Failure’s Gifts

From Public Books:

Phillis Wheatley was a failure. It’s not a polite way to remember the first Black woman to publish a book of poetry in the American colonies in 1773. Still, it’s true: nearly 250 years ago, Boston’s celebrated poet tried to publish a second book of poetry, A Volume of Poems and Letters, On Various Subjects, Dedicated to the Right Honorable Benjamin Franklin, Esq.: One of the Ambassadors of the United States, at the Court of France. And, she never did even though she compiled a list of titles, searched for funding, and advertised her forthcoming work in local newspapers. Despite Wheatley’s best efforts, there is neither a printed book nor an extant manuscript of it. There is only an aspirational proposal and a series of lists of letters and poems.

Wheatley’s failure isn’t what we talk about. It’s certainly not how we remember the “first” enslaved, Black, or woman writer to publish a book of poetry in what would soon be the United States of America. What’s celebrated is what we can read in print, Wheatley’s collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. June Jordan remembers Wheatley’s poetry as miraculous, evidence of what today is called “Black excellence.” Her volume of poetry is, without a doubt, a feat worth noting for a formerly enslaved woman who journeyed the Middle Passage as a child and learned to read and write well in English shortly thereafter. And her published occasional poems and elegies are the reason she is memorialized as the beginning of the African American literary tradition. I see why, then, it might not seem worthwhile to think about her failure because it’s not as much fun to talk about as her success.

But what if Wheatley’s failure matters just as much as her excellence and genius? What if there is information in the book that never was, or at least in Wheatley’s desire to publish it? Does her failure to publish it reveal something about how culture or literature is made, imagined, or revised into being? What if the origin story of African American literature is not just a celebration of Wheatley’s success but also an acknowledgment of her failure?

I owe my curiosity about Wheatley’s failure to Elizabeth McHenry, author of To Make Negro Literature (2021). Wheatley is my example, not hers. I’ve learned from McHenry’s newest book to think of an author’s failure as a generative site of inquiry. I didn’t expect to read about achievement’s antonym today, when “Black excellence,” “Black joy,” and “Black girl magic” are celebrated, hashtagged, cited, and memorialized on T-shirts, postcards, and murals. McHenry teaches a kind of reading practice that applies to Wheatley as easily as anyone else. It’s a way of reading that listens closely to what’s said whenever an author is willing to admit (or sometimes, not) their failure. Consider, as McHenry does: W. E. B. DuBois’s printing business is a bust. Mary Church Terrell is never able to publish her fiction. Does Booker T. Washington count as a writer if T. Thomas Fortune writes for him? Or the Library of Congress bibliographer who painstakingly gathers book titles for a comprehensive bibliography of African American writers, but it’s never published.

McHenry teaches how to read the past in order to glean the lessons to be learned from defeat. If we study failure, we can learn about process, creativity, and the makings of literary culture in the US alongside the country’s history of racialized and gendered violence. The lesson of these authors’ failed work is that they organized what counts as African American literature as they reworked and revised their plans, their words, or their pursuits.

Link to the rest at Public Books