When I was in school, poetry was my least favorite genre of literature. I hated the flowery descriptions of love, I couldn’t understand the metaphoric language or the Shakespearian syntax, and when it came to rhyme scheme and meter, my attempts at mastering them always sounded elementary. My struggles had a lot to do with my inability to connect with any of the poems I studied in school. Early British Lit? Nah, I’ll pass. John Keats who? No, I do not want to write another Petrarchan sonnet.
However, in college, I took a course called Black Poetry on Page and on the Stage as part of my Gen Ed requirements, and it ignited a passion for poetry I never thought I’d have. Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” one of the first poems I read in the class, would quickly become one of my favorites. It was easy to understand, it was cultured but not overly descriptive, and more importantly, it was written by a black female slave.
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, from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
I believe that when it comes to poetry, for the student to really feel motivated to learn, there has to be something in the poem that the student can identity with, especially with minority students. Yes, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau, etc. were legends, but what’s going to make a young black boy or a young black girl want to read them?
With Phillis Wheatley, I saw myself. Here was this young African slave girl—who no one from the elite literary circles even thought could understand sophisticated classical literature, more less write it—silencing every stereotype of the African slave and at the same time advocating for me, a young black girl nearly 300 years in the future.
So it came as no surprise that when looking through old scrapbooks, I discovered that college was not the first time I’d read Phillis Wheatley’s infamous poem.
Yes, Phillis Wheatley has been a part of me for a long time.
So, to kick off Black Poetry Writing Month, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that will inspire the young black student. Write a poem he/she can identify with, one that will motivate him/her to be something great, one that will ignite a fire within him/her that burns brightly for the love of poetry.
Don’t forget to pingback to this post or use the hashtag #BlaPoWriMo so we can find you on Twitter!