The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley

The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley

The soaring poetry of Amanda Gorman, 22, witnessed by about 96 million people during the Super Bowl and 40 million during the inauguration, provided much needed inspiration for a nation still reeling from the first invasion of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812.

With words crafted during a time of political and social turbulence, as well as a deadly pandemic, America’s first youth poet laureate delivered “The Hill We Climb” at the Jan. 20 inauguration. Addressing the deep division within the country, Gorman said, “And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us.” Continuing, she said, “We lay down our arms so we reach out our arms to one another.” She concluded her poem:

“The new dawn blooms as we free it,

For there is always light,

If only we’re brave enough to see it,

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Gorman is the cover story of the current issue of Time magazine, interviewed by Michelle Obama, under the title “Unity of Purpose.” In response to the question, what role does poetry have to play in helping you make sense of our history, Gorman says, “We have seen the ways in which language has been violated and used to dehumanize. How can I reclaim English so we can see it as a source of hope, purification and consciousness?”

The Knox County Public Library has ordered two forthcoming books by Gorman, including “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem” and “The Hill We Climb and Other Poems,” both with release dates in September.

Among the black poets Gorman cites for inspiring her is Phillis Wheatley, the subject of a new book at the Knox County Public Library. “The Trials of Phillis Wheatley,” by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., explores Wheatley’s place in the debates about the intellectual capacities of black people since the American Revolution.

America’s first black poet, the book describes how Wheatley had to defend herself in 1772, in an oral exam before 18 of the most respectable leaders in Boston, to verify that she was the author of a collection of poems, an exam prompted because it was thought a slave could not produce such work.

As Gates describes it, “She literally wrote her way to freedom” when, in 1773, she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poems in English, leading to Benjamin Franklin receiving her and George Washington thanking her for her poems.

Gates is masterful in telling Wheatley’s story, from slavery to celebrity, and ultimately a tragic ending to her life. He also analyzes her role in black literature, which followed the same fate as her life, from triumph to derision, with Gates calling for a re-evaluation of her contributions.

February’s Black History Month makes this an ideal time to check out Gates’ book, as well as other books, such as “The Best 100 African American Poets,” edited by Nikki Giovanni. Your Knox County Public Library has a growing collection of both black history and poetry books.

You can even hear poets read their own works. “Poetry Speaks” (Call Number 811.509PO) includes three audio CDs, making poems come alive as the passion of the poet is revealed. Among the library’s audio book collection, “The Spoken Arts Treasury” has recordings of 100 modern American poets.

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