U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Phillis Wheatley and the Black Prophetic Tradition (Guest Post by Christopher Cameron)

[Note: the following is a guest post by Christopher Cameron.]

Phillis Wheatley and the Black Prophetic Tradition

Phillis Wheatley’s reputation as an important prophetic voice for Africans and African Americans in the colonial and revolutionary eras has undergone a drastic transformation in the past two decades. Some of the first critics of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry claimed that she was irrelevant in the fight against slavery and racial oppression. Vernon Loggins, for instance, argued that her work “dwelt at length on the common notions of her day regarding liberty, but she neglected almost entirely her own state of slavery and the miserable oppression of thousands of her race.”[1] Similarly, Rosey E. Poole claimed that if Wheatley “had had the strength to give all that was really hers, and not that which others had given her, she might have become a really important figure.”[2] Poole argued that Wheatley was content to assimilate into white society rather than attempt to advance the cause of blacks.

More recently, literary scholars such as Sondra A. O’Neale, Vincent Carretta, and John C. Shields have challenged these interpretations, arguing for her centrality in the African American literary canon. Historians have been slower to recognize her importance as a writer and political thinker, however. In his work on race in the American North, historian John Wood Sweet wrote that Wheatley’s writings focused “more on solace and comfort rather than outrage and resistance” and were thus more otherworldly than challenges to enslavement.[3] And while historians such as Gary Nash have noted the significance of Wheatley’s antislavery message, most still treat her work in a cursory manner.[4] These dismissals or cursory treatments may be because many of her arguments against slavery were shrouded in biblical language and were not as forceful as some, however, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues, the very act of writing “for the slave constituted the act of creating a public, historical self, not only the self of the individual author but also the self, as it were, of the race.”[5]

Wheatley’s work spoke to the central political ideologies of the day, especially republicanism and natural rights. But I would argue that her critical importance lies in inaugurating the tradition of “black prophetic witness,” to use Cornel West’s phrase. Intimately tied to this tradition is the use of the jeremiad. For white Puritan ministers in the colonial era, the jeremiad relied on notions of providentialism and articulated a worldview whereby God was intimately involved in earthly affairs, an outlook that would have accorded well with traditional African cosmology, as scholars have noted a similar lack of distinction between sacred and secular realms in African thought.[6]

Wheatley employed this rhetorical device in both her poetry and correspondence. In her 1774 letter to Samson Occom, for instance, she wrote she wrote that the love of freedom implanted by God lives in the hearts of blacks, and is “impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance…God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honor upon all whose Avarice compels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of the Fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to Convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite.”[7] By writing that God would “get him honor,” Wheatley contended that if American colonists continued their hypocritical practice of holding slaves, God would take revenge upon them, an interpretation supported by her next sentence, where she said she does not desire God’s getting “him honor” to hurt the colonists, but to teach them a lesson.

She takes a similar approach in her 1778 poem “On the Death of General Wooster,” where she asks the colonists “how presumtuous shall we hope to find/Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind/While yet (O deed Ungenerous!) they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?”[8] Linking the success of the American Revolution to the abolition of slavery, Phillis Wheatley and other black activists of the revolutionary era helped to broaden the terms of the covenant theology so common among Puritans of the colonial era and New Divinity theologians of the revolutionary era. In doing so, Wheatley helped to inaugurate the black prophetic tradition that would continue with the writings and speeches of activists ranging from Frederick Douglass and Mariah Stewart in the 19th century to Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer in the 20th century.[9]


Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement.

[1] Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1964), 24.

[2] Rosey E. Poole, Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes (Lympne and Kent, OH: Hand and Flower Press, 1962), 14.

[3] John Wood Sweet, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 126; Sondra A. O’Neale, “Challenge to Wheatley’s Critics: ‘There Was No Other Game in Town,’” The Journal of Negro Education 54(1985): 500-511.

[4] Gary Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Viking Press, 2005), 137-139.

[5] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 108.

[6] For the jeremiad as it applies to white Puritans see Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), xi; Historian David Howard-Pitney’s study of the black jeremiad begins with an analysis of the ideology of Frederick Douglass. See The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Wilson Jeremiah Moses does place early black abolitionists such as Richard Allen and Prince Hall within this tradition of black protest, but does not discuss Sarter’s essay. See his Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), Ch.3; For a discussion of African cosmologies see Yvonne Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 27, 38; Joseph E. Holloway, ed. Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), xiv

[7] “Phillis Wheatley to Samson Occom, 11 February 1774,” Complete Writings. ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 153.

[8] Wheatley, “On the Death of General Wooster,” Ibid, 92.

[9] Much of the material for this post comes from the section on Phillis Wheatley in my book To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2014), Ch. 2.