For the poet Philips Whitely, who was brought to colonial New England as a slave in 1761, the formal literary code of eighteenth-century English was thrice removed: by the initial barrier of the unfamiliar English language, by the discrepancy between spoken and literary forms of English, and by the African tradition of oral rather than written verbal art. Wheatley transcended these barriers—she learned the English language and English literary forms so quickly and well that she was composing good poetry in English within a few years of her arrival in New England.
Wheatley’s experience exemplifies the meeting of oral and written literary cultures. The aesthetic principles of the African oral tradition were preserved in America by folk artists in work songs, dancing, field hollers, religious music, the use of the drum, and, after the drum was forbidden, in the perpetuation of drum effects in song. African languages and the functions of language in African societies not only contributed to the emergence of a distinctive Black English but also exerted demonstrable effects on the manner in which other Americans spoke English. Given her African heritage and her facility with English and the conventions of English poetry, Wheatley’s work had the potential to apply the ideas of a written literature to an oral literary tradition in the creation of an African American literary language.
But this was a potential that her poetry unfortunately did not exploit. The standards of eighteenth-century English poetry, which itself reflected little of the American language, led Wheatley to develop a notion of poetry as a closed system, derived from imitation of earlier written works. No place existed for the rough-and-ready Americanized English she heard in the streets, for the English spoken by Black people, or for Africanisms. The conventions of eighteenth-century neoclassical poetry ruled out casual talk; her choice and feelings had to be generalized according to rules of poetic diction and characterization; the particulars of her African past, if they were to be dealt with at all, had to be subordinated to the reigning conventions. African poetry did not count as poetry in her new situation, and African aesthetic canons were irrelevant to the new context because no linguistic or social framework existed to reinforce them. Wheatley adopted a foreign language and a foreign literary tradition; they were not extensions of her past experience, but replacements.
Thus limited by the eighteenth-century English literary code, Wheatley’s poetry contributed little to the development of a distinctive African American literary language. Yet by the standards of the literary conventions in which she chose to work, Wheatley’s poetry is undeniably accomplished, and she is justly celebrated as the first Black American poet.