Though arriving in the American colonies as a slave, Phillis Wheatley wrote the first book published by an American black and the second written by a woman in North America.
John and Susannah Wheatley never knew where the frail little African girl with the missing front teeth came from, but it may have been Senegal. Looking for kitchen help, Mrs. Wheatley, instead, bought the sickly little girl, in the slave market.
In the Wheatley household Phillis helped with the kitchen work, but she learned from Mary Wheatley, the Wheatley's daughter, reading, writing, math, Latin, embroidery, and mimicry as well. With the Wheatleys' encouragement to use their library, she became an avid reader who read through the Bible and enjoyed the Greek and Latin classics at twelve years old. Her favorite poets were John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. She attended church with the family and sat with them in their pew.
At thirteen she wrote her first poem about Harvard College and another celebrating King George's repeal of the hated Stamp Act. Emulating the poets she admired, she wrote in heroic couplets numerous elegies, poems about Christian salvation, and some that touched on slavery. The first black writer to openly touch on slavery, she is considered a precursor to the abolitionists.
A poem that she wrote honoring Rev. George Whitefield, the great evangelist, "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770," earned her international acclaim and an invitation from Selina, Countess of Huntington (sometimes spelled Huntingdon) to visit England. While in England, the countess arranged for the publication of thirty-nine of Phillis's poems in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, released in 1773.
During the next few years, both John and Susannah Wheatley died and
Phillis married a free black man, John Peters, in 1778.
Their three children died during childhood due to poverty. Though Phillis continued to write poetry, the poor economy did not allow her to benefit financially. She died on December 5, 1784. Her husband took her manuscript for her proposed second volume of poetry and it has not been recovered.
On Being Brought From Africa To America
'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted 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.
To the students at the University of Cambridge in New England (Harvard):
While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
'Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom.
Father of mercy, 'twas Thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
Students, to you 'tis given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav'n,
How Jesus blood for your redemption flows.
See Him with hands outstretched upon the cross;
Immense compassion in His bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall'n,
He deigned to die that they might rise again,
And share with in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.
Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav'n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And immense perdition sinks the soul.
For more information on Phillis Wheatley:
Read about black literature.
Read Phillis Wheatley's book of poetry.
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