Salvo for American Poetry Month
Nikki Giovanni's persona poem "Phillis Wheatley" is the foreword to Richard Kigel's Heav'nly Tidings from the Afric Muse: The Grace and Genius of Phillis Wheatley (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2017).
The poem is typical of Giovanni's recent work, plain words in economic stanzas, and noticeably in opposition to the early poems through which she achieved fame in the 1960s. Giovanni does not seek to imitate features of Wheatley's poetry and epistolary prose, does not echo 18th century sentiments. The voice she creates is pointed, suspicious about how an adopted language communicates, and graced with wry remembering of a life's journey and gentle sarcasm regarding the word "Sold." Six closing lines hammer out an early American message:
I don't know
What language to use
For my Heart or my Speech
The word "sold" is used six times in the poem, drawing attention to the freighted colonial meanings of the distributed sequence "Freedom," "Free," "Freedom," "Unslavery," "Free." We do not miss the implications of Wheatley's being sold and how she sold poems to gain cognitive freedom and ultimately to arrive at a highly qualified state of being a freedwoman. Nor do we miss the tragicomic humor involved with the selling of Phillis Wheatley in the twenty-first century.
The foreword is well-matched with Kigel's use of early American documents to construct a biography of Wheatley and his conversational use of criticism and scholarship by such figures as William Robinson, Mukhtar Ali Isani, Vincent Carretta, John C. Shields, Julian Mason, and Merle A. Richmond to flesh out his ideas about Wheatley's assimilationist grace and genius and her intelligent recognition of revolutionary hypocrisy -----the considerable effort of white colonial males to obtain freedom for themselves and freedom to preserve the institution of slavery.
Vincent Carretta's Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011) was clearly designed for a community of scholars. Kigel's biography addresses a different readership, the students in public and charter schools who might study Wheatley in Advanced Placement courses and readers who have little patience with tortured sentences and jargon-dripping paragraphs. His tone is civil, inviting, celebratory. Carretta's work is provocative; Kigel's,an echo of nineteenth-century sentimentality. Calling Wheatley "a Middle Passage survivor and "Poet Laureate" of the American Revolution involves a post-racial breeziness predicated on twenty-first century assumptions about biography and literary history. It sugarcoats a prevailing flaw in our nation's intellectual history. But if Kigel's book can encourage broader and deeper curiosity about the vexed origins of American poetry, it is a contribution to our endlessly delayed national conversation and the role poetry can play in breaking the circle of reluctance and denial.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. March 19, 2017