When I was in the fifth grade, our project for Black History Month was to come as an important figure in African-American history and prepare a five minute speech about their lives and accomplishments (our lives and accomplishments since we were to be them for a day) to share with the school. We set up stations around the cafeteria, and throughout the day, students from the younger grades took “field trips” to the cafeteria, received tokens at the door, and proceeded down the rows of tables, dropping tokens into the cups at each station. Once we received a token, we immediately came to life and gave our speech.
I was my literary grandmother, Phillis Wheatley. I don’t remember if I chose to be Phillis Wheatley, or if I was assigned her, but who would have known that I would become a poet myself, just like her? When you look back at your younger self, it’s amazing some of the things you knew back then. The poem written on my poster is one of my favorite Phillis Wheatley poems today! I don’t know if it stuck with me then, but it sure did when I read it again while studying African-American literature in high school and college.
I know you can’t read it in my picture, so here’s the poem from my poster. 🙂
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 dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa (probably modern day Gambia or Senegal) in around 1753. Phillis was brought to Boston in July of 1761 on the slave ship, Phillis—where she gets her name—and purchased by Boston merchant, John Wheatley for his wife, Susanna to serve as a personal maid.
Phillis was a bright child. She learned the English language quickly, and thanks to the aid of the Wheatley family, she studied the Bible and read English, Greek, and Latin literature. The Wheatley family supported her education, and reduced her household duties to light chores so that she could continue to study. Inspired by writers such as Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley began to write poetry. Her first published poem appeared in a Rhode Island newspaper in 1767, and in 1770 she received much fame after the publication of her poem, a elegy, entitled “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield.” She even travelled to London in 1773, promoting her poetry.
Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American to publish a book of literature. She is so monumental to our history because for so long, Europeans believed that Africans were incapable of intelligence. This was one of the excuses for slavery. Poetic expression was considered proof of genius, so how could this young black girl from Africa possibly have written such creative masterpieces? In fact, no white person would have believed that. Her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral opens with a document of authentication signed by several prominent Boston white men, including the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, who all interviewed her to make sure she was truly the writer of the poems. Many subsequent African-American authors had similar authenticating documents at the beginning of their works as well.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773. Many have criticized Wheatley for not using her skills to protest slavery, some even accusing her of being a conformist. However, Wheatley wrote her poetry based on her Christian morals and her studies of the classics. She also wrote on current events and prominent people of the day. Although she did not speak against her enslavement through her writing, Phillis Wheatley paved the way for future African American writers. She proved that African Americans are capable of expressing their feelings and ideas through writing. The introduction to Phillis Wheatley in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature says that she had to write her way into American literature before we could even stake claim to an African American literary mission. Instead of criticizing her, let’s pay homage to Phillis Wheatley this Black History Month.