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Phillis Wheatley's life a story that inspires

"THE TRIALS OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers," by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Basic Civitas Books, 144 pages, $12.95 (reprint)

The name Phillis Wheatley isn't easily recognizable today, but at the end of the 18th century, it was, in modern terms, buzz-worthy.

In "The Trials of Phillis Wheatley," Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. details Wheatley's rise to fame and the arduous steps it took to get there.

It's hard enough to become a published author without having to prove that you actually wrote the piece in the first place. But that's exactly what Wheatley had to do in 1772 before her book of poems could even go to a publisher.

Wheatley was a slave — born in Africa and transported to the Americas around the age of 7. She spoke no English. On July 11, 1761, she arrived in Boston, where she was purchased and taken into the Wheatley household.

For unexplained reasons, the Wheatley's daughter, Mary, took Phillis under her wing and taught the slave to read. Four years later, Wheatley penned her first poem.

With encouragement from the Wheatleys, Phillis continued to write and even had a few poems published in newspapers.

And yet, despite the popularity of Wheatley's work and her owners' endorsement, people remained skeptical that a person of color could produce such work. At the time, many white people did not consider black people to be human and regarded them as pieces of property incapable of achieving anything great in art or science.

To prove her work was her own, Wheatley underwent an oral examination in front of a panel of 18 men, who in the end endorsed her work. But even that endorsement wasn't enough to secure publication in the colonies.

It was with the help of a slaveholder in England that in 1773 Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language.

The book was immediately embraced by Europeans and even some of America's Founding Fathers, and Wheatley became the most prominent black woman in the West.

Wheatley became a free woman and began work on a second volume of poetry. But though buoyed by initial success, Wheatley was continually dogged by prejudices, including those of Thomas Jefferson, and ultimately died at 30, poor and alone.

"Trials" is an expanded version of the Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities that Gates delivered to the Library of Congress in March 2002. It doesn't read like a lecture, though. Gates has brought this absorbing information together in an accessible but comprehensive way. The book's only faults lie in the lack of chapters — no real stopping or starting place when not reading in one sitting — and a tangent on Jefferson that strays a bit from Wheatley's story before meandering back.

Despite its short length — some 90 pages of text and 40 pages of bibliography and index — there's a wealth of history here. Particularly fascinating is Gates' discussion of how Wheatley has been received by modern African-Americans — the woman who was too black in her own time has been considered by many in the 20th and 21st centuries as a race traitor.

In "Trials," readers are given a glimpse into a part of history often ignored. It adds depth to one's understanding of the past and the development of literature in America.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com