Phillis Wheatley - American Literature
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Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley

When Phillis Wheatley was seven years old, somebody sold her to European slave-traders, and she left Senegal or Gambia on a slave ship to North America. She got to America in 1761, just before the Revolutionary War. Her owners in Boston converted her to Christianity and gave her a good education. As she got older, they encouraged her to write poetry.

Wheatley wrote a book of poetry that a lot of people liked. She visited London and met the Mayor of London, and at home she visited George Washington. This is one of her poems, where she says she's glad she came to America so she could be a Christian and go to Heaven when she dies:

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 [black] race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

In this poem, Wheatley tells the parents of a five-year-old girl who has died not to grieve, because the girl is in Heaven:

...Perfect in bliss she from her heav'nly home
Looks down, and smiling beckons you to come;
Why then, fond parents, why these fruitless groans?
Restrain your tears, and cease your plaintive moans.
Freed from a world of sin, and snares, and pain,
Why would you wish your daughter back again?
No--bow resign'd. Let hope your grief control,
And check the rising tumult of the soul.
Calm in the prosperous, and adverse day,
Adore the God who gives and takes away;
Eye him in all, his holy name revere,
Upright your actions, and your hearts sincere,
Till having sail'd through life's tempestuous sea,
And from its rocks, and boist'rous billows free,
Yourselves, safe landed on the blissful shore,
Shall join your happy babe to part no more.

When her owner died, in 1778, Wheatley got her freedom. She was 25 years old. She married, but because of racism in Boston the young couple had trouble finding work that paid enough to live on. Wheatley's husband went to prison for not paying his debts, and Wheatley had to work cleaning houses. She and her baby son got sick and died soon afterwards, when Wheatley was 31 years old.

Learn by doing: Recite a poem!

Bibliography and further reading about American literature:

Native American Literature
American History
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Celebrating Black History Month with the pharaoh Hatshepsut, the queen Shanakdakhete, the poet Phillis Wheatley, the medical consultant Onesimus, the freedom fighters Toussaint L'Ouverture, Denmark Vesey, Yaa Asantewaa, and Samora Moises Machel, and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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