GREAT BOOKS 20: Phillis Wheatley and the African-American Tradition, with Rowan Ricardo Phillips

 The human urge for self-expression is so powerful that it often challenges conventions that seem set in stone. The poetry of Phillis Wheatley is among the writers whose tremendous capacity to speak out in her own words upends a tradition and inaugurates something truly new. Wheatley is the first person of African descent to publish a book in the United States. She had been kidnapped as a child in Africa and sold into slavery to a family in Boston, Massachusetts in 1761 where she learned English, Latin, and Greek. She started writing and publishing poems at a young age. Wheatley's status as the first African-American person to publish a book of poetry in the US is of great importance, and yet it is an ambiguous matter to assign her this role of being 'the first.' It means that Wheatley is more often name-checked than read, and that her achievement is sometimes reduced to being a symbol rather than treated as a writer in her own right. The critic and poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips, whom Harold Bloom has called a singular voice of tremendous importance in American literature, talks about the significance of being "the first" in a conversation on Wheatley and the African-American tradition. Phillips explains what it means for Wheatley to be the first Black poet to publish a book, for Frederick Douglas to be the first Black man and a writer to become an Ambassador, for Paul Laurence Dunbar to be the first African-American to publish widely celebrated poems in both vernacular and standard English, for Langston Hughes to publish poetry which captures the genius of jazz. Rowan explains why discussions of the canon so often overlook poetry itself, and he asks what it means to talk of "the African-American tradition" as if it's a separate thing, and how to balance the critical need for recognition without isolating and side-lining some of the world's greatest writers from the claim of universal importance.

Born and raised in New York City, poet, literary and art critic, and translator Rowan Ricardo Phillips earned a BA at Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. at Brown University. He is the author of the poetry collections The Ground (2012) and Heaven (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His poems engage the acts of post-9/11 memory and ruin, lingering in interrupted or merged landscapes of art, rhetoric, and marginalia.

In addition to his collections of poetry, Phillips has written the critical volume When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness (2010) and translated Salvador Espriu’s story collection Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth (2012). Phillips received a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award and has also received the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.