Phillis Wheatley wrote the first ever published poetry book by an African American, during the time at which people in America were skeptical of a slave’s ability to read and write. The title page and the portrait of Phillis Wheatley’s book utilizes drawing techniques and subtle implications to highlight the master’s control over Phillis Wheatley, but also to paint her as a thoughtful, literate individual.
There are various details in the portrait, as well as the title page, that reflect on this thesis. As mentioned, the idea of educated slaves was not widely accepted at the time. To counter this mindset, Phillis Wheatley is dressed as a rather sophisticated house servant instead of a typical slave. This implies that Phillis Wheatley is no ordinary slave, she does not work in the field and is allowed to sit and write in the house. Therefore, since she is superior to the other slaves, it is possible that she can achieve what was believed to be an impossible feat for slaves, which is to read and write.
Moreover, it is also noticeable from the portrait that Phillis Wheatley is writing in broad daylight. The lack of candle suggests that she sits near a window and makes use of daytime light. Unlike most slaves, Phillis Wheatley does not need to perform labor work in the field during daytime – again, because she is “special”.
To further illuminate the point that Phillis Wheatley is a literate slave, the portrait shows her writing, with one finger rests on her chin – a thinking pose. This indicates that Phillis Wheatley has the intellectual ability to think for herself, and that it is entirely possible for her to write a book on her own. This leads to a comparison of the title page and the accompanied portrait of Olaudah Equiano’s book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”. In the portrait, he has his right hand out holding the Bible. This is similar to Phillis Wheatley’ portrait as they both suggest that the African American who wrote the respective book are genuinely literate. However, unlike Olaudah Equiano’s portrait, Phillis Wheatley’s portrait does not show her looking directly at the reader. This underlines that Phillis Wheatley can think for herself, and that she is currently lost in her thoughts. It is also worth noting that the title of Phillis Wheatley’ book is “Poems on Various Subjects, Religions and Moral”, as this demonstrates that she is capable of writing about such complex topics as religions and morals, and not just trivial subjects.
Nonetheless, there is a clear conflict between presenting Phillis Wheatley as an intellectual individual and implying that she is still after all, a slave. In order to improve the credibility of the book and to drive sales, the phrase “Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley” is repeated once above the portrait and once on the title page. This is to stress the fact that even though Phillis Wheatley wrote the book by herself, she still belongs to John Wheatley. In other words, although Phillis Wheatley has intellectual thoughts of her own, John Wheatley still holds the ultimate control over her. The phrase “Negro Servant” emphasizes that Phillis Wheatley is not freed, that she still serves her master. This is also a subtle gesture towards the white population, confirming them that the book has already been screened by Phillis’ master and that the content of the book is not offensive to the white readers.
Through the uses of literary devices, the artist who created the title page and the portrait of Phillis Wheatley’s book is able to convey the message of an intellectual slave that is not truly “free”. Whether or not John Wheatley was able to put Phillis Wheatley under his control – as an African American who can read and write and who defied the popular belief at the time that the African American race is considered inferior, Phillis Wheatley still remains one of the groundbreaking individuals of her time.
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