My choice for Writer’s Quote this week is Phillis Wheatley.
An African-American Literature class I took back in the early 1970s introduced me to Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to write a book of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” published on September 1, 1773.
The poem that generated the most discussion in the class was Phillis Wheatley’s, “One Being Brought from Africa to America”:
“TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand. That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too: Some view our sable race with scornful eye, ‘Their color is a diabolic die.” Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refined, and join the angelic train.”
Most of the members in class voiced concern about statements like “mercy brought me from my Pagan land”, “benighted” and “Negroes, black as Cain.”
Casting a negative light on Africa and its people while giving thanks to those who captured and enslaved caused my former classmates to negatively review the poem.
But, I argued that this was a young woman captured and brought to this country as a slave, when she was 7-years-old. She lived in the home of her slave owner with his wife and children until her marriage in 1778. Her privileged life was no comparison to the brutality suffered by most slaves.
Given this, I understood the rejection of an unknown people and country; and the acceptance of her known family and culture.
She was grateful to her rescuers, providers, protectors and educators and expressed it in this poem, “TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land.
Phillis Wheatley died in 1778, at the young age of 31.
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