Phillis Wheatley: Contribution as American Author

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      Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) is the first African woman writer of slave literature. 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 United States, Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa and brought to Boston, Massachusetts, when she was about seven where the pious and wealthy tailor John Wheatley purchased her to be a companion for his wife. The Wheatley’s recurrent her remarkable intelligence and with the help of their daughter, Mary, Phillis learned to read and write. She studied English, Latin and Greek and began to write poetry in her teens. Moreover, she traveled to London when she was eighteen and there published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. On returning to USA she married one John Peters a free blackman and died in poverty at a young age.

      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 disturbed 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”:

“It was mercy brought me from my Pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s 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 refind, and join the angelic train./”

      Wheatley’s poetic themes are religious, and her style, like that of Philip Freneau, is neoclassical. Her poetry contains frequent allusions to classical mythology, and mixes topical or contemporary matters with religious and moral concerns. Her subjects include tributes to friends and famous people, discourses on imagination, recollection and friendship and occasional references to some incidents in her life. Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley was published in 1834 and a volume of her important letters in 1864.

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