First Published African-American Woman
During Black History Month
Phillis Wheatley was the first black poet in America to publish a book. She was born around 1753 in West Africa and brought to New England in 1761, where John Wheatley of Boston purchased her as a gift for his wife. Although they brought her into the household as a slave, the Wheatleys took a great interest in Phillis’s education. Many biographers have pointed to her precocity; Wheatley learned to read and write English by the age of nine, and she became familiar with Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics at an early age. She began writing poetry at thirteen, modeling her work on the English poets of the time, particularly John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and garnered Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London. Over the next few years, she would print a number of broadsides elegizing prominent English and colonial leaders.
Wheatley’s doctor suggested that a sea voyage might improve her delicate health, so in 1771 she accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley on a trip to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.” In 1773, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book includes many elegies as well as poems on Christian themes; it also includes poems dealing with race, such as the often-anthologized “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She returned to America in 1773.
After Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley died, Phillis was left to support herself as a seamstress and poet. It is unclear precisely when Wheatley was freed from slavery, although scholars suggest it occurred between 1774 and 1778. In 1776, Wheatley wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington; he replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge, stating that he would be “happy to see a person so favored by the muses.” In 1778, she married John Peters, who kept a grocery store. They had three children together, all of whom died young. Because of the war and the poor economy, Wheatley experienced difficulty publishing her poems. She solicited subscribers for a new volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but was unable to raise the funds. Phillis Wheatley, who had once been internationally celebrated, died alone in a boarding house in 1784. She was thirty-one years old. Many of the poems for her proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.
(From The Academy of American Poets. www.poets.org)
On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
‘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 die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
First Published African-American Poet
During Black History Month
Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American poet, was born into slavery at Henry Lloyd’s estate on Lloyd Neck, Long Island, New York. Hammon was purportedly allowed access to the manor library and was educated with the estate owner’s children, even working with Henry Lloyd in his business ventures. After Lloyd’s death, he lived with his son, Joseph Lloyd.
Hammon’s first work, the broadside An Evening Thought (also referred to as “An Evening Prayer” and “An Evening’s Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries”), was published in 1760. Considered a religious poet, Hammon also served as a preacher to the other enslaved members of the Lloyd estate. He was a prominent member of the African American community, and in 1787 made a speech to the African Society of New York City titled “An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.”
Jupiter Hammon was buried in an unmarked grave on the Lloyd estate.
An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley
By Jupiter Hammon
O come you pious youth! adore
The wisdom of thy God,
In bringing thee from distant shore,
To learn His holy word.
Though mightst been left behind
Amidst a dark abode;
God’s tender mercy still combined,
Thou hast the holy word.
Psal. cxxv. 2, 3.
Fair wisdom’s ways are paths of peace,
And they that walk therein,
Shall reap the joys that never cease,
And Christ shall be their king.
Psal. i. 1, 2; Prov. iii. 7.
God’s tender mercy brought thee here;
Tossed o’er the raging main;
In Christian faith thou hast a share,
Worth all the gold of Spain.
Psal. ciii. 1, 3, 4.
While thousands tossed by the sea,
And others settled down,
God’s tender mercy set thee free,
From dangers that come down.
That thou a pattern still might be,
To youth of Boston town,
The blessed Jesus set thee free,
From every sinful wound.
2 Cor. v. 10.
The blessed Jesus, who came down,
Unveiled his sacred face,
To cleanse the soul of every wound,
And give repenting grace.
Rom. v. 21.
That we poor sinners may obtain,
The pardon of our sin;
Dear blessed Jesus now constrain,
And bring us flocking in.
Psal. xxxiv. 6, 7, 8.
Come you, Phillis, now aspire,
And seek the living God,
So step by step thous mayst go higher,
Till perfect in the word.
Matth. vii. 7, 8.
While thousands moved to distant shore,
And others left behind,
The blessed Jesus still adore,
Implant this in thy mind.
Psal. lxxxix. 1.
Thous hast left the heathen shore;
Through mercy of the Lord,
Among the heathen live no more,
Come magnify thy God.
Psal. xxxiv. 1, 2, 3.
I pray the living God may be,
The shepherd of thy soul;
His tender mercies still are free,
His mysteries to unfold.
Psal. lxxx. 1, 2, 3.
Thou, Phillis, when thou hunger hast,
Or pantest for thy God;
Jesus Christ is thy relief,
Thou hast the holy word.
Psal. xiii. 1, 2, 3.
The bounteous mercies of the Lord,
Are hid beyond the sky,
And holy souls that love His word,
Shall taste them when they die.
Psal. xvi. 10, 11.
These bounteous mercies are from God,
The merits of His son;
The humble soul that loves His word,
He chooses for His own.
Psal. xxxiv. 15.
Come, dear Phillis, be advised,
To drink Samaria’s flood;
There nothing that shall suffice
But Christ’s redeeming blood.
John iv. 13, 14.
While thousands muse with earthly toys;
And range about the street,
Dear Phillis, seek for heaven’s joys,
Where we do hope to meet.
Matth. vi. 33.
When God shall send his summons down,
And number saints together,
Blest angels chant, (triumphant sound),
Come live with me forever.
Psal. cxvi. 15.
The humble soul shall fly to God,
And leave the things of time,
Start forth as ’twere at the first word,
To taste things more divine.
Matth. v. 3, 8.
Behold! the soul shall waft away,
Whene’er we come to die,
And leave its cottage made of clay,
In twinkling of an eye.
Cor. xv. 51, 52, 53.
Now glory be to the Most High,
United praises given,
By all on earth, incessantly,
And all the host of heav’n.
Psal. cl. 6.
(From The Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org )