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AfriGeneas Writers Forum

Phillis Wheatley Keeps It Real

Dear Writers Forum:

Author and Literature Professor Tara Bynum, forces us to read beyond the words of Phillis Wheatley. She asks us to examine the inner self of Wheatley and understand the time and place in which she lived.

It’s very hard to resist prejudging our ancestors, their community and the era in which they lived. Most of us are at a disadvantage because letters, commentaries from our ancestors are scarce. We also tend to view our ancestors from an historical sieve of slavery, Reconstruction and disenfranchisement. But thankfully, we also see their story as “How I Got Over.”

Tara Bynum shares her student’s criticism of Wheatley and early black authors.

“I wrote the earliest version of this essay as a response to my undergraduate students' disdain for early African-American literature. After reading selections from Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano's Narrative, my students were surprised and disappointed by what they described as complacency. They repeatedly questioned Equiano's desire to readily accept his enslavement, and criticized his (mis)representation of a slave's experience. Without the obvious brutality and violence that they had observed in Douglass' Narrative and the Roots mini-series, Equiano represented an eighteenth-century "sellout," a prototype for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom whose lack of resistance stripped him of the African identity that marks the full title of his narrative. It was clear that what my students wanted and expected to read were autobiographical accounts of the "real black history;" here, "real" invokes the modern-day colloquialism, "keeping it real." To "keep it real" signifies the cultural practices, the ways of behaving, the performance of blackness that have come to inform my students' understanding of race. Though they acknowledged that race is socially constructed, what they wanted was writing that "keeps it real"—that is, racially authentic, really "black." Put differently, my students wanted texts which reinforced the misinformed idea, criticized by Ellison long ago, that "unrelieved suffering is the only 'real' Negro experience." As the comedian Dave Chappelle observes in his comic skits, titled "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong,"—that poke fun at the lives of men and women who decide to "keep it real" and suffer tragic consequences—keeping it real can and does often go wrong.”

Please click on the link below to read Tara Bynum’s fascinating article, “Phillis Wheatley's Pleasures.”

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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