Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784) – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Faced with adversity beyond what many of us could even imagine, Phyllis Wheatley showed the triumph of the human spirit, the desire to find goodness and hope in all circumstances. For this reason, I find her story inspiring and well worth writing about (though I cannot pretend to do justice to her account).

Phyllis Wheatley was one of the earliest American women to publish poetry, and the first African-American to publish a book of poetry (in 1773). She was brought to America as a child on a slave ship from Senegal/Gambia in 1761. [1] She then lived with the Wheatley family of Boston. While working for them as a slave, she was taught to read and write in English. [2]

Stolen from her parents around the age of 7 or 8 years old, she alluded later to the overwhelming sadness they must have felt at the horror of her kidnapping, in To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth:

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

The most remarkable thing about the above excerpt is that while Phyllis Wheatley was clearly heartbroken over the wrongs and injustices done to her and to her parents, she took those awful circumstances and tried to bring forth a good outcome, by speaking out against the slave trade and using her poetry to convince others of the horrors of slavery.

Phyllis Wheatley’s most well-known and most controversial poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America, discussed the slave trade further, and encouraged the church-goers of the time to consider Africans as worthy of all the same mercies that were so regularly espoused by the Christian faith:

'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 die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

It is unknown whether Wheatley wholeheartedly bought in to the ethnocentric idea that it was in fact “mercy” that brought her from Africa to America, or if she phrased it this way to capture the attention of the Christians at the time, but in either case, she again used her writing for good – she made a case that few were ready to hear at the time, and she was successful in getting the attention of many who were in a position to be able to make changes to policy.

One other poem, On Imagination, excerpted here, stands out particularly for the way in which Wheatley writes with incredible hope:

We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.

Even though she faced the horrors of the slave trade and deaths of family and friends, and while living a life in which she constantly had to defend her own work and herself against the judgments of others, Phyllis Wheatley penned sentiments which showed her ultimate ability to find goodness. I hope to be able to live with that same hopefulness and ability to find the good.


Written by Sara Kopp (she/her) originally from the state of Washington, USA and now residing in Paris, France. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


Sources:

  1. https://www.biography.com/writer/phillis-wheatley
  2. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley

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