African-American Poet Phillis Wheatley would have been smiling with pride had she been able to see and hear Amanda Gorman reading a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Not to be; Wheatley died in 1784.
During this month (Black History Month), let us honor Gorman and Wheatley, as well as the centuries of achievements of so many other African-American writers.
Wheatley was the first-ever Black author of a published book of poetry, titled “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
Born in West Africa, she was sold at age seven or eight into slavery and transported on a slave ship to America where she was “owned” by a Boston family. She was named Phillis by her “master” after the name of the slave ship that brought her to Massachusetts. Extremely intelligent, by age 16 she had mastered English, and her slave owners encouraged her talents.
When word spread that a young slave girl was writing sophisticated poems, some Boston colonists were baffled, thinking somebody must be writing them for her. To prove her authorship, she appeared in court in 1772, where she was subjected to the scrutiny of Boston dignitaries that included the famed founding patriot John Hancock. The men were soon convinced she was indeed a brilliant poet and signed a document attesting to that fact.
Her book was published in England. It caused a stir there and in America, where the poems were admired by the likes of George Washington (whom she met, at his request), Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. After the book’s success, Wheatley’s owners set her free. She married an impoverished grocer, John Peters, lost two children to early deaths and died in poverty at age 31, all but forgotten until years later.
These are the concluding lines of Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
“Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
‘Their color is a diabolic dye.’
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.”
Like the precocious Wheatley, Gorman became an accomplished poet early on. She was only 22 when she read “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inauguration.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light
if we’re only brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Black Americans have been writing magnificently throughout history, but their works have mostly been ignored and forgotten – often dismissed as inferior to White classics.
To heal race divisions in this nation, we should educate ourselves and one another about slavery, post-slavery and systemic racism. These are just some of the works by Black Americans I recommend:
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Douglass. 1845. An astonishing, eloquent autobiography by a runaway slave who became a powerful abolitionist.
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. 1963. Two long lacerating, perceptive essays on the struggle for Black rights and identity.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963. A passionate call to resist injustice through civil disobedience if necessary.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. novel, 1937. A vivid, haunting story of a girl in 1930s Florida facing harsh obstacles on her way to adulthood.
“Black Boy” by Richard Wright. 1945. A disturbing but profound memoir about Wright’s journey from the Jim Crow South to live in Chicago.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. novel, 1952. The struggles of a nameless Black narrator coping with often hellish prejudices and cruelties.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison. novel, 1987. Haunting post-Civil War story of a slave woman who kills her 2-year-old girl to save her from the clutches of slavery.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. 2010. A massively researched history of Blacks’ migration to the North and West from 1915 to 1970. Its stories are appalling, heartbreaking, inspiring, unforgettable.