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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let us honor Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784


On the last day of Black History Month I want to share the story of Phillis Wheatley who I learned about from my niece yesterday.  Wheatley was kidnapped in Gambia at age 8 and by age 9 had been sold on the slavery block in Boston to a man named John Wheatley.  He named her Phillis after the ship that brought her to the Americas.  Phillis became the servant of his wife and she and his daughter taught Phillis to read and write, such that she was fully literate within a few years.  At fourteen she published her first poem and by the age of twenty had published a volume of poetry--she was the first African-American and second woman in the colonies to author a book.  It was published in England as the Boston publishers refused to have anything to do with her.  Even worse, she had to go to trial in Massachusetts and prove that she really was the author of the poems being read and lauded by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire and others.

By the end of her twenties she was emancipated upon the death of her master, Wheatley, and she married a free black grocer who was eventually sent to debtor's prison.  She died in poverty and ill-health working as a scullery maid at age 31.  Her infant daughter died a few hours later. 

You can download a volume of her poetry at the Gutenburg Project.  Here is a poem inspired by her story:

Phillis Wheatley

Held back by iron
Bars of white
'Twas with a pen
That she did fight

She stuck her fingers
Through the cracks
The words shone bright
Though skin be black

O such tales of gore and grace
Bubbled out from deep within
Where people can't be judged
By the color of their skin

Holding on to the dreams
Of courage and laughter
She was remembered
For eons after

She built elegant wings
By brick
By brick

by Kate W. (age 10)

Statue of  Phillis Wheatley on Commonwealth Ave., Boston