Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Hostname: page-component-7479d7b7d-767nl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-13T15:56:43.491Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

1 - Claiming Lucy Terry Prince: Literary History and the Problem of Early African American Women Poets

from PART I - 1800–1840, AMERICAN POESIS AND THE NATIONAL IMAGINARY

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2017

Mary Louise Kete
Affiliation:
University of Vermont
Jennifer Putzi
Affiliation:
College of William and Mary, Virginia
Alexandra Socarides
Affiliation:
University of Missouri, Columbia
Get access

Summary

Of the millions of women who were stolen from Africa and sold into slavery in British colonial America, only two are remembered as poets: Lucy Terry Prince, who lived between about 1729 and 1821, and her much younger contemporary, Phillis Wheatley, who lived between about 1753 and 1784. So many names lost. So few found. Prince and Wheatley beat the odds by being remembered at all; yet, they have posed an ongoing challenge to the project of tracing an African American literary tradition. Literary history, like any history, emphasizes consequence, narrative coherence, and affiliation. It yearns for beginnings, middles, ends or, at least, a series of “begats” tracing a lineage that helps us know who we are. Prince and Wheatley would seem to offer a clear starting point to the story of African American literature and, particularly, to the study of African American women's literature. Both were abducted from Africa, both enslaved in British New England, both committed to the American Revolution and to evangelical Protestant Christianity. Both achieved manumission, married, and became mothers. Both were famous in their own times as poets. Yet, Prince's vernacular ballad recounting an event from the 1740s couldn't seem more different than the sophisticated, neo-classical poetry published by Wheatley in the 1760s and 1970s: affiliations between their poetic practices aren't that obvious. Nor has it been easy to find clear lines of influence between the poetry of either woman and that of the African American women poets who consciously attempted to forge a tradition in the aftermath of slavery. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise, then, that American literary history has had a hard time accommodating Wheatley and, to a greater extent, Prince.

The problem undoubtedly has to do with what April Langley calls the “dysfunctional relationship between Western- and African-centered theories” of black American and, generally, eighteenth-century aesthetics. It also has to do, as Vincent Carretta and John Shields have suggested, with the tendency for Americanists to approach eighteenth-century black authors from the vantage point of a present that assumes the existence of social formations, such as that of an American or African American national identity, that had not yet come into being.

Type
Chapter
Information
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure coreplatform@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats
×

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats
×