Friday, October 28, 2011

Phillis Wheatley

What would your students say if asked to list what they knew about slavery? Typical answers might include:

*Slavery was in the South.

*They were not paid.

*Black people were enslaved.

*People were sold.

*Slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

*There is no slavery today.

*The Middle Passage was horrific.

If you were to then hand them this image of Phillis Wheatley, what might they observe?

*She’s writing a letter.

*She’s well dressed.

*She’s black.

*There is a book and a quill pen on the table.

*She’s not working, she looks to be in repose.

*She has the same name as the person to whom she is a servant

*She lives in Boston/the North.

Born in West Africa and purchased by the Boston Wheatley family, Phillis Wheatley complicates our ideas of slavery and of the American Revolution. Her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and published in 1773, was the first book of poetry published by an African-American. Phillis was eventually freed by her owner. She continued writing and even corresponded with George Washington. Read more about her life at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Her story has been told in picture book format, A Voice of Her Own, and in a YA novel, Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons. The Old South Meeting House has published a teacher's guide as well.

Flow of History is reading Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel Chains which tells the story of young Isabel, another enslaved girl at the time of the American Revolution. In Chains, the author begins each chapter with a quote from a primary source. One of the first quotes is from Phillis Wheatley's poem, "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth"

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch'd from Afric's fancyied happy seat: ...

...That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may neve feel tyrannic sway?

How might Isabel have identified with Phillis? Phillis's portrait gives some clues and offers an accessible primary source for readers of Chains.

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