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Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley Peters

Enslaved at seven years old

When Phillis Wheatley Peters 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.

She writes poetry

Wheatley Peters 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.

Another poem by Phillis Wheatley Peters

In this poem, Wheatley Peters 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.

Freedom and racism

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

Learn by doing: Recite a poem!

Bibliography and further reading about American literature:


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