Monday, March 24, 2014

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753—1784) is the author of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) which was the first book of poetry published by an African-American. At about age seven, she was taken from her home in West Africa to be a slave. She was raised in the household of John Wheatley, a prominent Boston tailor, where she learned to read and write. Along with the family's children she studied the Bible, astronomy, geography, classical literature, and such British authors as John Milton and Alexander Pope. In 1767 the Newport Mercury published her first poem, which was about two men in a storm at sea and their faith in God. Her elegy for evangelist George Whitefield, brought her the valuable attention which led to her book.

Phillis Wheatley travelled to London, where her book was published. She was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and was held up as an example of the potential of black people. Her career was over-shadowed by the American Revolution, and she had trouble finding a publisher for a second collection. She married John Peters, a free black man, and had three children, but they all died in infancy. They experienced financial troubles, and Peters abandoned her. She was forced to hire herself out as a servant. She died at age 31.

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, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His new poetry collection, Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis, is available from Wipf & Stock as is his earlier award-winning collection, Poiema.