Phillis Wheatley

7 Feb

Who better than Phillis Wheatley to kick off our month-long appreciation of African-American poets and writers? She “was the first African American, the first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems.”

Born in Gambia in 1753, she was enslaved at the age of seven and brought to North America on the slave ship the Phillis, for which she was named. The young girl arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761 and was purchased by the Wheatley family. Young Phillis showed an early aptitude for language, reading, and writing. By the age of 12, she was reading English, Greek, and Latin.

Around 14 years old she published her first poem and six years later, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published.

1773 was also the year she became emancipated.

Five years later, at the age of about 25 she married John Peters, a free black Bostonian.  “Although Wheatley advertised for subscriptions to a second volume of poems and letters, she died before she was able to secure a publisher. Her final manuscript was never found.”

Phillis Wheatley died in poverty and was buried with her recently deceased last surviving child on December 5, 1784. While the last few years of her life were certainly full of heartache, the legacy she left to the world of books and literature and to all of us continues to this day. The writings of Phillis Wheatley are “considered fundamental to the genre of African American literature.”

To read more about this pioneer, check out PBS’ page here or the Massachusetts’ Historical Society page here or the biography from the Poetry Foundation here.

The linked title will take you to the entirety of the work but I do feel it important to highlight some verse here:

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Here’s one critical viewpoint of the above poem; do you agree, disagree?
What do you think? Are there other Wheatley poems you enjoyed? Disliked? Made you think?
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