Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which appeared in London in 1773, is the first book published by an African American. The poet was born in Gambia, Africa, transported to Boston when she was eight aboard the slave ship Phillis, and purchased by a wealthy tailor named John Wheatley. The publication of her poetry in what had been a foreign language to her came a scant twelve years later. The poetry is firmly rooted in the neoclassical literary conventions of her day, evidence of the education that the Wheatleys offered her, a rare privilege for a female and a slave.
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The tradition of African American literature almost did not begin with the young slave woman because American printers did not believe that an African slave could write such poetry and thus refused to publish the book. It was only after she received the attestation—a letter of authenticity claiming that she did, in fact, write the poems—of some of the most prominent men in Boston that a London printer agreed to publish the manuscript that Wheatley and her master took with them overseas.
Wheatley was aware of her unusual position as a published slave poet. Even her most conventional poems point to the African American cultural identity she shared with millions of others, often referring to her fellow “Africans” and claiming her and their position as “we Americans.”
Her poetry alludes to her primary identity as a Christian and at times seemingly disparages her cultural heritage. For example, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England” characterizes Africa as “the land of errors” and “those dark abodes,” unenlightened by Christianity. Similarly, “On Being Brought from Africa to America” chronicles her voyage from her “pagan land,” where “I redemption neither sought nor knew” to America, where she was introduced to God. Her gratitude for being brought to America, although she was enslaved in the process, originates in her strong faith in God.
However, several of her poems reveal a different perspective on the voyage from Africa to America and her identity as a slave. “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.” is perhaps her strongest attack on slavery, the “cruel fate” that “snatch’d” her from her “happy” homeland and her parents. Her characterization of the slave trade clarifies her feelings about her own enslavement, even though it did lead her to God: “Steel’d was the soul and by no misery mov’d/ That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d.” Thus, her Christianity is primary in her identity, but she also offers an early voice of African American protest against slavery.