Around 1772, Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved teenager in Boston, sat down to write a poem called “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which began with praise for the “mercy” that brought her from “my Pagan land” into Christian redemption.
The poem — once called “the most reviled poem in African American literature” — has been hard for many to take, including the generations of Black poets who have claimed Wheatley as a foremother. So when the historian David Waldstreicher used to teach it to undergraduates, he would read it in two different voices.
“One was an exaggerated, beseeching voice — ‘Oh, thank God I escaped Africa!’” he recalled recently. The other was “ironic and challenging” — and, in his view, true to the subversive, antislavery thinking behind Wheatley’s decorous neoclassical couplets.
“By the end of class,” Waldstreicher said, “I got them to see there was a lot more going on.”
Wheatley — celebrated as the first African American to publish a book of poetry — has long inspired a steady stream of scholarship, tributes and creative remixes. Now comes Waldstreicher’s new book, “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley,” out Tuesday, which puts her smack in the middle of the raging debate over the relationship between the American Revolution and slavery.
That question has become a 21st-century hot potato, fiercely contested everywhere from scholarly panels to Broadway to the White House. It’s a deeply polarizing one on which Waldstreicher takes a nuanced, hard-to-pin-down position.
“There are those who want to say it’s pro-slavery, and those who want to say it’s antislavery,” he said of the Revolution. “But it’s much messier than that. It was going in both directions.”
Waldstreicher, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is known for deeply researched, tightly written studies, which aim to complicate any comforting idealization of the founding.
But his books (which include a study of Ben Franklin and slavery) and his blunt intellectual style haven’t always made him popular. Some traditionalists in the field, he said tartly, prefer to “pretend I don’t exist.”
Waldstreicher is also a longtime scourge of “Founders’ Chic,” as historians refer to reverential best sellers extolling the character of the founders (often by exaggerating their opposition to slavery). . But his new book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is itself a founder biography of sorts, treating Wheatley not only as the progenitor of the African American literary tradition but an important political voice in the creation of the nation itself.