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Sunday, February 08, 2015

If God Be For Us: A Black History Moment

English: Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Po...
English: Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects... Русский: Филлис Уитли, портрет из сборника её стихов. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today, in honor of Black History month, I'd like to honor Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American woman and the second African American to publish a book of poems. Phyllis was born in Senegal in 1753, kidnapped at the age of 8 and brought to Boston on a slave ship named Phillis, after which she was named. Phyllis' fate could have been similar to that of other slave girls - work, suffer cruelty, and die a slave. Or, if you were brave and lucky enough, you could run away, eventually gain freedom and marry a former slave.

However, Phyllis's life demonstrates that if God be for us, who can be against us (Romans 8: 31). Phyllis was not a healthy girl, but she had a brain. When her mistress, Susana Wheatley discovered this, she did not allow Phyllis to be trained as a servant. Instead, Phyllis received lessons in theology, English, Latin and Greek. She was also taught ancient history, mythology and literature. Education of a slave was definitely not the norm at the time. Slaves who happened to learn to read and write did so under risk of being severely punished. To have her slave owner provide the means for Phyllis's education was nothing short of God's providence. 

Phyllis was treated as a member of the family, and at the age of 12, published her first poem. Other poems followed, and in 1772, she completed her first and  only book of poems: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  However, Phyllis was not accepted as a poet by the colonists in Boston and had to appear in court to prove that she had indeed written the poems. After careful examination, the panel conceded that she was indeed the author and wrote an attestation which was included in the preface of the book. Susana Wheatley encouraged Phyllis to journey to London where she published her book and received widespread acclaim. 

Here's an excerpt from one of her poems:

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


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