African American · Holy · writing

Do You Know Phyllis Wheatley? Celebrating Black Poetry

Phyllis WheatleyIt is never too late to congratulate the African and African American writers who have contributed greatly to our thought and literature. African American history is definitely American history…

One in particular is Phyllis Wheatley. I remember being taught about her while I was in elementary school and that was long ago. But here are some brief points about Phyllis Whealey.

  • Phyllis was the first African American poet to be published.
  • Born 1753 in Gambia
  • Has been a slave since she was 7 but,
  • Was emancipated from her owners once she reached publication success
  • Even George Washington praised her work
  • Sadly, she and her husband- a free black man tried to have children- both children died.
  • When she was pregnant with her third, her husband leaves her.
  • She dies during childbirth at the age of 31.

Want to learn more about Phyllis Wheatley and read one of her poems? Head to The Biography of Phyllis Wheatley.

Phyllis Wheatley wrote poems about religion and morality

Let’s try and gauge what Phyllis was trying to say in this poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America”

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 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.´

I am not much of a scholar , but when Wheatley writes “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” all I can think is that Africans had a very different belief system than what were taught to them in America. Christianity according to the bible was not their native belief(according to my limited knowledge) in fact, paganism, Shamanism may have been what Wheatley was referring to. Not saying Africa was bad or had evil folks, but after finding the Lord, she see her former land as Pagan- which can be any land really.

It was a knowledge of holy redemption which she never knew. I keep saying she, but I am referring to Speaker of the poem.

Then the Speaker says, ” Remember Christians, Negroes, black as Cain” I am perplexed…what does the Speaker mean by Cain? Was Cain black? If you look for the Curse of Cain, you may some info there but beware there are some websites that promote hate instead of theoretical information. Some say his blackness was his mark but as usual, I am skeptical of all that.

Finally Wheatley poses a solution to getting rid of our paganism. Get “refined” so we may join in the “angelic train” or that ride up to heaven to be with the Lord.

I really enjoyed her rhyme scheme and rhythm for this poem, but the words make you pause and think for a moment. These are thoughts of a slave brought to America. Her own life seems dim-losing children and then husband leaves her but her poetry of hope and religion does still live on.

What other poems by Phyllis Wheatley or any other black poet have you read? Do share! 🙂

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