Phyllis Wheatley and the Abolitionist Alternative

By Spencer Jackson, The University of Queensland

Near the end of his wonderful new history of the Russian Revolution, October,[1] China Miéville quotes Bruno Schulz’s 1937 reflections on ‘events that have no place of their own in time’. ‘Have you ever heard’, Schulz asks,

of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events that cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point in history such a branch line, a blind track onto which to shunt these illegal events.

Miéville elaborates, ‘Onto such tracks the revolutionaries divert their train, with its contraband cargo, unregisterable, supernumerary, powering for a horizon, an edge as far away as ever and yet careening closer. Or so it looks from the liberated train, in liberty’s dim light’.

Scholars like to pretend that history is over, that events have happened and are now artefacts, ready for the cold mausoleums of learning. This approach has its benefits, feelings of mastery are one, but it ultimately does us academics a disservice because what we study is not always over and what we do is thus something that every present needs. There are events in history – political movements and great art come first to mind – that happen without exhausting themselves, that exceed their own time, and that hold new possibilities for others. In a book project I am just now starting, my tentative thesis is that the transatlantic movement to end slavery was, and is, one such event. Amongst academics, on both the left and the right, there is a certain consensus when it comes to understanding the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, namely, that it helped create capitalism. Abolitionists equated the right to sell one’s labour with freedom, and, in the process, they innovated a key tenet of an emerging free-market economy. This is the story we are told, yet I would like to turn now to a key poem from this movement and ask whether it suggests that the abolitionist struggle may have more to say, whether it might belong to Schulz’s other branch line of time, shimmering within the history of America as an excessive part of its past, still pregnant with potential futures yet to come.

A Statue of Phillis Wheatley at the Boston Women's Memorial (Courtesy of Lorianne DiSabato, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A Statue of Phillis Wheatley at the Boston Women’s Memorial (Courtesy of Lorianne DiSabato, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The poem is by Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book, Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral (1773). In this particular work, titled ‘To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth’, Wheatley uses poetry to imagine a fateful and failed conjunction between the movement to end slavery and the colonial American struggle for independence. This is a conjunction that did not happen, but I would argue that it nevertheless persists, in Wheatley’s verse as well as in the political movement it reflects. The abolitionist movement was not simply the handmaiden to a new capitalist order. It was a struggle for equality: political, racial and economic. Abolitionism had a socialist dimension, and it is this dimension that Wheatley and her abolitionist allies sought to make a part of America’s founding war for independence.

Born in 1753 to the Wolof people of West Africa, enslaved and transported to America around 1761 and dead by 1784, Wheatley lives and writes in an America bristling with both abolitionist and patriot ideals. In ‘To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth’, Wheatley addresses the Earl of Dartmouth shortly after he is appointed Secretary of the American Colonies in 1772. Wheatley devotes the opening two stanzas of this poem to reproducing the conventional neo-classical republican discourse at the heart of the American patriot cause. Having helped achieve the repeal of the Stamp Act, Dartmouth was viewed positively by many American colonists, and Wheatley thus imagines his arrival in America to be the beginning of a new golden age:

No more, America, in mournful strain

Of wrongs and grievance unredress’d complain,

No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,

Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand

Had made, and with it meant t’enslave the land. (l. 15–19)

 With her invocation of a ‘lawless hand’ that threatens ‘t’enslave the land’, Wheatley expresses the standard republican definition of slavery that dates back to Roman law and that animated the passions of most early American patriots. Within this model, slavery is perfectly appropriate for the oikos, the economic domain inhabited by women, children, and slaves, but a grave crime if imposed upon the polis, the political sphere populated by wealthy male citizens. This is, in other words, slavery as experienced by a male landowner who has been deprived of his right to self-governance.

Wheatley, however, follows this conventional republican notion of slavery with another.

Should you, my lord [Dartmouth], while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wished for common good

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

… Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

 

The poem to the University of Cambridge, in New England by Phillis Wheatley. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.
The poem to the University of Cambridge, in New England by Phillis Wheatley. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

In these lines, Wheatley legitimates her republican credentials by alluding to her own status as a chattel slave, a gesture that fundamentally undoes the orthodox republican understanding of both freedom and slavery. In Slavery and Other Objects, the classicist Page DuBois notes that the Ancient Greek, and I would add Ancient Roman, ‘person is not just considering objective notions of the ethical, the good life … with his peers; he is also master of slaves, husband of his wife, father of his children … in possession of or ruling others who are not candidates in personhood in this extended sense’.[2] The separation of politics from economics is a foundational source of overwhelming violence from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the early Americans who sought to imitate them, and it is this separation exactly that Wheatley collapses. Through a moment of poetic self-consciousness, using her own enslaved and racialised body as a poetic tool, Wheatley dissolves the distinction between the citizen’s freedom and the slave’s. In the process, she converts a slave-based republican tradition into an abolitionist movement.

In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt depicts the American Revolution as a tragedy.[3] Its leaders, according to Arendt, inaugurated a truly democratic movement whose promise they betrayed when they responded to their independence by eliminating the very spaces for public political engagement that had brought them to power. In Wheatley, we find a different perspective, namely, that the betrayal of America’s democratic promise occurred much earlier. It happened when the patriots separated their cause from the slave’s and, by extension, the political from the economic. They liquidated the holistic conception of freedom offered by abolitionism in favor of a narrow, racialised notion of rights, one whose legacy can be found in the apartheid society that is America today, where the richest top 10% of the people own 80% of the nation’s wealth and African-Americans own only 6% of that possessed by their white counterparts. Wheatley’s poetry is a monument to the other America, to that originary alternative that persists with the history of the country as its own immanent basis for change. The freedom of the political and the freedom of the economic are the same: you cannot have one without the other. This is the fugitive abolitionist event.

 

Spencer Jackson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Queensland. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA (2012) and specialises in long eighteenth-century Anglophone literature, as well as critical theory. He has published articles on topics such as Kantian cosmopolitanism and Maria Edgeworth, liberation theology and Samuel Richardson, and the politics of nostalgia in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. His first book, God Made the Novel, is currently under consideration for publication, and he is currently work on a new project, which will be an ambitious reinterpretation of the politics driving abolitionist literature in long eighteenth-century Britain, America and the Caribbean.

 

[1] China Miéville, October (London: Verso Books, 2017).

[2] Page DuBois, Slavery and Other Objects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 195.

[3] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Faber & Faber, 1963).

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