Enslaved in Senegal [in a region that is now in Gambia] at age eight and brought to America on a schooner called the Phillis (for which she was apparently named), Phillis Wheatley became the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. While reading about her, I decided to do a small bit of my own research on Phillis Wheatley from a black feminist perspective, and was so happy to find that there is quite a number of works focusing on the nature of slavery, literacy, language and black womanhood.
Language is critical in dissecting how black girls are perceived in the context of the United states. What is interesting to note is the subconscious shift within that contrived identity a black girl child must perform within the circles of white American identity and black American identity. Often times this leads to a conflicted inner dialogue deeply rooted in the dissension surrounding the differences in dialects associated with white people and dialects associated with black people in the United States. Black girls and even other non-American black girls have to weigh the consequences of how they will be perceived by their peers because of how they speak and write, which leads to the racialization of American English.
This is a racialization that already exists because of the insidious effects of racism and white supremacy, but is heightened by the factor of learned behavior within non-American communities where English and its various dialects are not taught as the primary language, which then leads leads to barriers of opportunities for any upward mobility in class structures. All of these factors that feed into racism are inextricable from capitalism, and are not transcendable identity descriptors, because they have been deeply integrated into the socioeconomic fabric of this country. This is a fact that is at the crux of black feminism, both implicitly and explicitly. I feel like the way that Phillis Wheatley is treated in Romantic studies and even in interdisciplinary studies outside of English represents the Western world’s historically complicated relationship with educated black women and girls.