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Phillis Wheatley

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Born in west Africa in 1753, Phillis was brought to America as a slave and sold to the family of John and Susannah Wheatley in Boston. Her initial role in this family was to be a servant and attendant to Wheatley's wife who were kind enough to teach her how to read and write. In the course of teaching the young slave how to read and write, a duty that was performed by Wheatley's daughter, Mary, it emerged that Phillis was more talented than they expected and at the age of just twelve years old, she was able to read and write English, Greek and Latin and could comfortably read fairly difficult verses from the bible. This diversity in languaages was emminent her poems “IsaiahLXIII”, “Ode To Neptune” and “A rebus”. At thirteen years old, she wrote her first poem and this made her the first African American to have her poems published alongside being the third woman to do so. This show of talent led to her acceptance into the Wheatley’s family who embraced her beyond the average slave (Doak, 2006).

The poems she wrote were about her experiences as a slave and a person of a different race. She questioned the Christian faith, a faith that she had been introduced to and wondered why there was racial discrimination in this noble religion. This set precedence in the African American society who later, during the 1960s civil rights movement distanced themselves from Christianity and moved to Islam. The reason for this change of heart by activists like Malcom X, were the same reasons as those that Phillis could not comprehend hundreds of years earlier (Shields & John 2008). Her works puts into perspective why white members of the Christian faith could not live by the teachings of the Bible and treat their black counterparts as equalls and with humanity.

Being a partialy accepted member of the Wheatley family, she was granted privileges that many slaves did not enjoy and in as much as she was still a slave, her situation was fairly different from others. This is one reason for her great achievements because the privileges enabled her to acquire education that was exclusive to white people. Thanks to her education, she could write what she felt and observed, the end result was her timeless poems. She was caught between not being part of this white family and not sharing into the experiences of other slaves and this created a big identity crisis for her, something that influenced a good part of her poetic work.

The effect of the American Revolution on her career was adverse because at the time, many people in Boston paid attention to other topics related to the revolution instead of her poems. Her visit to London in 1773 which caught the attention of Lord Mayor of London who gave her audience did not only cement her career as a poet, but also served in giving her a voice that enabled to write with certain level of authority and repect, as a result, she wrote poems, “A Farewel To America to Mrs. S. W.” and “To the University of Cambridge”. This changed the entire society’s view on her work. Prior to her London vist, George Washinghton had invited her to his residence for a poem she published in his honour titled, "His Exellency George Washington" in 1775. Phillis clearly puts into perspective the act of believing in oneself and looking at her career then, we can draw conclusions that Phillis brought down walls that were beyond human imagination at the time with the power of poetry something sparked the journey to the emancipation of the African American slaves (Gates, Henry & Louis 2003).

When her owner died in 1778 and she was as a result freed, she went on to marry John Peters who later was imprisoned in 1784 over debt, something that left her impoverished and miserable, she also lost two children during this difficult time and to that effect, the poem “Afuneral Poem on The Death Of C.E. An Infant Of Twelve Months” was written. This period of difficulty impacted her work in a big way and gave a totally new point of view as seen in poems written during this period.  At the time of Wheatley's poetic work, gave more attention to the human struggle and not racial divide that had for years been her favourite topic.

Wheatley overcame identity and racial difficulties to become on of the greatest poets of all time, achieveing things that could not be accomplished even by the children of her privileged white owners. She took the opportunity granted by the Wheatley family and made the best out of it. This is a clear lesson that the human race can convert challenges to strengths and make the best out of them, this is one lesson Phillis left in our hearts (Wheatley, Phillis, and Julian D. Mason 1989).

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