On this day, in 1784, Phillis Wheatley, the first prominent black poet in the United States of America, died from unspecified causes at the age of 31, followed shortly after by her infant son.
Born in Gambia, Wheatley was made a slave at age seven. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. Thankfully, this family taught her to read and write, and always encouraged the young girl to write poetry.
The 1773 publication of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was a big success and was the first book to be published by a black American. She was emancipated by her “owners”, following her poetic success, but chose to stay with the Wheatley family until the death of her former master.
She was a strong supporter of American independence, which is quite obviously reflected in both poems and various plays she wrote during the Revolutionary War.
It is a terrible tragedy that she died so young and impoverished. The statue pictured above can be seen along Boston’s famous Commonwealth Avenue. Sadly, her grave, which can be found at Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston, was left unmarked.
But her mark upon the face of African-American literature cannot be denied. The fact that this woman had to appear in a court to defend her literary ability before her first work was even published, just to prove she had written it, is a grim reminder of a very dark piece of American history. But it should also serve as a beacon of hope for those out there right now who are struggling to be recognized, to be heard. Follow your dreams and never falter from them. For more biographical information on Wheatley, check out this website!
Today, think on your own freedom. Are you truly free? Have you taken this for granted? Write about what gives you hope. What inspires freedom within you? What does it mean… to be truly free?
Write on in peace, Ms. Wheatley!
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