Ethnic Studies Review

Ethnic Studies Review

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Ethnic Studies Review





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This essay reads Wheatley as a key participant in the shifting economic and emotional relationships between artists, audiences, and texts that we now associate with romanticism. To recover facets of the role that the black artist played in the romantic movement(s), I examine three "portraits" of Wheatley-the poetic spectacle managed by her promoters, the actual portrait that appeared as the frontispiece for her Poems on Various Subjects, and the portrait that Wheatley herself created through her poetry. These portraits chart the tensions that circulated around the figure of the black African artist 111 the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, tensions between genius and "barbarity," originality and imitation, exteriority and interiority, and artistic expression and commodification. These binaries have often characterized the terrain of Wheatley studies, marking opposing positions and points of contention. I argue for a different way of reading, one that sees the figure of Phillis Wheatley as produced through the interplay of all of these forces within the context of the early black Atlantic. Wheatley and her work exposed both the emphasis on "authentic" self-expression through art and the ways in which the mental life of the artist became available to the reader as a consumer product. She created a different vision of the black artist than that which commonly circulated in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, one that fused Christian discourse with romantic elements of imagination, Nature, and the poetic sublime, yet remained distant from and somewhat inaccessible to white readers. Keywords: Wheatley, black Atlantic, poetry, romantic


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