Phillis Wheatley: the first African American poet to be published

As Black History Month comes to an end, I feel it is important to recognise the power of Phillis Wheatley, often identified as the first African American author to publish a volume of poetry. Her collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published on 1 September 1773, and broke through the boundaries of racial division, patriarchal expectation and enslavement. It brought Wheatley international fame and became a catalyst for the abolitionist movement, her complex and rebellious poems pioneering the literary protest against slavery.

Wheatley was seized from her family in Gambia, West Africa, when she was around seven years old, and transported to Boston on a slave ship called The Phillis. On arrival, she was bought by the prominent Boston tailor John Wheatley as a slave for his wife Susanna. After discovering Wheatley’s intelligence, they taught her to read and write, and she was soon engaged in reading the Bible, British literature, particularly the romantics, John Milton and Alexander Pope, as well as the Greek and Latin classics. Despite this education, unprecedented for a slave and unusual for a woman in the eighteenth century, Wheatley yearned for a greater academic challenge, and so she started writing her own poetry. By the time she was 18, Wheatley had assembled a collection of 28 poems. One of her first published poems, an elegy for George Whitefield, had garnered the support of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, a wealthy abolitionist to whom Whitefield had been a chaplain. She instructed the bookseller Archibald Bell to begin correspondence with Wheatley in order to publish her collection, which became Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Her poetry seemingly conforms to Western conventions and Christian imperialism, which led to the misunderstanding that her work does not criticise slavery, and even supports racist ideologies. Only recently has critical debate remedied this myth; the reality is that Wheatley encoded subversive messages in her poetry that clearly condemn slavery and racism, and she was forced to protest covertly so that her work would be published. Often she manipulates white, Christian ideals to convey her distinct and urgent case for emancipation. For example, in ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, Wheatley’s best-known poem, the simile ‘black as Cain’ suggests that blackness equates to a state of sin. Implicitly, however, Wheatley reverses this through the subtle, possessive ‘our’ and judgmental ‘some’, conveying an ownership of African American identity; instead, it is the slaveholders who bear a ‘diabolic die’, or the mark of Cain. Wheatley’s Biblical symbolism proposes a new vision of America, in which Black people are not subjected to slavery, and are included in the Christian stream, to ‘join th’angelic train’.

Wheatley’s ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ responds to racial prejudice by directly addressing young white men at an educational institution. The speaker instructs them to use their privilege to fight against slavery, and ‘suppress the deadly serpent in its egg’, a directive that extends to all her readers. The speaker’s persona as both an ‘Ethiop’ and a superior being inverts racist notions of Africans as inferior and inhuman, and elevates a powerful Black voice. Equally, throughout Poems on Various Subjects, Wheatley uses classical devices and forms, such as the epic hymn, not only to undermine racial injustice, but also to champion a female perspective. In ‘An Hymn to Humanity’, Wheatley employs the voice of Dido, the queen of Carthage from Virgil’s Aeneid, who tragically dies after being struck by Cupid’s love curse. By assuming the position of Dido, Wheatley therefore points to her own situation as a female slave by invoking a figure of feminine strength and capability, as well as one who has been betrayed and confined by something she cannot control. As the poem progresses, Dido increasingly challenges Aeneas, who begins to symbolise those who subjugate others; Wheatley charges slaveholders with the same crime, and questions the formation of a national identity based on repression.

Wheatley’s plea for freedom is prevalent throughout her poetry, if subtly disguised. Though limited by the restrictions of the eighteenth century, Wheatley’s influence is immense; her interesting, subversive poems reflect the ongoing fight for liberation and racial equality.

Featured image: Sharon Mollerus on flickr


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