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.
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...
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