According to Harvard Professor Henry L. Gates, Jr. (The Trials of Phillis Wheatley), a seven-year-old girl was captured in Africa and brought by slave ship to Boston in 1761. Mrs. Susanna Wheatley purchased the child, named her Phillis, and taught her to read and write. By age 11, Phillis began writing poetry and at 17, she immortalized the Boston Massacre in her poem that was published in several newspapers. Phillis’s first book of poems, however, remained unpublished, as not enough Bostonians believed that an African slave possessed the ability to write poetry.
The great philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment, including Bacon, Hume, and Hegel, were “vexed by the question of whether Africans were human beings or another species of men?” The decision was made to assemble some of the finest minds in Colonial America to determine whether Phillis wrote the poetry. She “passed with flying colors” and became the first person of African descent to write a book of poetry published in the English language. She contradicted justification for slavery and became proof that African slaves were not members of an inferior race. She sent a poem wishing success to Gen.
George Washington. He responded, invited their meeting, and praised “her poetic genius.”
Nine years after Jefferson’s words of equality in his Declaration of Independence, he published in Paris, the book “Notes on the State of Virginia”. He challenged Phillis and alleged the inferiority of the black mind: “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” He believed that although Africans, “have human souls, they lack intellectual endowments of other races.” Phillis, he said, “was an example of a product of religion, without being the product of intellect.” Jefferson believed that there are “real distinctions which nature has made, separating blacks from whites.”
Following the Revolution, blacks took on Jefferson’s challenge of inferiority. According to Gates, “Jefferson’s curious legacy became their strongest motivation to create literature that would prove him wrong.” Although Jefferson’s highest ideals became the foundation of American democracy, DNA, involving Sally Hemings, also established he was a man of human contradictions and frailties.