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


If you have any interest in where this nation has been or where it is headed, this book is right for you. It is clearly written and thoughtful. It talks about the old American paradox on equality and race. It shows how even though America claims to be a place of liberty they continuosly other blacks. When Phillis Wheatley was 7 she was brought over to boston in 1761. John Wheatley and his wife taught her how to read and write and is in trial because she has been accused of plagerism. They do not belive that a black woman has the capabilities in being a fluent speaker and a good writer. Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells the the astonishing and ultimately tragic story of Phillis Wheatley. He also includes the questions of race and equality that has considerably changed from how we think about race today. He speaks of the old 18th century ideal of black inferiorty and the things he says about the secrets of phillis wheatley's poetryMr. Gates starts on October 1772 when 18-year-old Phillis is brought before a panel to decide a whether or not it possible that an African slave, and a female slave at that, had the intellectual capacity to write classical poetry in English? The issue at root was whether Africans were, according to Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, descendants of another "species of men," related more to apes than Europeans. In proving that she could actually write she shaped african literatureFrom this historical fiction text I have learned that people will say or do anything to cover up to the truth. For example, Thomas Jefferson would use historical context that did not really make sense to prove that blacks are inferior. I gave this book 2 stars because I do not find this story particulaly interesting it's more for people who really love history and african american literature. I do not really care for this story but I do not hate it either. It is very repetetive... in my opinion.


The Trials of Phillis by Henry Louis Gates JR. is a story focused on othering towards an African female poet. The setting of the Wheatley trials took place in Boston’s Town Hall, the Old Colony House in 1772. The trials of Wheatley were made into such an ordeal because of her skin color. Everybody questioned, “Was a negro capable of producing literature?” (Page 5). John Wheatley, her master, wanted to help her publish her poems but they judged her seeing she was black. At a young age Wheatley was bought by the Wheatley family. Mrs. Wheatley influenced her to read and have an education. Those who judged her doubted she wrote these poems. Judging her included those by the name of Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Reverend Samuel Mather. Hume believed that the African race was inhumane and more like creatures that are related to apes, nothing like the Europeans. However people such as Andrew Oliver, Reverend Samuel Cooper, and James Bowdoin supported Wheatley in her trials to gain authorship. Hume and Immanuel Kant defined “humans” to those born to a European ancestry. According to them Africans were sub-human and much more unordinary creatures. After reading this story I concluded to the idea of how ignorant people back then were. Many of them thought Wheatley was just a white imitator. Since she was taught by the whites therefore she would write like one. African women or any African in general had their own mind set as well. Anyone can think for themselves if educated. Obvious themes in this book would have to be racism and equality. I would recommend this story to those who enjoy reading about African women rights and how they tried to fight against it.


This book gave information about Phillis Wheatley and about her poetry. I learn so many things about her and about her poetry and especially about the people who were against and were supporting her poetry. Before I didn’t know anything about her, neither I ever heard about her or her poetry. There were many people who disapproved of her poetry and many who admired her poetry. One thing that I really hated was that people were thinking that she didn’t write the poetry, she copied the white people. Also, those people think that she is not that smart or knowledgeable to write such good quality poetry. People were saying that she was copying white people because she was taught by the white people. That was just so weird, how could you think something like this is in it really hilarious.I think the people who were against her were jealous of her and that’s why those people were saying that she was imitating others such as white people. Which is not true because she was very highly educated woman, it shows through out her writing. Overall, all it was nice to know different people special point of view through out her story.


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.


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.


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.

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.


In this book, there shows different people’s perspective on different races and how black people were different from white people. According to Hume, he defined “human” by their ability to write and capacity of create imaginative literature. In his word, if Africans could, they considered to be a member of human family. As a result, many black writers tried to produce a great amount of literature to prove their “humanity”. However, Wheatley was a black poet, but people stated that her works didn’t represent the black literature because she had a “white mind.” Her poetry couldn’t be used to express black people’s thought, and her poetry only showing slightly of her being a black and a slave. However, Wheatley suffered series criticism from many people which mainly focused her works and her race.


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.


A classmate mentioned that he had read this for one his classes and, having found it at Powell's, I scooped it up. Very interesting exploration of what was considered true "black literature" then (assuming blacks could even produce literature, which is what Wheatley's trials were all about) vs. what's considered true "black literature" now.


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

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.

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.

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