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Ready to be impressed? Are you sure? Okay, brace yourself: Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American woman in America to publish a book of poems. If that's not enough, she also survived being kidnapped from Africa and shipped to America as a slave, where she was taken in by the Wheatley family and eventually learned to read Latin and Greek. All this was in the late 1700s. So, although everything was against her in society back then—wrong race, wrong gender, wrong country—she succeeded as a poet despite all odds.
Although her poems typically address Christianity and avoid issues of race, "On Being Brought from Africa to America" is a short, but powerful, poem about slavery. In fact, people could hardly believe that a slave could actually read and write, let alone write poems. But write she did, often in the neoclassical style of heroic couplets, publishing her first book of poems in 1773.
Phillis Wheatley's life is an interesting, but tragic, story of both success and failure. She arrived in America at age 7, and by 14 she was reading and writing poetry. She also studied Greek and Latin under the care of the Wheatley family, whose name she adopted. In fact, Phillis isn't even her real first name, but it is the name of the slave ship (The Phillis) that brought her over from Africa. Her "master" named her after the ship, and she used that name until she died at age 31.
After publishing her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral, Wheatley achieved some success in both England and America, where her owner eventually freed her from enslavement. She married and had three children, two of whom died due to health complications. She had plans for a second book, but unfortunately it was never published, and the manuscript was lost after she died in the winter of 1778.
"On Being Brought" is Wheatley's most anthologized poem, so it must be good, right? Not only is Wheatley famous for being the first black American to publish a book of poems, but she's also one of those formal gurus that used those old-school poetry tricks, like rhyme and iambic pentameter (glossary to the rescue!). "On Being Brought" mixes themes of slavery, Christianity, and salvation, and although it's unusual for Wheatley to write about being a slave taken from Africa to America, this poem strategically addresses ideas of liberty, religion, and racial equality.
Phillis Wheatley is all about change. She changed her country, her name, her religion, and her whole life. That's a lot of change that most of us won't ever go through, but we've all had our beliefs changed through personal experience. And she urges readers to give change a shot.
If you've ever made an assumption about another person, a religion different than your own, a group of people, or another culture, your real life experiences may later change that assumption. What's powerful and relevant about Wheatley's poem is that she found a whole new life in her conversion to Christianity, and you don't have to be a convert to hear her message.
In the poem, Wheatley uses Christianity to shed light on racial inequality that she experiences firsthand, aiming to break down notions about race. We've all had moments when our assumptions were upset and we learned something new about others. When we're confronted with ideas challenging our preconceptions, we can learn something new about ourselves, too, which expands our understanding of the world.
On Being Brought to Life in Bronze
Here's a cool link to a website for Meredith Bergmann, an artist who made a bronze sculpture of Wheatley for Boston's Women Memorial.
Getting Personal with Phillis
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about Wheatley, plus a smattering of her poems.
Here are some free recordings of the poems in Wheatley's first book.
Here's small painting of Phillis Wheatley looking all dolled up.
Phillis Wheatley Undercover
Here's a pic of the title page of Wheatley's groundbreaking book of poems. And no, it wasn't taken with Instagram—this book really is that vintage.
All the Goods
Check out this short article covering Phillis Wheatley's life and career.
A short essay about Wheatley's use of heroic couplets.
This product contains 100% Wheatley
Here's a link to Phillis Wheatley's complete writings.