Black Poetry Writing Month: Traveling through Time… Slavery

February is finally here! Did anyone else think January was way too long?

…And too cold; it was definitely too cold!

If February is your month to reset your New Year’s goals (particularly your writing goals), here’s a suggestion for you…

Why not join a new writing challenge?

That’s right. Black Poetry Writing Month (BlaPoWriMo) has returned for a third year, and this time I hope to see lots more participation. 😉

For the uninitiated, BlaPoWriMo is a month-long writing challenge that combines the ambition of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) with the history, education, and self-reflection of Black History Month.

Over these three years, I’ve explored various themes for the challenge. During its inaugural run in 2016, I gave you daily prompts based on poems from some of my favorite black poets, and last year, we spent a fortnight writing black love poems.

This year, I want to take you on a journey through the eras of black poetry/literature and art.

We’ll look specifically at the eras of slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary/today…

…Does black literature (as we know it) still exist today? Some will make the argument that it does not

What are some of the reoccurring themes in these particular eras? Do poems from certain eras stand out more than others? Can you name the poets best known for their works written during a particular era?

Let’s kick off our first week of poems by exploring one of the most difficult and painful era’s of our country’s history: Slavery.

Not America’s brightest moment, when human beings were put in chains and treated (or should I say mistreated) as property all because their skin complexion was a few shades darker. But despite the hardships, the abuse, the oppression, many bright stars shined through.

I talk a lot about Phillis Wheatley, but did you know she wasn’t the first African American to publish a poem? While she does hold the titled of first African American to publish a book of poetry (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773), the trophy for first African American slave to publish a poem belongs to Jupiter Hammon. Other poets of this era include George Moses Horton, also a slave, James Monroe Whitfield, Benjamin Banneker, and Frances Harper, just to name a few.

Black poetry written during this period typically opposed slavery. The theme of freedom/longing for freedom ran deep within the lines. Some poems were often spiritual/religious in nature while others revealed a strong influence by the classics, signifying the intelligence and genius of blacks, which was pretty unbelievable to the whites of that time. In fact, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral opens with several authentication letters signed by white men to confirm that she, a black enslaved woman, truly wrote the poems!

Ever since I was a child, Phillis Wheatley has always been an inspiration when it comes to poetry writing. And when I learned that I had a little Senegal and Gambia in my DNA, it basically solidified in my mind that I am related to her in some way or another. (A distant auntie, perhaps?)

To get you started with this week’s slavery-themed poems, I’m being a bit biased here and sharing with you a poem of Wheatley’s that I’ve posted in the past. It’s truly my favorite, and so eloquently written. Of course, if you need further inspiration, feel free to look up the other poets mentioned in this post.

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, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

So, are you ready for BlaPoWriMo?

I truly hope you will join me for another month of writing black poetry. You don’t have to be black to participate. This is not a space for discrimination but education. As long as you write a poem every day this month and your poem aligns with the theme for the week or focuses on blackness/race in general there’s no reason not to join!

Be sure to add your links to the prompt posts for the week (ex. link your “slavery” poems to this post) so others can read your poem. You can also tag your posts BlaPoWriMo so we can find you in the WordPress Reader.

By the way, I’m on Twitter! I previously created a separate account for BlaPoWriMo, but that became too much of a hassle, so follow me @Nortina_Mariela and tweet the hashtag #BlaPoWriMo. I’ll be retweeting your tweets all month long!

Will you join the challenge this month? I’m excited to see the poems you create!

Happy Black Poetry Writing Month!

#BlaPoWriMo: Dark Girls – A Tribute to Phyllis Wheatley

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write A Poem That Ignites

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.

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5th grade Nortina presenting her project on Phillis Wheatley

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!

—Nortina

Black History Month: Poetess, Phillis Wheatley

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. 🙂

WP_001180On 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.

phillis-wheatley