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Phillis Wheatley: The First Great American Writer
Phillis Wheatley was
“…the first in the line of great black American writers”
is how Ibram X. Kendi puts it.
Wheatley was kidnapped at age seven from Senegal/Gambia West Africa in 1761, shipped to Charleston, and sold. In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi adds, “Whatever name her Wolof relatives had given her, it was now lost to gray chains, bloody blue waters, and scribbled history.” Her enslavement name was taken from the ship, the Phillis, that had delivered her to the Charleston slave market. Her new owners were Susanna and John Wheatley. They were grieving the death of their own daughter, and it seems they began to assume a somewhat parental role with Phillis. One can only imagine the emotional state of confusion that must’ve arisen for Phillis when her owners found themselves becoming attached to a child whom they had purchased as chattel. Probably the best the owners could imagine in their narrow world of segregation was assimilation, accepting the child as inferior even though she wasn’t. This seems a lesson in madness and probably is. To survive that and become a brilliant writer is a remarkable accomplishment.
Assimilation sometimes requires a detective instinct to uncover, and Kendi certainly possesses that instinct. In Phillis Wheatley’s case, a poem of hers appears religious but reveals insidious effects.
“Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their coulour is a diabolical die,’
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain,
May be refine’d and join th’ angelic train.”
Phillis, named for a slave ship, stolen from her parents, purchased as a naked child wrapped in carpet, had now been educated to believe that she was not good enough for reasons of color, but “May be refined” with the right kind of training. Or, as Kendi notes, she felt she must instead be assimilated into the society in which she was now immersed, a society that had no intent of ever accepting her, and in fact had laws against it.
In America this travesty remains today. Equal somehow is not yet equitable. Wheatley could not yet openly be published, but her fame could not be forever denied, and her work was already, according to Kendi, “…entering the abolitionist literature of the Revolutionary era.”
This child, with literary contributions, helped shape a new nation.
About John Strazzabosco
John Strazzabosco is the author of the book, Ninety Feet Under—What poverty does to people. He and his wife, Jeanne, live in downtown Rochester.
About 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History
29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History is an annual blog campaign curated by 540WMain that has a mission to promote and share little known facts about Black Americans throughout history every day throughout the month of February. Now in it 3rd year the campaign highlights the life and work of past and present day Black American that are overlooked or underrepresented in our conversations about American history.
540WMain will celebrate its 4 year anniversary with a party and extravaganza on Saturday June 20, 2020. In just four years the organization has become a pillar in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood and a convener and curator of important and vital community conversations, classes, and programs. Your financial support helps us scale up this work in 2020 and beyond with a year long fundraising goal of $40,000