her to retain an achievement, especially because she is an African Slaves. In other words “Ignorance is bliss.” By repudiating her achievements, its makes the upper classes in society feel better about themselves. She was amongst the many other intellectual slaves that couldn’t obtain prestige for their contributions and achievements to society. Phillis Wheatley’s poems are about the harsh and callous bondages of slavery. I would suggest this book to student that are interested in learning more about slavery and Thomas Jefferson’s point of view slavery.


This book is about an African American woman who learns to read and write. After she learned to read and write she began to write poetry. This causes a lot of problems in the country because the whites believed that the blacks were incapable of doing such things. So they put this matter on trial. Wanna no what happens to the trial? Well you should read to find out.

Catherine Boivin

Not so much about Phillis Wheatley, but rather about her influence on African-American literature. Still a good book, though really only about 90 pages. The rest is bibliography.


Although short, the excerpt read in class from this book portrayed powerful ideas. The criticism of Phillis Wheatley's works proved to be very controversial but also influential on African Americans. Through this reading I learned of the Jeffersonian critique that encouraged the development of Afro-American literature. It was interesting to discover that Wheatley not only received aspersions from whites, but also from blacks who deemed her to be unappreciative of her freedom, and her work to be "to white". Based on the excerpt, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the works of Phillis Wheatley because it is an in-depth look at the influence of her writings and it's evaluations.


The trials of Phillis Wheatley was a book that showed her true colors. Before reading this book I felt as thought Phillis truly was for the acceptance of the African slaves at the time, when in reality she wasn't accepting of her own culture. In poems that she wrote she mentioned Africa being a pagan land, and the white man saved her and her fellow Africans from that. This book shows that Phillis' mind was tainted by outside influences therefore I don't believe all of the themes of her poems were hers alone. Most don't appreciate Phillis' writing for what it truly was because of the fact that she didn't seem to be writing from the correct perspective rather from a slave's perspective that had the easy life. The trials of Phillis Wheatley were to prove that Africans were creative and were capable of being intellegent.

Yan Kadouri

The trials of Phillis Wheatley is a story which really shows the hate that the american people put on african americans just because they were different form the rest of society and what goes through their heads.But you ask yourself what are some of the literary devices that Henry Louis Gates Jr used to show the true pains of the slaves and how they did not believe that phills Wheatley wrote the poems.What causes this hate in the modern day society and what causes it go away and why cant they believe that black's are educated.I ask myself how can they put her all through this trails without knowing about her and her role in society.Read this book to actually explore how the african americans were brought down as people just because the had a view they were stupid.

Amy Lau

Phillis Wheatley is the first America's Black poet and this is important because this was the reason why she was put on trial. Back in colonial society, African Americans did not have the same right as everyone else.From this book, i obtained a lot of knowledge about the life of a woman slave. Some themes that are in this book are Equality, Racism, and Discrimination.


The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates Jr. was something I gained knowledge from. I did not think that white men would ever think that slaves were incapable of literacy. Although blacks were always treated inferior, they are human and they do have brains that they received from God. I thought that white men would at least respect a little bit of that. However, I was astonished to read about the trials of Phillis Wheatley and extremely disappointed in Thomas Jefferson. I always respected him as a president, but my views of Thomas Jefferson had changed after learning about his perspective on humanity and equality. However, I was proud of Phillis Wheatley trying to attain her freedom. She was very determined and she represented the blacks of not being illiterate. This book was great and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning in depth about slavery.


This book demonstrated the doubts and criticism expressed towards Phillis Wheatley, as she tried to publish her poetry. At every door step she faced a new obstacle, it which she had to prove her intelligence to men of high status. It was impossible to believe that a lsave is capable of writing poetry. I admire her courage, persisitance, and determination to keep going after each obstacle, even though many seemed quite redundant at times. Phillis Wheatley demonstrated to be an early remodel of what can be accomplished from giving blacks knowledge. It seems that she has surpassed standards set by critiques with ease, proving to be more than a mere house slave. I applaud Phillis Wheatley for her early achievements. I also understood both perspectives on which people critiqued

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