BreakPoint: The Genius of Phillis Wheatley

Revolutionary Poet . . . Slave

Today on the Fourth of July, I want to tell you about an amazing revolutionary poet . . . who was a slave.

On Independence Day, we gobble hot dogs, watch parades, wave flags and, if we’re on the thoughtful side, think of the bravery of the founders who fought to gain freedom for themselves and for us.

But as a brilliant Revolutionary War-era poet reminds us, the freedom they fought for did not apply to everyone.

The poet’s name was Phillis Wheatley, and she was born in Senegal, Africa, in about 1753. As a small child, she was captured and brought to America on a slave ship, where she was purchased by a Boston businessman named John Wheatley. Wheatley and his family recognized the child’s intellectual gifts and—in an amazing move for the times—decided to educate her, not only in reading and writing, but also in Greek, Latin, theology, literature, history, and poetry.

Wheatley published her first poem when she was just 13 years old. In 1773, while still in her teens, Wheatley published a collection of poems. The book made her a literary celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. She was the first woman of African descent ever to publish a book of poetry—and the first slave to do so.

One of Wheatley’s poems, titled “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA,” expressed her gratefulness that her capture and enslavement had happened—not because they were in themselves good things—they were evil things—but because her journey to America led to her conversion to Christianity. In other words, God brought something good out of terrible events.

In his book, titled “Phillis Wheatley, Biography of a Genius in Bondage,” Vincent Carretta notes that Phillis “was a beneficiary of the Great Awakening, with its Protestant emphases on the need for literacy because of the primacy of the Bible . . . and on the Christian duty to evangelize to white as well as black audiences.” The Bible, he writes, “had the greatest influence on her developing craft.”

Phillis was a strong supporter of American independence. But during the build-up to the war, Phillis used her pen to hint at the hypocrisy of those who demanded freedom for themselves while continuing to enslave others. Carretta cites the poem “America,” which “emphasize[s] the subtext of chattel slavery.” It reminded colonists that, while white Americans desired freedom from “metaphorical slavery,” blacks were “suffering under actual enslavement.”

Wheatley makes a similar point in a poem titled “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth.” She writes:

“Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

. . . I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat.

. . . And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?”

Carretta says that readers of her poems “would have seen Wheatley as a powerful voice in the chorus of calls for rebellious Americans to be consistent in their demands for personal and political freedom.”

Moreover, the fact that Wheatley was composing poetry of such high quality put the lie to the claim, by many slave owners, that blacks did not have as great an aptitude for intellectual achievement as did whites. Her poetry led to correspondence with John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and George Washington. Abolitionists quoted Wheatley’s poems, noting their excellence.

Wheatley achieved her heart’s desire when, at the age of twenty, her owners set her free.

On Independence Day, why not share this story of Phillis Wheatley with your family, and read aloud one of her inspiring poems. And take a moment to remember for those who still live in bondage around the globe—and pray, with Phillis Wheatley, for the day that “Others may never feel tyrannic sway.”

 

The Genius of Phillis Wheatley: Revolutionary Poet . . . Slave

Take our Independence Day celebration as an opportunity to learn more about Phillis Wheatley. Read Vincent Carretta’s book about this inspiring Christian woman who used her poetry to proclaim that true independence should be available for everyone. And click here to listen to today’s BreakPoint podcast. It’s a compilation of Chuck Colson’s best commentaries on Christians and patriotism.

Resources

Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage
  • Vincent Carretta | University of Georgia Press | 2014
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley: With Letters and a Memoir
  • Phillis Wheatley | Dover Publications
Poems on various subjects, religious and moral
  • Phillis Wheatley | kindle edition

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