BHM: Phillis Wheatley 2.10.19

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

“To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” st. 2-3, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).

I first learned of Phillis Wheatley at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in my African American literature course with Dr. Bonner. Phillis’s life story inspired me as a writer and creative. Wheatley was the first African woman to have her work published and widely read in the soon to be United States of America.

Phillis Wheatley’s life as a slave is very unique. She came to Boston, MA on a slave ship (called the Phillis which inspired her mistress Susanna Wheatley to name her) in 1761 and was educated alongside her master’s daughter. This was rare. Together they studied many subjects including classic Greek and Roman literature, astronomy, and much of the Harvard University curriculum. At this point the popular thought throughout the colonies was that Africans were not capable of advanced thought. Within four years Wheatley published her first poem. Friends of the Wheatley’s were invited over to hear this “Negro child” read. It was like a show and Phillis was a showstopper. Phillis destroyed the senseless notion of African ignorance and mental inferiority. Her intellect inspired opportunities many slaves did not know to dream of.

In 1773, when she was 21 years old her first book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. In October of the very same year she was freed from slavery. One of her biggest fans was George Washington. Washington wrote to Wheatley and even made time to meet with her at his Cambridge headquarters during the American Revolutionary War.

What really struck me, while Phillis was being oppressed by the system of chattel slavery the colonies were fighting for their freedom from England. The colonist spoke of tyranny from their colonial power and forced an even more diabolical form of tyranny on what Phillis calls the “sable race.” Phillis eloquently writes about this injustice. To this day the hypocrisy is baffling.

Her second book was lost to history. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 impoverished. A series of misfortunes halted her progression. Regardless, her genius continues to be celebrated. Dr. Bonner always encouraged us to remain mindful that what she wrote came second to the fact that she wrote at all. As a writer of my own diasporic experience Wheatley’s influence is invaluable.

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