Phillis Wheatley’s legacy of freedom

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Today is the 240th anniversary of the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. When I was a student at the University of Colorado in the early 1970’s an American Studies major would have learned a lot about an early American poet named Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), as she was figured prominently in the American Studies program.

Wheatley was a Black female former slave writing poetry at the time of America’s founding.  CU Boulder does still have an American Studies program and it might even include a study of Wheatley’s poetry, but I couldn’t confirm that one way or another.   I rather doubt it because Phillis Wheatley was firmly in support of the ideas and principles that guided America’s founding fathers.  In today’s academic milieu in which American Studies is more about a political agenda than an academic pursuit, where course names such as “ethnic studies” and “diversity studies” could more honestly be billed as “America Sucks 201”, et. seq., I don’t think a former Black slave who loved the American ideal of freedom would advance the aims of the program.  If a study of Phillis Wheatley is presented in any American university today I imagine all reference to her reverence for George Washington and her celebration of American idealism is left out.

Oh well, nobody needs a university to learn about Phillis Wheatley.  A good source would be a used book store where old text books in American History and Literature from the 1960’s and 70’s can be found.  Another source is Bill Bennett’s American Patriots’ Almanac, which has this entry on Phillis Wheatley:

September 1, 1773, saw the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first volume of poetry by an African American poet.

Born in Senegal, West Africa, Phillis Wheatley was sold into slavery around age seven, taken to Boston, and purchased off a slave ship by John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant. The Wheatley family taught her to read and write, and by age fourteen she began composing poetry. Most Bostonians found it hard to believe that a young slave girl could produce such lyrics, but a group of the city’s most notable citizens, including John Hancock, gave her an oral examination and signed a letter “To the Publick” attesting to her authorship.

No Boston publisher would print her work, so admirers arranged for publication in London. Freed by the Wheatleys, Phillis sailed for a visit to England, where the Lord Mayor of London welcomed her. Her reputation spread both in Europe and at home.

In 1776, her poem “To His Excellency George Washington,” honoring Washington’s appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army, earned her more praise and the thanks of Washington himself. Throughout her verses, Wheatley celebrated the ideals for which the young republic stood.

Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales, Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling sails: To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display, And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.

Wheatley was mindful that millions of African-Americans remained enslaved. “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom,” she wrote. “It is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance.” Decades later, abolitionists revived her poems as a reminder of that universal love of liberty. Phillis Wheatley thus left a legacy that struck a blow for freedom.

Phillis Wheatley’s later life, short as it was, was penurious.  She died at age 31 of a chronic asthma condition.

This couplet in iambic pentameter by Phillis Wheatley expresses her prophetic optimism that Black Americans would eventually emerge triumphant over slavery and rise to equal status with all Americans:

On Being Brought From Africa To America

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 dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Thomas Sowell has been asked what he thinks is the true legacy of slavery in America. He often shocks his questioner with this reply: “I would say that the true legacy of American slavery is that Black people in America today are better off than they would be if their ancestors had been left in Africa.” It seems Phillis Wheatley agreed.