Phillis Wheatley, the mother of black literature

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As a lesbian, I learned early on that there were times in history that weren’t part of the history books. Even though I was a huge fan of Greek mythology and read the brilliant philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, I had never heard of Sappho before doing my own research. The same goes for the proudest moments in gay history, so I understand what is covered in textbooks only reflects the narrow view of the victors. I studied the American Revolution and American slavery, but it was only thanks to TikTok that I discovered the incredible story of Phillis Wheatley.

Yes, I said TikTok. It’s not just about dancing or taking on silly challenges. A brief video appeared on my feed of a woman who made the effort to publicize Wheatley’s name. I’m glad she did, because I followed her lead and Google searched for the woman I learned was considered the mother of black literature.

My son is now seven years old and he is reading, so I try to encourage behavior by taking him regularly to our neighborhood library. On our last trip I bought Victoria Sherrow’s Phillis Wheatley book from the children’s section. I have realized that children’s books are a great way to learn new topics without having to invest a lot of time because they are written in a quick and easy to understand manner.

Phillis was a slave, taken from her home in West Africa when she was seven or eight years old and sold to an important merchant family. She was the only one in her family sold to these Bostonians, so let’s understand that this girl who would have been in first or second year today was robbed and auctioned off, snatched from her mother and father. The family who bought her were the Wheatleys, and they named her after the slave ship she crossed the Atlantic in the bowels of Phillis.

In her new “home” she was thankfully groomed and educated and soon began to write poetry. Ms Wheatley worked to get Phillis’ poems published, with all credit given to Phillis and the admission that she was indeed a slave.

Her poetry became very popular and was admired by people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, whom she both met. She became well known not only in America, but also in England, but she found life more and more difficult once she became a free woman. She died poor and her anonymous grave has never been found. Over time, however, her contribution as the second woman to publish a book of poetry in the United States led the Governor of Massachusetts to declare February 1 “Phillis Wheatley Day” in 1985.

I came out of this new knowledge shocked and frustrated that this woman’s story was not known to the general public, nor an entire chapter of my elementary school history book. Of course, there are a lot of amazing stories of minorities that never see the light of day, and it saddens me that those same minorities don’t feel seen today because of it. It’s true that portrayal matters, but even if you don’t see yourself in the books or on the screen, trust that people like you have accomplished wonderful things, and so have you.

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Kehoe Young

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