Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poetry: Phillis Wheatley, the First African-American published author

Given the hardships of life in early America, it is ironic that some of the best poetry of the period was written by an exceptional slave woman. The first African-American author of importance in the USA, Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was born in Africa (Gambia or Senegal) and brought to Boston when she was about 7, where she was purchased by the pious and wealthy tailor John Wheatley to be a companion to his wife Susannah.The Wheatleys recognized Phillis's remarkable intelligence and, with the help of their daughter, Mary, Phillis learned to read and write. At the age of twelve she was reading the Greek and Latin classics, and passages from the Bible. At thirteen she wrote her first poem.

Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784)

Weatley's poetic themes are religious, and her style, like that of Phillip Freneau, is neoclassical. Among her best-known poems are "To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works," a poem of praise and encouragement for another talented black, and a short poem showing her strong religious sensitivity filtered through her experience of Christian conversion.This poem unsettles some contemporary critics - whites because they find it conventional, and blacks because the poem does not protest the immorality of slavery. Yet the work is a sincere expression; it confronts white racism and asserts spiritual equality. Indeed, Wheatley was the first to address such issues confidently in verse, as in "On Being Brought from Africa to America". 

          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 Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

She was especially fond of writing in the elegiac poetry style, perhaps mirroring the genre of oration taught to her through the women in her African American tribal group. Her elegy on a popular evangelical Methodist minister, George Whitefield, brought her instant success upon his death.Three years later thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." It was the first book to be published by a black American. She also was well versed in Latin which allowed her to write in the epyllion (short epic) style with the publication of "Niobe in Distress."

The Countess of Huntingdon, patron to Phillis Wheatley
She even appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 for her poetry and was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War. She felt slavery to be the issue which separated whites from true heroism: whites can not "hope to find/Deivine acceptance with th' Almighty mind" when "they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race."

The American Revolution intervened in Phillis Wheatley's career, and the effect was not completely positive. The people of Boston -- and of America and England -- bought books on other topics rather than the volume of Phillis Wheatley poems. It also caused other disruptions in her life. First her master moved the household to Providence, Rhode Island, then back to Boston. When her master died in March of 1778, she was effectively if not legally freed. Mary Wheatley, the daughter of the family, died that same year. A month after the death of John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man from Boston.

Boston Women Memorial, sculpture of Phillis Wheatley
Eventually John deserted Phillis, and to support herself and surviving child she had to work as a scullery maid in a boardinghouse. In poverty and among strangers, on December 5, 1784, she died, and her third child died hours after she did. Her last known poem was written for George Washington. Her second volume of poetry was lost.

Phyllis is remembered for many first time accomplishments from a woman of her day:
  • First African American to publish a book 
  • An accomplished African American woman of letters 
  • First African American woman to earn a living from her writing 
  • First woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatly, and Selina Hastings.)
    Phillis Wheatley elementary school in New Orleans

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