For 18 white men deemed “the most respectable characters in Boston”, it defied credulity. How could Phillis Wheatley, an African-born Black teenager sold into slavery, have produced such refined, exquisite poetry? The sceptics set about interrogating her to determine whether she was the true author. She passed the test and her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 with the assistance of wealthy abolitionists.
Wheatley’s divine spark destroyed a myth of Black inferiority that generations of white people had painstakingly constructed to justify slave labour. Two and a half centuries later, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old African American woman, became the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement is already facing new backlash.
It’s a familiar rhyme in Stamped from the Beginning, a Netflix documentary by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, based on Ibram X Kendi’s bestselling book of the same name and aimed at a global audience. The film opens and closes with the question: “What’s wrong with Black people?”