"Unthinkable Resistance:" The Work of Phillis Wheatley and the Discourse of "Race" in Late Eighteenth Century America Open Access
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"Unthinkable" Resistance: The Work of Phillis Wheatley and the Discourse of "Race" in Late Eighteenth Century America Though much has been written about Phillis Wheatley's life and works, the balance of Wheatley scholarship has submerged her in historiographical context rather than treat Wheatley as a subject on her own merits. Wheatley's work was connoted as "unthinkable" in her own time as a means of using recognition of singular acts of resistance as exceptions to a rule of deference on the part of blacks to white society. Moreover, this contextualization has been repeated in Wheatley scholarship. In its overemphasis on Wheatley's environment or her potential link to present literary schools, Wheatley scholarship similarly attempts to "account" for Wheatley rather than seriously reckon with her as a historical actor. However, Wheatley was herself aware of this system of representation, and honed her ability to politick through manipulating her "unthinkable" attributes into an opportunity to publish her verse. Wheatley's 1773 collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral began a brief yet pointed period in the public eye, and Wheatley used this opportunity to further hone her developing and increasingly radical voice. The poet's works challenged white hierarchy in ways both direct and indirect, with elites such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson evaluating her work. In his 1801 work Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson was particularly critical of Wheatley's capacity to write her own poetry, but Jefferson's contemporaries continuously challenged his opinion and forced him reevaluate his views. Though she was never conventionally famous, Wheatley nonetheless made a marked contribution to the discourse of "race" in her day.
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