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Phillis Wheatley: From Slavery to International Recognition

Phillis Wheatley arrived to Boston as a child and sold to John Wheatley to assist his wife. Although misfortune brought Phillis Wheatley from West Africa to Boston, she was still fortunate enough to have masters who took the time to educate her. Phillis received an education perhaps even better than most free woman in Boston. Because of her unique situation with the Wheatley family, Phillis Wheatley’s life and work cannot be viewed entirely as slave poetry. Her fortunate circumstances were the cause of some ridicule in terms of her poetry and the topics about which she wrote. She received mixed reviews from both the European Americans and African-Americans.

Phillis Wheatley was an anomaly. Not many slaves in 18th century America were educated enough to read, let alone compose poetry. However, when reading Phillis Wheatley’s poetry it is easy for readers not to ponder over the fact that she was just a slave when she wrote her poems. The topics she chose to write about all allude to a well-educated, well read woman, in fact, Wheatley, was all of that and a slave to the Wheatley family. Her poetic style has often received mixed reviews because her topics do not dwell on slavery and often resemble the classical style of poetry. Critics tend to judge Wheatley’s poetry based on her situation as a slave. They either praise or condemn her poems based on her roots. According to Thomas Jefferson, “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry . . . Religion, indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet” (Applegate, 125).

When reading her poetry, I find that it is difficult to determine her race, the topics she chose were far removed from the situation of most fellow African slaves of her time. However, in poems such as “On Being Brought From Africa to America” she believes that she was saved on that journey from Africa. “’T Was mercy brought me from my pagan land” (L1) Wheatley remembers Africa, but finds it unsaved by God. Her devotion to God allows her to be grateful for her life, even as a slave. She viewed her self blessed to have been chosen as a slave and removed from her pagan lands. Additionally, you can sense her devotion to God in her poem “On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age” she consoles the parents of that child and reassures them that she has gone to the lord. “This know, ye parents, nor her loss deplore, She feels the iron hand of pain no more” (5-6) she sees beyond the physical body, this is one of the reasons why her poetry seem not to discuss the issues of slavery. Wheatley was around the same age as the girl in the poem when she was snatched away from her parents. However, her devotion to God, allows her to accept her situation and not lament it.

Phillis Wheatley may not have focused entirely on Africans and slavery when writing her poetry, however, by writing poetry comparable to her European American contemporaries she proves that the African intellect is equal to and no less than the European American intellect. The poetry she writes does not desert her roots but reiterate her abilities as an intellectual. Critics, such as Devona Mallory, explain that Phillis Wheatley’s uses classicism in her poetry as a method to present her motherland and her roots to the whites using themes that her white readers can relate and understand. Mallory argues that Wheatley uses poetry as a means to express her thoughts freely cloaked with imagery and illusions from Greek and Latin studies (Shields). To judge her solely as an imitator of other great poets is unfair. To judge her as a traitor to the African slaves is equally unfair. Suffice it to say that, Phillis Wheatley managed to get the attention of slave owners, critics and politicians through her poetry.

Work Cited

Applegate, Anne. “Phillis Wheatley: Her Critics and Her Contribution.” Negro American Literature Forum 9.4 (1975): 123-6. Print.

Shields, John C.,, Lamore,Eric D.,. New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011. Print.

Wheatley, Phillis,, Odell,Margaretta Matilda.,. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley : With Letters and a Memoir. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2010. Print.

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