Re-examining Our Perception of Black History

Humanities5 MIN READ

Sam Plasencia’s research links Black activism today with early African-American writings

Assistant Professor of English Sam Plasencia
By Tomas WeberPhotography by Brian Fitzgerald
June 6, 2023

Early African-American writers were more politically vocal than is usually thought, according to two new papers by Sam Plasencia, assistant professor of English.

Between 1808 and 1823, activists in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia performed orations to commemorate the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1808. These sermons have often been understood as part of a moral reform, or “uplift,” tradition, which encouraged listeners to become more respectable: to be more sober, more honest, and more temperate.

In a recent paper published in Early American Literature, though, Plasencia shows that these orations were ways of resisting anti-Black power structures. Rather than encouraging individuals to become more reputable, the sermons challenged the sins underpinning the system of transatlantic enslavement: avarice, dishonesty, vanity, gluttony, and lust.

In another paper published last year in the same journal, Plasencia argues that the work of the early African-American poet Phillis Wheatley Peters has been similarly misunderstood.

Born in Senegambia and kidnapped as a young girl, Wheatley Peters was enslaved by a Boston family. She became a faithful Christian, and her work is often understood as a sign of her successful assimilation into white culture. Plasencia says that her writing has an overlooked political potency, which asserts that God takes the side of the oppressed.

Plasencia has taught at Colby since 2020, after earning her doctorate at the University of Illinois. She recently spoke about her research. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What was the context of these orations related to the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, and how did you become interested in them?

The U.S. withdrawal from the system of transatlantic enslavement in 1808 was a celebratory moment, even though it did not lead to emancipation or end domestic enslavement. 

Nevertheless, at the moment of its passing, it was seen by abolitionists as a major victory, and over the following years, commemorative events were held in Black churches in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, filled with food, singing, and processions. Orators performed sermons at these events, some of which were later published.

As a researcher of early Black intellectual history, I’m interested in the socio-political and philosophical thought of Black writers before 1865. These sermons are important records of that. Outside of a small community of scholars, though, they are not widely known. Their importance has been overlooked.

How have the orations typically been understood?

They have been understood as part of celebratory history, the history of Black communities marking and commemorating days that were significant to them, and as belonging to abolitionist history. But they have also been seen in the light of moral reform, and specifically, the “uplift” tradition, where moral leaders encouraged Black communities to practice frugality, sobriety, industriousness, and generosity.

In the early 19th century, some Black Americans sought to assimilate into white culture and to rehabilitate the image of Black people in the eyes of white people. They encouraged others to be seen as respectable. The orations have been understood as calls to such conformity.

I insist, though, that there is another truth: These sermons were disruptive and revolutionary, not appeals for assimilation.

For example, a lot of rum was produced through enslaved labor. Sobriety would have significantly impacted the demand for rum, which would have disrupted the business of enslavement. If everybody had fully adopted the virtues these preachers were advocating—frugality, temperance, emotional sobriety, industriousness, and generosity—it would have destroyed the trade in human beings.

You argue that the authors of these orations are performing metalinguistic analysis. What is metalinguistic analysis?

Metalinguistic analysis is the branch of linguistics that looks at how language relates to cognition and cultural behavior. The orators used metalinguistic analysis in their sermons to dismantle anti-Black ideologies contained in uses of language.

What makes metalinguistic analysis such a powerful political and moral tool in these sermons?

The way we use language shapes our behavior.

Nineteenth-century white people tended to be unable to see the full humanity of nonwhite people because their linguistic practices categorized Africans and Indigenous people as less than human: as “savage” and “barbaric.” Those linguistic frameworks also informed legal statutes, court decisions, and scientific writing, among others.

Many harmful behaviors flowed from such thinking, including the theft of Native lands, experimenting on enslaved people, segregation, and participating in the business of enslavement.

When we realize how language and behavior are entangled, we can begin changing how we speak, and therefore how we act. This is what makes the orations so radical.

Let’s switch to your paper on Phillis Wheatley Peters. She was America’s first Black published poet. But you argue that her work has been widely misunderstood. Why is this?

Phillis Wheatley Peters was born in Senegambia, around 1753. When she was 7, she was kidnapped from her parents, forcibly transported to America, and enslaved by the Wheatley family of Boston. Through this family, she had educational materials that a lot of enslaved people could not access. As a result, she familiarized herself with traditions of writing, which influenced her own poetry.

Her poetry, though, as many scholars of color have noted for over 30 years, is often misread. There is a tendency to see her as almost grateful for her enslavement or to reduce her Christian values to the values of white society.

My argument is that the Christianity in Wheatley Peters’s poetry can be understood as an early form of Black liberation theology, which saw God as taking the side of the oppressed and working toward Black liberation.

This idea is also present in the orations, which resist white immorality by showing how early national America was in violation of Christian values.

What can we learn from early African-American writing to help make sense of the present moment?

The writers I study, as well as today’s transnational Black Lives Matter movement, don’t only focus on specific instances of racism. Instead, they target broader anti-Black values, like the hyper-individualistic and selfish moral schemas that underpin Western cultures.

For this reason, I think there is a clear continuum from early Black writing to contemporary Black activist movements.