An African Diasporic Critique of Violence
An African Diasporic Critique of Violence
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter makes a critique of violence a central heading for understanding black thought, aesthetics, and politics. This is important not only because of how the Black Radical Tradition has theorized violent oppression and insurrection, but also because of how these theorists surpass their European counterparts. In this context, Phillis Wheatley’s poem “Niobe In Distress of Her Children” receives close attention for how it anticipates and surpasses Walter Benjamin’s and Immanuel Kant’s explorations of imperial force. Wheatley rethinks Niobe as a figure who rejects the violence and guilt of imperial expansion, in contrast to the European tradition’s rendering of this figure, from Ovid up to Benjamin. This reinterpretation drastically alters Wheatley scholarship, debates on violence in political theory, and discussions of the origins of Black American letters.
I argue for making the “critique of violence” a general intellectual heading in the black radical tradition. Doing so makes apparent the neglected intellectual, artistic, and activist expressions in that tradition while elucidating its convergences and divergences with Enlightenment political, aesthetic, and ethical thought. Paradoxically, Walter Benjamin’s turn to “European conditions” in his famous essay “Critique of Violence” stops him from looking squarely at European conditions, seeing that this supernationality must be understood by its (self-) destructive imperial effects in the colonies and beyond.1 As Aimé Césaire argues persuasively in Discourse on Colonialism, the violence in Europe motivating Benjamin’s essay is merely Europe’s application of colonial methods upon itself. In altering the geography of the critique of violence, I stage an encounter between Walter Benjamin, Phillis Wheatley, and, perhaps surprisingly, Immanuel Kant. Benjamin’s readers may recall that the Niobe legend allows him to conceptualize mythic violence, which induces guilt in those it targets to bind them emotionally, (p.57) materially, and mentally to the Law. Wheatley’s more attentive readers will know of the Niobe legend from her still understudied epyllion, “Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book VI. And from a view of the Painting of Mr Richard Wilson.” Whereas Benjamin reads Niobe’s legend as complete acquiescence to mythic violence, Wheatley, over a century earlier after viewing Wilson’s The Destruction of the Children of Niobe (1760), recasts the legend as Niobe’s refusal to submit. Consequently, Wheatley’s poem inaugurates a study of resistance to mythic violence that Benjamin was unable to conceptualize. Wheatley’s rendering of a Niobe who refuses guilt, placed in a broader eighteenth-century context, counters her contemporary and Benjamin’s implied target of his critique of violence, namely, Kant’s political writings.
This essay has three stages: I begin by speculating on how and why Wheatley criticism has failed to capture the most radical aspects of Wheatley’s writing and, in its most famous expression, reduces “the primal scene of African American letters” to a fantastical interrogation of Wheatley’s literary merits. Then, I question the transcendental subjectivity epitomizing and misrecognizing European conditions in relation to the colonial conquest Wheatley describes in “Niobe.” These two stages of the argument displace well-worn interpretations of Wheatley’s work and reveal the illusoriness of “European Man’s” justifications for the law-founding violence justifying capitalism, colonialism, and slavery, most compellingly elucidated in Kant’s moral-philosophical writings. These stages clear a path for tracing how Wheatley’s poetry anticipates and counters this Eurocentric discourse. In the third stage of the essay I offer a close reading of Wheatley’s poem in relation to Wilson’s painting, which exposes a different primal scene of blackness in her writing: resistance to the law-founding violence along the coasts of Africa establishing the frontiers between nation and colony, citizen and unjust enemy, autonomous subject and guilty thing, all under the signs of race and maternity.
Disheveling the Origins, I: “The Primal Scene of African American Letters”
Resituating Wheatley in contrapuntal relation to Kant and as anticipating Benjamin prompts a rethinking of what Henry Louis Gates calls the (p.58) “primal scene of African American letters.” Gates correctly claims that for several generations Wheatley has been read either as little more than being pro-or anti-black. However, to these misinterpretations Gates adds another. Gates locates the primal scene among several highly reputed Bostonians on a “panel” designed “to verify the authorship of [Wheatley’s] poems.” Only through “read[ing] her with all the resourcefulness that she brought to her craft” can we “let Phillis Wheatley take the stand” and create a space for her in a liberal multiculturalist “republic of letters.”2 One could counter swiftly with Joanna Brooks’s argument that these events never occurred.3 Yet Gates’s lawyer-like defense takes for granted the very tribunal of reason that Wheatley’s writing (and the tradition it opens), at its most radical, resists. Understanding why Gates even takes such a defensive stance that reinforces literary scholarship as a tribunal of reason means taking a different argumentative path than Brooks.
Gates fails to conceptualize this specific primal scene, despite the term’s many variants in psychoanalytic thought and the black tradition’s constant “anticipatory doubling of some of the fundamental concepts of the psychoanalytic apparatus.”4 Conceptualizing this primal scene demands something beyond conventional Freudian or even Lacanian accounts, something more akin to Serge Leclaire’s research on primary narcissism, though even that account must be understood in light of how racialization complicates sexual differentiation. For Leclaire, the primal scene emphasizes the “constant work of a power of death—the death of a wonderful (or terrifying) child who, from generation to generation, bears witness to parents’ dreams and desires.”5 Leclaire concludes that “there can be no life” without “killing” this perfect image, which constantly judges real life against an impossible ideal origin. I draw on Leclaire’s concerns to question Wheatley scholarship, which is, in part, a discourse on the origins of black writing.
Yet this takes psychoanalysis beyond its conventional limits as well. Violent ungenderings of black maternity and erasures of black paternity, the literal loss of black children through slave auctions, lynchings, rapes, murders, and emotional torment complicate Leclaire’s schema. Black life also veers from the Oedipal schema by reviving, however incompletely, a Law of the Mother by which maternity, paternity, dis/inheritance, and tradition must be rethought.6 For these reasons, Leclaire’s proposal that one “kill that strange, original image [of the perfect child] in which everyone’s birth (p.59) is inscribed” cannot do. This repeats slavery and colonialism’s violence too straightforwardly. Furthermore, some births are damned by colonial powers, so there is no perfect child to do away with. Rather than kill the perfect child, perhaps one must linger in the “strange birth” of blackness in the scattering of Africa’s children, not in terms of a single historical instance, but as an overdetermined origin in dispersion gauged by its excess to any single narrative of defeat or redemption.7 In this nexus the implications of Wheatley’s “Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain” for Enlightenment and Black Radical thought can be addressed in a way that is not comprehensive, but goes beyond Gates’s centrist positioning.
Gates’s argument attempts to take a centrist position in a field in which “two extremes—total accommodation and total resistance—have defined the poles between which Wheatley has vacillated,” as Russell Reising has noted.8 Below, Gates caricatures this issue by staging a second inquisition run by 1960s black radicals:
The critics of the Black Arts Movement … were a rather more hostile group than met that day in 1772. We can almost imagine Wheatley being frog-marched through another hall in the nineteen-sixties or seventies, surrounded by dashiki-clad figures of “the Revolution”: “What is Ogun’s relation to Esu?” … “Santeria is derived from which African culture?” And, finally, “Where you gonna be when the revolution comes, sista?”9
One leans one’s head to one side, glancing suspiciously at Gates’s suggestion that “dashiki-clad” black radicals would be more hostile to Wheatley than eighteenth-century slave owners or their apologists. Regardless, Gates’s caricature misnames the attraction and repulsion among critics desiring Wheatley to be the perfect child/mother embodying past, present, and future radicalisms. This attraction-repulsion to the perfect child-mother acts as a displacement of the imperfect, strange birth of black radicalism—a strange birth that the “Niobe” poem captures.
This anxiety over the overdetermined origin of blackness spurs critics’ oscillation between love and hate for Wheatley’s poetry. Behind it lie questions about the proper model for thinking blackness (and diaspora): Is it based on “ideologies of a real or symbolic return to Africa,” which depends on a sameness uniting the scattered children? Or is the black diaspora “a changing core of difference,” “the work of ‘differences within unity,’ an (p.60) unidentifiable point that is incessantly touched and fingered and pressed”?10 The first model sets up a seemingly uniform standard by which to judge one’s cultural and political fidelity, returning the scattered children of Africa to the cradle of a coddling primary narcissism where one is the redeemed object of love and desire for those who witnessed one’s birth. Anyone who challenges this self-image also betrays blackness.
In this search for restoration, some, like the famed historian Arthur Schomburg, look back to Wheatley as a loving mother to be revered—
Phillis Wheatley is a jewel—priceless to the literature of the Negro in America. Her name stands as a beacon light to illuminate the path of the young. … Let us with diligence weave to her memory as affectionate and loving a feeling for her sacrifice, in keeping with the manifested race pride shown in her poems, that they may stimulate us to nobler deeds and loftier purposes in life.11
Others revile Wheatley for not returning affection to current readers/scattered children, as if they know she is capable of doing so. Consider James Weldon Johnson in 1922 saying, “One looks in vain [in Wheatley’s poetry] for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of [Wheatley’s] people, for some agonizing cry about her native land.”12 Or Rosey E. Poole in 1964 writing that “if this ex-slave [Wheatley] … had the strength to give all that was really hers, and not that which others had given her, she might have become a really important figure and not, as she is now, a literary curio.” Poole’s passage reads quite abrasively because she assumes Wheatley should and must have had the capabilities to give more to the tradition, but withheld them. Yet others revile her for leaving unclear the origin, and, by extension, the desired redemptive telos of black culture, as Robert Hayden does in 1967: “Phillis Wheatley … had almost nothing to say about the plight of her people. And if she resented her own ambiguous position in society, she did not express her resentment.”13 These critics share a diasporic vision of an origin for filial restoration of past, present, and future feelings of loss and dispossession. They judge Wheatley according to how she does or does not complement this model.
In the 1980s and 1990s, scholars such as John Shields, Vincent Carretta, Sondra O’Neale, and Katherine C. Bassard recast Wheatley through closer attention to the nuance of her poetry and her engagement with a transatlantic (p.61) readership.14 In the twenty-first century, scholars have continued to reframe Wheatley’s poetry. Kathy Chiles reads Wheatley and Samson Occom comparatively to understand “early American processes of racialization,” seeing Wheatley as conceptualizing race through her poetry, and not just an object of those processes.15 Jennifer Thorn engages Wheatley’s poetry to rethink eighteenth-century feminist studies, using a model of “grief” rather than “grievance” informed by Anne Anlin Cheng’s thought on racial melancholia and Hazel Carby’s theorization of the relationship between (non)reproductive labor and black womanhood.16 Robert Kendrick argues that Wheatley’s poems “announce pleasure for transgression, a needed violence of the autonomy of the laws of genre which require other author(ities)s to authorize her work. Wheatley assumes a paradoxical task: to write an epic (the most legitimate and inviolable of genres) of illegitimacy and transgression.”17 I join this new phase of Wheatley criticism taking up racialization, grief, black maternity’s (non)reproductivity, and transgression because it takes seriously the second model of blackness, as a dispersed origin with a changing core of difference. In doing so, I facilitate an exploration of a primal scene of African American letters that earlier scholarship has ignored.
Tracing these themes in Wheatley’s poetry requires her readers to relinquish “constructions and phantasies claiming to account unambiguously for our filiation, or, more precisely, focusing on a single point [as] the source of the force moving us.”18 Wheatley’s poetry triggers such powerful responses over two centuries on because in this overdetermined, so-called “single point” one finds a surplus, reconstructive drive uncontainable in conventional narratives of enslavement or revolution. This remainder explains why people cannot simply file away her poetry as traitorous to black culture. Demanding that Wheatley live up, say, to 1960s radicalisms, even beyond Gates’s caricatures of that period, falls short because that literary activity is only possible historically and conceptually after Wheatley’s poetic intervention. Yet even her poetry evokes an earlier birth of radicalism, and then an earlier one, ad infinitum, so that one must have recourse to a transcendental claim regarding blackness antedating European imperialism’s mythic violence, the guilt it induces, and its philosophical justifications. I am not saying that Wheatley herself is the condition of possibility of black writing. I am saying instead that Wheatley’s writing was possible due to her commitment to this condition of possibility, as a remainder to the objectification of (p.62) colonial violence, which she renders so compellingly in “Niobe” as a scene of racialization, grief, the (non)reproductivity of black maternity, and transgression that opposes and endures the making of Western civilization. The question is not whether Wheatley lives up to our radicalism, but whether we can linger, with Wheatley, in the moments when the frontiers are laid down under the pretense of a false peace scattering Africa’s imperfect children across the land and waters.
Disheveling the Origins, II: A Discourse on European Conditions
From this alternative approach within black studies, one can trace the effectiveness and limits of the expropriation of black lives, cultures, and resources taking off in the eighteenth century that, by the interwar period, return to wreak havoc on Europe as well. Walter Benjamin, like his European counterparts, fails to link Europe’s crumbling explicitly to its colonial missions. One can understand this failure by way of another interwar period writer, Hans Kelsen, in his Pure Theory of Law. Warren Montag calls attention to Kelsen’s critique of the legal subject, which points out that the same person who is the subject of rights—that is, “the proprietor of rights”—is also the subject of power—“the subject of obligations.”19 The proprietor has the right to “use and abuse” property without interference. However, Kelsen believes the figure of the subject of right is constantly overstated, while the subject of power is downplayed in the European context. Behind this is “a free autonomous subject who could only be a subjected being secondarily and as a consequence of an action freely undertaken by in the absence of necessity or constraint.”20 Kelsen traces this back to Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, where he argues that legal personhood depends on “imputing” actions to himself or herself. The modern legal apparatus only works if we assume the legal subject has every opportunity to make proper moral decisions, no matter the circumstances. We must impute or assume the legal subject’s absolute freedom for the legal apparatus to hold. Montag argues that modern law subjugates more effectively by persuading the subjugated of their absolute freedom.
Benjamin understates how this transcendental illusion shapes European conditions, including the liberal-democratic legal categories he explores. Benjamin sets aside the approach in the European tradition that questions (p.63) this illusion. Kelsen’s approach is decidedly Spinozist in stressing the legal subject’s inability to transcend its conditions. Benjamin reduces Spinoza’s ante-juridicism to vulgar Darwinism and says that “natural law” is “blind” “to the contingency of means,” although in the Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza is bent on convincing readers to take contingency seriously.21 Immediately after setting aside one of Europe’s strongest critiques of law and transcendence, Benjamin accepts the liberal-democratic categories of law—“the positive theory of law is acceptable as a hypothetical basis at the outset of this study”—which hinders a more direct engagement with their Kantian, imperialist justification.22
I fill this gap by dealing with the brutal underside of Kant’s moral subject. Although Montag and Kelsen stress how subjugation works under the illusion of absolute autonomy, I turn to Metaphysics of Morals and the “the thing” which defines entities, including people, who are not legal subjects and how they can be treated. As I will show, the justification for deciding who is a thing is no less illusory than deciding who is a legal subject. Comparing Kant’s distinction between “persons” and “things” with his definition of “imputation” reveals the circularity of his argument. I quote the relevant passages at length here:
An action is called a deed insofar as it comes under obligatory laws and … as the subject, in doing it, is considered in terms of the freedom of his choice. … The agent is regarded as the author of its effect, and this, together with the action itself, can be imputed to him. …
A person is a subject whose actions can be imputed to him. Moral personality is therefore nothing other than the freedom of a rational being under moral laws. … From this it follows that a person is subject to no other laws than those he gives to himself (either alone or at least along with others).
A thing is that to which nothing can be imputed. Any object of free choice which itself lacks freedom, is therefore called a thing (res corporalis).
Then, Kant writes:
Imputation (imputatio) … is the judgment by which someone is regarded as the author (causa libera) of an action, which is then called a deed (factum) and stands under laws.23
In an essay on Kant and blackness, Ronald Judy notes, “The harmony between phenomena and Idea is not necessary” in the Critique of Pure Reason. (p.64) “For Kant, ‘Everything happens as if’ … Kant holds this harmony to be merely postulated or declared.” Judy continues by noting “Kant’s extraordinary knack for generating terminology in the face of argumentative failure—failure always meant the premature closure of the argument, before arriving at the hope for conclusion.”24 One finds both problems in his account of personhood, thinghood, and imputation in Metaphysics of Morals. Personhood depends on imputation. One cannot be author of one’s free deeds without it. But imputation requires a personhood already executing free deeds. Kant makes this circular terminological argument to hide the hubris of a transcendental subject who abides “no other laws than those he gives to himself (either alone or at least along with others).” In this “transcendent illusion,” “instead of applying itself to the Categories of the Understanding … Reason claims to be directly applicable to objects, and seeks to legislate in the domain of knowledge. Reason tries to have determinate knowledge of something by determining an object rather than a category.”25 The “others” parenthesized here would have to share the same self-aggrandizing orientation to action and responsibility.
How does this collective orientation lead to new conclusions about how Kant conceptualizes “things”? When speaking of “things,” Kant refers to people to whom freedom cannot be imputed. When referring to “any object of free choice, which itself lacks freedom,” Kant suggests that a person (or culture) can be the object of another’s will and that this is morally justifiable. While generating the terms he will use throughout Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers no explanation as to why those “things” cannot be subjects of imputation. Since Kant himself claims that a moral philosophy without universal applicability is not worthy of the name, it is quite revealing that he would assume and assert that imputation is not universally applicable. Considering that his own theorization of Reason focuses on the refinement of categorization and warns against claiming complete mastery of an object, it is curious that he would allow such a violent evacuation of some people’s autonomy. Indeed, this ontological principle seeks an absolute imbalance of power between so-called subject and so-called thing supported by an illusory hierarchy.
The hubris of the transcendental subject depends on the unsubstantiated assertion that one population is innately human, free, and already authorized to control other populations that are innately subhuman, unfree, and (p.65) already blameworthy for any resistance they pose to the other group’s wishes. Kant remains in the tradition Aristotle opens in Politics distinguishing the naturally free from the naturally servile barbaroi.26 Even if some scholars suggest that Kant eventually leaves behind the uncouthness of his earlier statements on race, in this late text, Metaphysics of Morals, Kant does not abandon racism but finds the philosophical means to systematize its application for the global expansion of Western European empires. This systematization can only be contradictory and deserves further explanation. Kant’s anthropology operates as a determinant judgment bringing all humanity under one law.27 Systemization, however, refers to the dissemination of racialized ways of thinking that organize humanity under one genus and subcategories, increasingly distinguished from animality, with whiteness symbolizing its pinnacle. This system drastically subsumes, erases, or frequently conflicts with other forms of human belonging and knowing. And yet the vagaries of racialization upset the system it calls forth. If systematicity unites concepts of the understanding under an Idea, then racism necessarily purports to reach beyond the concept and identify reality as such.28
Race creates quite the conundrum for Western epistemology and politics. The transcendental subject positions itself as lawgiver, adhering to no law but its own. But that law is, at the outset, compromised by race as a transcendental illusion; that lawgiver then brings other cultures under its law and illusions, at the expense of other rational traditions. In effect, no one is authorized to identify and exorcise this illusion. Consequently, the subject of Kant’s critical project grants this illusion safe harbor to influence theoretical and practical philosophy. Racialization marks an impurity in pure reason. Like other forms of transcendental illusion, racialization gets mistaken for a necessary condition of Reason in particular and human progress in general, which makes any attack on this illusion tantamount to triggering an apocalypse for its adherents. A false binary arises where one either accepts the law with this illusion or rejects the law with this illusion. In regard to moral philosophy, consider Kant’s most famous quotation about how the “starry heavens” above him and the “moral law” within him produce “admiration and awe.” Racialization helps to pull the transcendental subject away from animality, from being a mere “speck” in the universe, transforming that subject into a “universal and necessary” “intelligence.” But this law operates by withdrawing the transcendental subject from “the limitless magnitude of (p.66) worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems,” or “even of the entire world of the senses.”29 For this essay’s purposes, the “systems upon systems” reference natural phenomena as well as myriad cultural, political, and intellectual perspectives and practices being brought under European power.30 A strange intelligence this is, that asserts its universal necessity through a system shaped by the most arbitrary interpretations of complexion and phenotype. Yet racialization does not count as obstructing the critical project or the politics Kant derives from it, because it provides a mechanism for making imperial expansion and its violent excesses universal and necessary.
The following passage from Metaphysics of Morals demonstrates how such illusions make European conquest necessary:
[The seas] are … most favoring [Europe’s] commerce by means of navigation; and the more coastlines these nations have in the vicinity of one another … the more lively their commerce can be. However, visiting these coasts, and still more settling there to connect them with the mother country, provide the occasion for evils and acts of violence in one place on our globe to be felt all over it. Yet this possible abuse cannot annul the right of citizens of the world to try to establish community with all. … The question arises, however: In newly discovered lands, may a nation undertake to settle (accolatus) and take possession in the neighborhood of a people that has already settled in the region, even without its consent? If the settlement is made so far from where that people resides that there is no encroachment on anyone’s use of his land, the right to settle is not open to doubt. But if these peoples are shepherds or hunters (like the Hottentots, the Tungusi, or most of the American Indian nations) … this settlement may not take place by force but only by contract that does not take advantage of the ignorance of those inhabitants with respect to ceding their lands. This is true despite the fact that sufficient specious reasons to justify the use of force are available: that it is to the world’s advantage, partly because these crude peoples will become civilized.31
Kant uncomfortably admits the worst outcomes of his internationalist framework. When he refers to “newly discovered lands” somehow already inhabited, when he speaks of Europeans settling “far” from those inhabitants who somehow still “cede their lands,” when he criticizes “specious reasons” for “violence” though they somehow fit a “civiliz[ing]” mission benefiting the inhabitants, he uses his moral philosophy to explain away the “evils and acts of violence” brought about by European colonial expansion. Kant’s equivocations (p.67) do not hide that his perpetual peace requires an absolute imbalance of power between legal subjects and human beings/ things brought about by perpetual war.
This international basis for economic expansion, new racial classifications, and legal presuppositions justifies the law-founding force Walter Benjamin calls mythical violence. He uses the Niobe legend to describe this violence’s political function:
Mythical violence in its archetypal form is a mere manifestation of the gods. … The legend of Niobe contains an outstanding example of this. True, it might appear that the action of Apollo and Diana [also known as Latona, the name Wheatley prefers] is only a punishment. But their violence establishes a law far more than it punishes for the infringement of one already existing. Niobe’s arrogance calls down fate upon itself not because her arrogance offends against the law but because it challenges fate—to a fight in which fate must triumph, and can bring to light a law only in its triumph. … Violence therefore bursts upon Niobe from the uncertain, ambiguous sphere of fate. … Although it brings a cruel death to Niobe’s children, it stops short of the life of their mother, whom it leaves behind, more guilty than before through the death of the children, both as an eternally mute bearer of guilt and as a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods.32
Right after Benjamin talks about the Niobe legend he says:
For in this sphere [of constitutional law] the establishing of frontiers, the task of “peace” after all the wars of the mythical age, is the primal phenomenon of all lawmaking violence. … Where frontiers are decided the adversary is not simply annihilated; indeed, he is accorded rights even when the victor’s superiority in power is complete. And these are, in a demonically ambiguous way, “equal” rights: for both parties to the treaty it is the same line that may not be crossed.33
Without reading Kant’s ideal subject and theory of perpetual peace regarding colonial conflict in Metaphysics of Morals, Benjamin’s use of “frontier” reads abstractly despite its specific reference to the violence of settler colonialism and nation-building. By turning to this strand of Kant’s corpus, Benjamin intuits what Césaire will compellingly explain: to understand the ominous rumblings of the interwar period one must realize that Europe has turned its colonizing tactics upon itself. Liberal democracies are founded (p.68) by turning some people into gods and others into things, through a guilt-inducing violence that convinces the latter they are always abusable. Benjamin treats the resulting “equality” circumspectly because guilt must persist in a one-sided manner for this legal-political structure to hold.
Considering that the problems and proposals Kant takes up have global reach, that Wheatley experiences the colonial expeditions Kant legitimates, and that Wheatley and Kant are exact contemporaries, I contend that this nexus of theoretical and practical concerns marks a primal scene of African American letters. From this vantage, one can view much of Wheatley’s critique of Western law, philosophy, economics, and politics while she envisions a subjectivity within the processes of objectification. Reading Wheatley’s “Niobe” as a poem and lens for examining her other poems touches upon the most radical strand of Wheatley’s poetic project: the refusal of the guilt induced by mythic violence, the rejection of the laws that violence founds, and an opposition to the transcendent illusion of the all-powerful Eurocentric subject.
Reading Wheatley’s “Niobe in Distress for Her Children”
Blackness is another word for the nonidentity and reconstructive drive that founds and transgresses aesthetic genres. Many have noted, with reasonable ambivalence, that John and Susannah Wheatley provided a modest classical education for Phillis Wheatley; however, they could not have taught her how to rethink these materials in relation to her specific subject position. She did that herself through her “study,” that is, an impassioned pursuit of learning exceeding any certifications signifying topical mastery and implying alternative forms of sociality.34 That reconstructive drive in Wheatley’s effort persists throughout her poems, especially in regard to her inhabiting and retooling of classical writing forms, themes, and figures. As Eric Hairston notes, “Wheatley’s education followed at least in part the standards of the exclusively male Latin Grammar schools. … This model emphasized reading classical epics, histories, verse, and philosophy and translating between vernaculars and Latin. Their curriculum included Cato, Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Homer, Isocrates, and Xenophon.”35 “In combining Christian and classical elements,” says John Shields, “Wheatley falls within a (p.69) common tradition which began before the Renaissance and extends through Eliot. But Wheatley casts her practice of such syncretism into her own mode.” For Shields, Wheatley shapes her distinct mode based on cultural elements she “brought with her from her African homeland” and her masterly employment of poetic conventions “to make a structure neither wholly pagan nor wholly Christian.”36
Wheatley’s syncretism has a political component. As Karen Dovell has noted, “Early Americans believed that the westward progression of civilization, embodied in the classical concepts of translatio imperii and translatio studii, was destined to be carried out in America,” meaning that the United States would eventually become the hegemonic global power pushing civilization forward and carrying on the tradition of classical knowledge.37 Wheatley’s classical studies and awareness of contemporary American revolutionary discourse fueled her decision to write on Niobe, based on this figure’s place in the Classics and Wheatley’s reconfiguration for her present (and ours). “Niobe, a goddess from Asia Minor, was associated in Greek mythology with the ‘dark phase’ of the moon, the principle of disorder and sin, the primordial mother of the human race.” Indeed, the Zeus of Phidias’s throne was engraved with “images of the death of Niobe’s children,” suggesting “the centrality of their sacrifice to the construction of a divine order in classical antiquity.”38 Wheatley’s translatio studii leads her to Niobe, who prefigures Europe’s pathologization of blackness to construct its social order.39 Yet Wheatley’s poem embraces Niobe’s call to disorder discourses of her day that valorized the expansion of colonial sovereignty and knowledge production. At the same time, Wheatley confounds any tidy narrative of the founding of African American letters, making it a site of interminable analysis rather than static theses.
In Wheatley’s “Niobe” the titular character enacts a great refusal (Figure 2.1). From the self-styled “gods” deploying mythic violence to silence Niobe forever to the very formatting of the poem itself by anonymous editorial hands (something I will discuss later), “Niobe” captures a speech precisely where silence should reign. This speech cannot be reduced to Wheatley “taking the stand” literally or metaphorically, first, because that grants the very legitimacy that Niobe will not give colonialist law and its philosophical justifications, and second, because the poem attends to the violence preceding legality. Not only does this point bring Wheatley closer (p.70)
to the most intellectually, artistically, and politically astute contributors to the Black Radical tradition. One must also question any framing using preestablished juridical norms, since her writing questions the objectification resulting from the law’s founding. The liberal multiculturalist reading’s greatest shortcoming is that it keeps Wheatley in front of the legal tribunals poetry questions. Instead, her work must be placed in the midst of the uneven push and pull between laying and uprooting the foundations of the law (of the Father, of capitalist accumulation, etc.), not as the subject who already takes that ground for granted.
In this context, the “Niobe” poem “maintain[s] a power of refusal” that is “capable of opening up a future” that alters the relation between the nonreproductive and reproductive.40 Granted, Wheatley’s nonreproductivity, in terms of childbirth, was a key characteristic of being enslaved in New England. However, that lack of freedom does not exhaust Wheatley’s own knowledge of freedom and the refusals it enacts with implications that continue (p.71) today.41 Though Wheatley, like Niobe, could hypothetically affirm a certain sort of reproductivity through boasting of her (literary) progeny—being the first African American writer and being part of the first majority-female, collaborative, transatlantic publication project—it turns out that both assert power in their refusals not to reproduce certain social patterns. The merits of this relationship require further exploration. The aforementioned criticisms of Wheatley all carry the vestiges of a desire for patrilineal inheritance. Refusing that all-too linear understanding of tradition may be a key tenet of claiming Wheatley as cultural or artistic ancestor. Meanwhile, despite Niobe’s losses, she never submits to reproducing that violence or urges her children to submit to its command. While Benjamin reads the Niobe legend to represent acquiescence, Wheatley’s poem finds a vitality inside and outside of reproduction, in critical response to her oppressive context.
Wheatley’s long title to this poem provides an intellectual trajectory for understanding her syncretic approach to Niobe. Most likely during her visit to the Earl of Dartmouth while seeking support for Poems on Various Subjects, Wheatley saw the 1760 version of Richard Wilson’s The Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which captures the moment Niobe is punished by Apollo for insulting Goddess Latona. Benjamin calls his critique of mythic violence a “gaze” that steps back to see the cycle of “law-making and law-preserving formations of violence.”42 In the 1770s, Wheatley enacts her own account of the subject-object relation through her gaze at Wilson’s painting. Wheatley links the “gaze” to imagination and, in another poem, celebrates imagination “leav[ing] the rolling [as in gears rolling] universe behind.” In characterizing the gaze as “silken fetters” that bind the subject and not the object, creating a “soft captivity” in the subject’s mind rather than the object, Wheatley’s gaze does not allow for the subject’s blameless domination over things as Kant does in his moral philosophy.43 Indeed, Wheatley’s account of the relation may actually undermine the subject-object divide altogether.
Wheatley’s alternative account of perception and the relation among things (as opposed to subject and object) opens an alternative understanding of the aesthetic and its framing by privileging fascination—where the purported object temporarily absorbs the gazing subject into it, indicating fuller engagement—over the sterile gaze of the Enlightenment (p.72) subject—where one’s distance from the object ensures an uneven power relation, allowing one to pathologize and therefore colonize the object. Precisely because Wheatley’s account of perception allows only for a soft captivity bound by silken fetters, one can envision how Wilson’s painting draws her into its action. At the same time, Wheatley’s poem captures how this well-bounded scene spills out onto African coastlines that Kant’s moral philosophy makes the milieu for imperial expansion. Wilson’s The Destruction of the Children of Niobe more effectively intimates this conflict on the coastline than, say, Jean-François de Troy’s The Death of Niobe’s Children (1720), Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier’s Apollo and Diana Attacking Niobe and Her Children (1772), Jacques-Louis David’s Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe (1772), or William Sharp’s Niobe (1792), an engraving of Wilson’s painting. Based on the placement of Apollo and Diana in the paintings, these other eighteenth-century artists seem to believe the gods are actually gods. The boundaries of and in the painting remain intact. The placement of Apollo and Diana/Latona in Wilson’s painting sustains the possibility that instead of gods we are viewing would-be settlers who are ambushing inhabitants to make the latter mere “things.” Against a Kantian aesthetics that would claim that the proper way of viewing the action would demand keeping Latona’s and Apollo’s violence within the parameters of the painting and restrict any turmoil to the internal dynamics of a disinterested viewer, Wheatley explores how violence against those targeted for colonization and their resistance escapes the painterly frame.
Wheatley’s poem draws her readers into what Kant would call the Mittelglied, but what black thinkers would call the “Middle Passage.” Mittelglied and “Middle Passage” both designate an “articulation of the theoretical and the practical … that is neither theoretical nor practical,” but both. “Art” thus inhabits a “place deprived of place” for both terms.44 The undecidable, un/ grounding of both terms invites judgment. However, only “middle passage” complicates judgment by locating this conflict of faculties within the putative object rather than the European subject. The middle passage most famously refers to the oceanic, catastrophic experience of being in the belly of the slave ship. Yet one need only remember Olaudah Equiano’s terror on the African coastline when he merely viewed the slave ship to understand that Wheatley was not alone in linking the slave ship and shoreline to the same law-making process. In this case, the African shorelines are part of this (p.73) middle-passage, this remixed Mittelglied, renewing landscape painting’s function. Under Wheatley’s gaze landscape painting captures the upheaval of the incomplete work of law-founding violence rather than the confirmation of preestablished ontological principles. Wheatley’s poem repurposes Wilson’s landscape painting so that the latter’s classical imagery elucidates the frontier conflicts Kant finds unpalatable yet unavoidable in commercial expansion, since he knows that the key cargo on the coastlines is human beings and that his legal persons/things distinction justifies it.
Some have limited this poem to a lesson against hubris before the gods, seeing that the poem begins with Niobe disrupting Goddess Latona’s festival. Combining Kant’s claim that some humans are legal persons and others are things with the place of Apollo in Wilson’s picture suggests something else: Worshippers in the festival idolize “newly sprung deities” and accept the person/thing distinction. When Niobe interrupts the festival, then, she stops the so-called things from placing the so-called free, autonomous subject on an undeserved pedestal, exposing the illusory power of the transcendental subject. She questions, before the letter, the “frontier” between the human beings and the gods and the rights they convey based on everyone’s finding his or her proper place. Three times in two successive stanzas, Latona and Apollo say that Niobe’s greatest crime is not her hubris but the collective “rebellion” she incites among the people against established frontiers. When Niobe dissolves the frontier between subjects and things, she becomes what Kant calls an unjust enemy worthy of unlimited violence.
In response, the poem’s voice shifts from third to second person, as if the poem now mourns a particular person lost amid law-founding violence: “Then didst thou, Sipylus, the language hear / Of fate portentous whistling in the air … / So to thine horse thou gav’st the golden reins, / Gav’st him to rush impetuous o’er the plains: / But ah! A fatal shaft from Phoebus’ hand / Smites through thy neck, and sinks thee on the sand.”45 Perhaps this is Wheatley inadvertently shifting from epyllion to elegy, if only for a stanza, to mourn a death she witnessed in being taken into slavery. Admittedly, this is speculation. What is for sure is that Wheatley’s elegies carry out a mourning process that is inseparable from her own familial and communal losses before reaching the United States.46 Although at one point Niobe boasted of a certain perfection—“no frowns of fortune has my soul to dread,” she (p.74) says early in the poem—the decimation of her wealth does not alter her “love too vehement” toward her children (ll. 80, 35). Quite the contrary, her love persists through this decimation despite Latona and Apollo’s intent to render her and her people unworthy of mourning.
Amid the chaos one finds an ontological sociality (a collectivity founded in shared vulnerability), accentuated by the confrontation with finitude, which maintains a stand against the so-called gods:
- Niobe heard, and with indignant eyes
- She thus express’d her anger and surprize:
- “Why is such privilege to them allow’d? …”
- Niobe now, less haughty than before,
- With lofty head directs her steps no more … .
- How strangely chang’d!—yet beautiful in woe … .
- On each pale cor[p]se the wretched mother spread
- Lay overwhelm’d with grief, and kiss’d her dead,
- Then rais’d her arms, and thus, in accents slow,
- “Be sated cruel Goddess! with my woe; …
- Ah! take this wretched life you deign’d to save,
- With them I too am carried to the grave.
- Rejoice triumphant, my victorious foe,
- But show the cause from whence your triumphs flow?
- Tho’ I unhappy mourn these children slain,
- Yet greater numbers to my lot remain.”
(ll. 163–88; italics mine)
In “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin says that “in the exercise of violence over life and death, more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself”; he also associates this exercise with “fate.”47 Fate initiates or reinforces the subject’s legal standing when begged to decide on another’s life or death. Wheatley was not lost on this, considering that when Niobe begs for her last living daughter’s life, the poem says “the Fates her suit deny,” anticipating Kant and Benjamin’s legal rhetoric with “suit” as well as associating it with “fate” (1. 211). When Niobe demands that the Fates “show the cause from whence [their] triumphs flow” (l. 186), she insults them once more by demanding an explanation from those whose legal standing should be justification (p.75) enough. We should remember that Kant claims that a subject can do whatever he or she wishes with a thing. Therefore, Apollo’s final onslaught against all of Thebes’ attempts to nullify Niobe’s threatening presence, which has less to do with breaking the law and more to do with undermining the legal framework and its moral metaphysics altogether.
In Benjamin’s estimation, by not killing Niobe, the gods make her “more guilty than before, both as an eternally mute bearer of guilt and as a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods.”48 In the legend, she becomes a statue crying endlessly for the loss of her family at the hands of the gods. It is unclear in Wilson’s painting whether Niobe has become petrified with guilt as Ovid’s legend suggests. Wheatley exploits this ambiguity to end the poem before Niobe turns to stone, thereby undoing the legend’s conclusion. This has several aesthetic, literary historical, and ethical implications. A recurring phrase in the poem may explain why Wheatley alters the poem’s conclusion. It resounds most pronouncedly in the first stanza: “Muse! … Guide my pen in lofty strains to show / The Phrygian queen, all beautiful in woe” (l. 10). In Critique of Practical Reason Kant says, “Well-being” or “woe” “signifies” “our state of agreeableness or disagreeableness, of gratification or pain … and if we desire or avoid an object … we do so only insofar as it is referred … to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure it causes.”49 “Woe” designates any sensible displeasure with no relation to the will. Recall that the Metaphysics of Morals says a “moral deed” only counts as such in relation to the author’s “free choice,” that is, to those people called legal persons, not those people called things. To Kant, Niobe’s suffering is mere displeasure without ethical value.
If Niobe suffered mere displeasure, however, she surely would have relented and accepted the gods’ superiority after losing so much. Her relentlessness implies a desire that goes beyond the pleasure principle altogether.50 Whereas Kant believes the ethical must abandon sensuality, Niobe’s ethics works through the sensual not so much in terms of eros in this poem, but certainly in terms of intimate touch, with Niobe “kiss[ing]” her dead and holding her last living daughter at “her breast” before she was murdered by Apollo (ll. 178, 208).51 Rather than make the end a Pietà-esque reuniting of mother and daughter, Wheatley refuses this redemptive take: Instead, readers must wrestle with inconclusiveness, not finding solace in a restored (p.76) single origin but, instead, mourning those lost while wading in the potential for new relations in dispersion, following Niobe’s example when she mourns the “slain” while concluding, “Yet greater numbers to my lot remain” (ll. 187–88).
Although Kant would likely see Niobe as the proof that boundaries must be respected, Wheatley’s poem reveals the extremes some will take in hiding the contingent character of current ontological, political, and ethical boundaries so that their power will appear eternal, above reproach. However, just as the bloodshed of erecting colonial frontiers spills over Wilson’s painterly frame, another enactment of the human pours out of those framed by Kantian discourse as things. In Niobe’s suffering, her “wretched” condition foreshadows a form of life constantly targeted by law for threatening the nation-state’s stability from within, precisely because this “lot” cannot and will not accept the image of European Man or its morality. There, one finds a “beauty” in “woe,” which contests boundaries established by those who want nothing but another’s absolute subservience; which inhabits the limits of universality (Kant’s slave commerce) and intimates a common humanity in its place; which restores a more complex linkage between aesthetic representation and real object, seeing that it undoes the visual framing from within; which exposes the Kantian subject’s interested desire to objectify for imperial gain; which resituates beauty within the shared mourning and restlessness of the objectified rather than the Kantian observer unmoved by mass suffering. These are the imperfect children scattered by colonial violence. If Niobe’s pride were mere haughtiness, then she would surely have turned away from this wretched lot. Instead, she stays with the dead and the dying. The beauty of this poem is that by ending without Niobe turning to stone, Wheatley “maintains a power of refusal” (to submit to illegitimate powers) that “is capable of opening up a future,” so long as one combines it with her form of study that rewrites the West through the complexity of black experience.52
Ironically, many of Wheatley’s readers think she versifies this image to protect Eurocentric notions of aesthetic beauty and moral perfection, when “Niobe” breaks with that Eurocentrism to expand the realm of art and ethics to include a wider swath of humanity. Because a final stanza was added to the poem “by another hand” for publication, some commentators see this as reason to question the entire poem’s authenticity; others have doubted (p.77) her genius by mischaracterizing the poem as an unfinished academic exercise. In my argument, this final stanza can mean one of two things: Someone thought Wheatley simply forgot the final stanza, not realizing Wheatley wanted Niobe to reject the guilt signified by petrification; or, since someone rightly perceived the poem’s radical questioning of territory and cultural authority they added a final stanza to set another frontier. In either case, it leaves us with decisions: Will we set another frontier on Wheatley’s writing by claiming mastery of her work? Or will we carry on the tradition of resistance Wheatley’s poetry enacts through ongoing study? To put the second question differently, if we could write something other than this final stanza, something that responds to the complexity of Wheatley’s poetry, what would it be? What sort of study would continue the translatio studii she exemplifies?
Following the former objectifies Wheatley as an “an eternally mute bearer of guilt.”53 The altered poem itself reveals how fantastical, though deleterious, this decision would be. This final stanza feels rushed, lacks the fluidity of Wheatley’s verse, appears to know the ending but is uncomprehending, and forecloses the creative, critical, and affective possibilities she leaves open. It is an anticollaborative stance passing itself off as “equal” to Wheatley’s literary effort. This stance barely arrives at a centrist positioning that deems Wheatley loyal to black culture but still facing the tribunals.
Then again, if new forms of mythic violence are to be critiqued and combated by new forms of resistance, then we, too, must occupy the fugitive space between Wheatley’s concluding stanza and the false frontier placed upon it. Inhabiting this fugitive space invites us to abandon our sense of mastery of Wheatley’s poetic volume in order to sift through the disheveled origins of African American letters and grapple with the wide range of possibilities opening and opened by her canonical and extant writings that work in multiple literary, historical, and political contexts. Her poetry remains worthy of study and, I would add, even collaboration, if we are willing to join the scattered children surviving the legislative and cultural tribunals, to continue Wheatley’s complex mix of production and refusal. All this is to say that genuine study of Wheatley’s poetry would involve a radical rewriting of the present that continues her resistance to frontiers and imperial sovereignty in “another hand.”
(1.) I derive the term supernationality from Edmund Husserl, “The Vienna Lecture,” in The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 270.
(2.) Henry Louis Gates, “Phillis Wheatley on Trial,” New Yorker, January 20, 2003, 83, 87.
(3.) Joanna Brooks, “Our Phillis, Ourselves,” American Literature 82, no. 1 (2010): 1–28.
(4.) Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 176.
(5.) Serge Leclaire, A Child Is Being Killed: On Primary Narcissism and the Death Drive, trans. Marie-Claude Hays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 2.
(6.) On this point, see Erica Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
(7.) My use of “strange birth” has several sources. I derive the phrase most directly from Richard Wright’s discussion of the emergence of black diasporic culture in 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 11. Also see the second section of the more psychoanalytically inflected work, Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987), 69–73.
(8.) Russell Reising. Loose Ends: Closure and Crisis in the American Social Text (Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 1996), 81.
(10.) Brent Edwards, Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14.
(11.) Arthur Schomburg quoted in R. Lynn Matson, “Phillis Wheatley—Soul Sista?” Phylon 33, no. 3 (1972): 223.
(12.) James Weldon Johnson, preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922), xxvii.
(13.) Robert Hayden, Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1967), xx.
(14.) See Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014); Sondra O’Neale, “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” Early American Literature 21, no 2 (1986): 144–65; and chapters 2 and 3 in Katherine C. Bassard, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture Gender and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 28–70. Of course, for the most long-standing efforts at recovering and revising Wheatley’s reputation, see John C. Shields, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts (Knoxville: University of Tennessee (p.79) Press, 2008) and Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010); and John C. Shields and Eric D. Lamore, eds., New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011).
(15.) Katy Chiles, “Becoming Colored in Wheatley’s and Occom’s Early America,” Publication of the Modern Language Association 123, no. 5 (2008): 1398–1417.
(16.) Jennifer Thorn, “Phillis Wheatley’s Ghosts: The Racial Melancholy of New England Protestants,” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 50, no. 1 (2009): 73–99.
(17.) Robert Kendrick, “Re-membering America: Phillis Wheatley’s Intertextual Epic,” African American Review 30, no. 1 (1996): 72.
(19.) Warren Montag, “Althusser: Law and the Threat of the Outside,” in Althusser and Law, ed. Laurent du Sutter (New York: Routledge, 2013), 22.
(21.) Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books), 279.
(23.) Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 51–52.
(24.) Ronald Judy, “Kant and the Negro,” Surfaces 1, no. 8 (1991): 19.
(26.) “Aristotle introduces the natural slave in book I of Politics when discussing the institution of chattel slavery, conceptualized in relation to the individual household master and slave. . . . As a consequence, Asiatic political subjection to an absolute monarch . . . becomes confusingly intertwined with the doctrine of individuals who are slaves-by-nature, meant to legitimate the widespread practice within Greece of enslaving non-Greeks, or barbaroi.” Mary Nyquist, Arbitrary Rule (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 11.
(27.) Immanuel Kant, “Of the Different Human Differences,” in The Idea of Race, ed. Roberto Bernasconi and Tommy Lee Lott (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 8.
(28.) For more on systematicity, see Howard Caygill, A Kant Dictionary (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1995), 20.
(29.) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 162.
(30.) Notably, Kant’s moral subject relationship to “systems upon systems” affirms a political tendency that runs directly counter to, say, Islamic Africa’s forms of governance from the early modern moment and the eighteenth century, when “spatial dynamics” produced an “itinerant territoriality.” (p.80) Itinerant territoriality coupled rootedness with a “principle of dispersion, and the deterritorialization of allegiances,” such that “strangers, slaves, and subjects could in effect rely on several different sovereignties at one time.” The most popular strains of Enlightenment thought render these complexities epiphenomenal since they would disabuse Europe of its illusions about black inferiority and nothingness and, from there, render European imperial expansion unnecessary, if not unethical. See Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent DuBois (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017), 99.
(34.) For more on study, see Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Minor Compositions, 2013).
(35.) Eric Ashley Hairston, “The Trojan Horse: Classics, Memory, Transformation, and Afric Ambition in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” in Shields and Lamore, eds., New Essays on Phillis Wheatley, 58.
(36.) John C. Shields, “Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Classicism,” American Literature 52, no. 1 (1980): 103.
(37.) Karen Lerner Dovell, “The Interactions of the Classical Traditions of Literature and Politics in the Work of Phillis Wheatley,” in Shields and Lamore, eds., New Essays on Phillis Wheatley, 37.
(39.) “Wheatley’s treatment of the Niobe myth is also likely the first [published] translation of any kind by an African in America. It certainly appears to be the first African American philological project in the classics. Translating the work of a major classical author is an ambitious undertaking by an African American slave in any case, but Wheatley’s ambition is considerably more developed than Ovid’s. She alters the Ovidian narrative to add her own signature in making another, longer, and more personal foray into the frontiers of the epic, crafting an epyllion in ‘Niobe’ that brings her within sight of her epic idols.” Hairston, “Trojan Horse,” 85.
(40.) See Maurice Blanchot, “Tracts of the Student-Writer Action Committee (Sorbonne-Censier),” in Political Writings, 1953–1993 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 79.
(41.) See Jennifer Thorn, “‘All beautiful in woe’: Gender, Nation, and Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Niobe,’” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 37 (2008): 233–58, and her fascinating essay, “Phillis Wheatley’s Ghosts: The Racial Melancholy of New England Protestants,” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 50, no. 1 (2009): 73–99.
(p.81) (43.) Phillis Wheatley, “On Imagination,” in Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York: Penguin, 2001), 36.
(44.) Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon,” trans. Craig Owens, October 9 (Summer 1979): 6.
(45.) Phillis Wheatley, “Niobe in Distress for her Children slain by Apollo, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Book VI. And from a view of the Painting of Mr Richard Wilson,” in Complete Writings, 56, ll. 121–28; hereafter cited in text.
(46.) “Wheatley’s utilization of the elegiac form may be read as yet another way in which Wheatley attempts to reconnect with Africa and her mother.” Devona Mallory, “I Remember Mama: Honoring the Goddess-Mother While Denouncing the Slaveowner-God in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry,” in Shields and Lamore, eds., New Essays on Phillis Wheatley, 32.
(50.) On this point, see Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961); and also Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Book VII), trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1997).
(51.) Contrast this to Latona and Apollo, who massacre an entire village merely out of displeasure and abide by no higher ethical law, but instead attempt to make themselves the law through arbitrary brute force. Unlike them, Niobe is the one along the frontier exemplifying practical reason. Kant misses this due to the pleasure of his own illusions, which hide the arbitrariness of his distinction between persons and things and which hide that fact that the international commerce he justifies necessarily involves the selling of humans. This is the sadomasochistic underside to Kantian ethics, as Lacan has already explored, although “Kant avec Wheatley” would nevertheless lead to conclusions other than Lacan’s famous’ “Kant avec Sade.” How ironic that Wheatley’s writing has been reduced to all-too-patient protest or accommodation, rather than praised for poetically rendering the first image of a stand against mythic violence in African American letters, or for being a contemporary alternative to Kant’s ethics.