Phillis Wheatley is a poet who many of us learn about in school. Especially during Black History Month, when select African-American literature is typically trotted out, and then just as summarily, returned to its hiding place for another year. In case you are not familiar with her, Phillis Wheatley was a West African poet ( born in 1753) who spent most of her life in Boston. Born in Senegal, Phillis was brought to America in 1761 (at age 7) and sold into slavery to John Wheatley. The Wheatley family believed Phillis should be educated, noticing how very intelligent she was early on. She was given the opportunity to study Greek and Latin literature, the Bible, and other “classic” works. She became an excellent writer at a time when most White women still could not even write at any kind of sophisticated level. At age twenty, Wheatley was the first African-American and only the second woman in America, to publish a book. (It was published in Britain, however, as no American press was interested). All this while be enslaved. Phillis Wheatley was a real stand out.
One of Wheatley’s best known poems is, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45465/on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america Even though she wrote all sorts of other poems, and important correspondence to political and religious leaders throughout her years — many railing against the vagaries of slavery — this poem has been the one most associated with her. Most taught in the classroom. “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land…” it begins. This had to be a comforting line for anyone perhaps concerned about possible resentments from the enslaved Africans.
After early detractors were finally convinced that she, indeed, was capable of writing in this “classical style” and offering sophisticated Biblical allusions as she so often did, Wheatley became an emblem of Black female respectability. She traveled the world, read for royalty, all the while being owned by the Wheatleys. Life was not easy for her, even once freed after the deaths of her owners. She married a man who had a difficult time keeping a job, quite probably through no fault of his own. She had children. And she lost children. Her husband was ultimately incarcerated, and Wheatley became destitute. The woman who had been heralded as a writer of the times, a true American, who had acquaintances with power players like George Washington and John Hancock, died sick and alone. In the end, she had been abandoned by those who had called themselves her supporters.
Amanda Gorman was born in Los Angeles in 1998. She grew up contending with both an auditory and speech impairment which she eventually overcame. She credits these seeming obstacles as strengthening her and pointing her towards the reading and writing she is so passionate about now. Gorman attended private school through the 12th grade, and then went on to Harvard where she studied sociology. Soon thereafter she founded a non-profit organization for youth that focused on both writing and leadership. She also became the first National Youth Poet Laureate. She has a book deal with Viking Press, and a modeling contract, too. She is most certainly a stand out.
Gorman read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the recent presidential inauguration of Joe Biden. While known by some beforehand, Gorman became an instant star afterwards. She is twenty-two. Praises for her work, and her appearance, were sung by the media. Social media was laden with her photos and quotes. Hillary Clinton tweeted support of Gorman’s plan to eventually run for president. Teachers immediately began including her inaugural poem in lesson plans. Syllabi were constructed around the piece. In an interview with the Washington Post the week before the inauguration Gorman said, “My hope is that my poem will represent a moment of unity for our country” and “with my words, I’ll be able to speak to a new chapter and era for our nation.” The inaugural poem is celebratory. Its tone, hopeful. One stanza reads:
We the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
Gorman has been writing for a while already. It is difficult to find her work online, aside from the inaugural poem. In her past she has also staged protests in classrooms and spoken out on issues of climate change. And she is not alone. These days there are many young Black women like Gorman, creative, intelligent, and provided an education that sharpened the skills they were born with. Where are they in our popular discourse? And how long will we adore Miss Gorman they way we’re doing? Until we feel we’ve given enough support to this particular woman of color? Until we are done iconicizing this single young artist in a sea of so many? Is Amanda Gorman the Stacey Abrams of literature? Will she, too, have to eventually remind people that she is not the only woman of color whose work should be acknowledged? Will she also need to teach us history the way Abrams did, the befores, the durings, the afters?
I am somewhat nervous about our country’s response to Amanda Gorman. Mostly about the White people’s response. We do this to African Americans a lot. We lift one up and celebrate them — as long as they keep us somewhat comfortable while still allowing us to show just how supportive we are of “them.” And then… There are so very many stories of talented, brave, intelligent Black Americans being lauded one day, and forgotten — or worse — the next. There are too many stories of these same people who end up destitute when their usefulness in validating, rationalizing, identifying, and signifying has expired. I hope, as Gorman grows older and in all probability continues writing, that some semblance of this public support will remain. That people will continue to post her poems on social media and report on her continuing success. I hope we don’t abandon her the way we have done so very many women of color in the past. I hope that she lives a life much different than Phillis Wheatley’s. And I am not fully confident that she will.