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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Thomas and Phillis

by Philip Martin | July 4, 2021 at 1:56 a.m.

"I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me."

-- Terence (Publius Terentius Afer), "The Self-Tormentor," 165 B.C.

Thomas Jefferson did not like Phillis Wheatley.

He was not entirely a man of his time; his racism was tempered by empathy and his views were never shackled to any foolish consistency. He was, as all revolutionaries become, a habitual pragmatist and occasional hypocrite. When, in the Declaration of Independence, he wanted to critique George III's complicity in the slave trade, he doesn't hesitate to describe Africans as "men."

But five years later, in "Notes on the State of Virginia," Jefferson expresses the "suspicion" that, given their "disposition to sleep," Black slaves are animals who lacked the capacity to "reflect," and lived more for "sensation."

Though they needed less sleep than white people, in the absence of work or other diversion, they were more disposed to sleep: "An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course."

Musically, Jefferson allowed, "they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch," but Jefferson wonders "whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony."

Most critically, Jefferson finds, they lack a capacity for "forethought," which might make them appear more brave in some situations but certainly inhibits their ability to reason and were crudely sexual creatures with little else on their minds.

"Never yet could I find that a Black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration," Jefferson wrote (although he didn't capitalize Black), alleging that proof of white supremacy could be found in the alleged self-evident preference of Black men for white women, which he said-- without evidence--was as great as that for "the Oranootan [orangutan] for the Black woman over those of his own species."

I did my best to try to confirm or debunk Jefferson's insinuations about the love lives of these great apes, but there was only so far I could go without venturing into the cyber-jungles of Pornhub and OnlyFans, thereby risking the attention of our IT department. But we should note that Jefferson misplaces orangutans in Africa when they live in southeast Asia.

"It appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites;" Jefferson concedes. But "in reason much inferior ... scarcely ... capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid ... in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous."

Though Blacks, in Jefferson's words, are "inferior ... in the endowments both of body and mind," he said he would've liked to have freed America's slaves. But had he done so, he would have had to immediately deport all Black people from his new nation. Otherwise, he reasoned, the juxtaposition of Black grievance and white prejudice could precipitate a war resulting in "the extermination of the one or the other race."

Jefferson had in his possession Wheatley's 1773 book "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," the first book of poetry by a Black author published in America. Jefferson would have been familiar with Wheatley even before he acquired the book; she was an African-born slave who had been captured and transported to Boston as a child (slaves were rare, but not unheard of in 18th-century New England). She'd been given a first-class education and could discuss the issues of the day, literature, and music. Watching and listening to Phillis Wheatley audition to be regarded as a full-fledged person was all very entertaining for society types on both sides of the Atlantic in the run-up to 1776.

Wheatley, who was about 19 years old in 1773, was by all accounts treated very well by the Wheatley family that owned her. They took evident pride in her intellectual accomplishment, stressing that the her work "was from the strength of her own Genius."

Jefferson didn't agree. To him, Phillis Wheatley was like a dog that had been taught to ride a bicycle. He thought her incapable of producing great writing.

"Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis [sic] Whatley [sic]; but it could not produce a poet," he wrote. "The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."

One thing that particularly goaded Jefferson about "Poems on Various Subjects" was a footnote appended to "To Maecenas," the first poem in the collection that alluded to Terence, the slave who became one of the leading dramatic poets of Rome. "He was an African by birth," she writes.

"... among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists," Jefferson replies in his "Notes."

"They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master's children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus were slaves. But they were of the race of whites."

Actually, Terence, unlike most orangutans, may very well have been born in Africa or was of African decent. His full name was Publius Terentius Afer.

"Afer" means "of Africa." This suggests he was from a region the Romans called Afri, probably in what was now Tunisia, near Carthage.

We can argue about whether Terence was Black. (Today he's often cited as the first Black playwright.) He might have been a Berber. It is possible he was born in Greece and taken to Carthage or thereabouts as a child. There are depictions of him, but they were done hundreds of years after his death.

Phillis Wheatley doesn't, it is important to note, claim Terence was a Black man, only that he was from Africa, and a slave. The connection is clear enough.

But to Jefferson, he had to have been "of the race of whites."

To those of us in this enlightened age, where we understand race as a social construct with scant relation to biology, Jefferson's reasoning feels pathetic and wishful.

But Jefferson recognizes that liberation of the slaves might have another consequence: Blacks and whites might get along too well; they might breed and intermarry. This was problematic, Jefferson thought; he wrote that for Black men, love seems "to be more an eager desire than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them."

But, he believes, while individuals from different races could feel deep affection for one another, the mingling of genetic material would invariably degrade the white race--a pity, because Black women could be so beautiful.

Jefferson well understood this. In his will, he liberated all his slaves to whom he was related.


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