Troubling Traditions: Phillis 'Miracle' Wheatley and Natasha Trethewey
June 17, 2016
Teaching Early American literature, especially to nonmajors, we're tasked with nudging students through their hangups with style and language that they find outdated to understanding the cultural and literary significance of the works. Phillis Wheatley is an author we encounter early on in my course, and I find that pairing her work with that of contemporary poet Natasha Trethewey is a great way to show that literature exists in a dynamic tradition, and that the "new stuff" hearkens back to the concerns of the old, probing the concerns that persist today. I see a connection between Wheatley and Trethewey, in terms of their attention to race and American identity, and in their navigation of two distinct(?) traditions of literature. Each of these poets' work troubles the water between them.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Argues that Wheatley is an important figure because the publication of her work marks the beginning of two distinct traditions, African American literature and African American women's literature. June Jordan's "Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley" bestows the poet with the loving nickname "Phillis Miracle" because of the astounding nature of her birthing these traditions in the context of her kidnapping from Africa and ensuing slavery. Because of her classical education with the Wheatleys, her poems are crafted in the distinct neoclassical style of Pope and Dryden, but her subject matter, such as in the poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America," clearly reflects her participation in the newly established African American tradition; it places her experience within a developing African American presence in the Americas.
This poem, on its surface, thanks a Christian God for her merciful rescue from her "pagan land" but the subtext of the poem is subversive. This makes exploring multiple readings of this text an engaging and deeply rewarding activity in the classroom, whether as a class or in small groups that will share their findings with each other at the end of a group work session. The title of Wheatley's poem removes the power from her kidnappers; they are rendered invisible. Her appropriation of the sermonic structure (text, explication, application) show her daring to commandeer this traditionally male form, and her wielding of authority in the application section, where she reminds Christians that Negroes, just like themselves, can be reformed, her indictment of the practice of slavery is revealed with careful attention to the grammar of those last two lines. Close reading this poem has resulted in some of the more fun "Aha!" moments of the semester. (Also of interest is her letter to Samson Occom, which reveals her awareness of contemporary affairs and interest in the issues concerning Native Americans.)
Natasha Trethewey is also highly concerned with the difficult navigation of two distinct traditions, and in doing so, begs the question whether they really are distinct. Her poem "Southern Pastoral" reveals her preoccupation with the Southern Agrarians who wrote before her, and the difficulty of seeing herself, as a mixed race black woman, following the racist tradition of Southern literature that has preceded her. She also navigates the nature of the hybridity of her identity. The term "blackface" in "Southern Pastoral" strikingly highlights the nature of her performance of straddling two literary traditions, African American and Southern, and two races, black and white. Past and present are also problematized in her work, as the backdrop, the photograph staging area, calls attention to the mythologized and romanticized nature of the pastoral. In this way, this poem can also be situated in a tradition of African American authors whose texts talk back to the works of white Southerners that uphold the mythology of a genteel, aristocratic, pastoral South.
What does it mean that Trethewey is included in the bourbon drinking group of Agrarians only in blackface? How does her reference to blackface call into question the nature of the performance of her "self" in the larger body of her work? She enters the same Southern landscape characteristic of the Southern tradition in which she creates, but in "Elegy for the Native Guards," her ode to black soldiers speaks to an invisibility of the black presence within the work of her Southern predecessors. Like Wheatley did centuries before her, Trethewey is still writing the black presence into the American literary tradition.