Phillis Wheatley: The African American Literary Leader

1018 words - 5 pages


Phillis Wheatley marks the beginning of the African-American literary tradition. Although she is the first African-American to become a published author, it is Wheatley’s work that proves her originality as it reflects a specific time in American history, her status as a slave, and a young woman of Christian faith (Harris). Each of these inherently contribute to her fresh African-American perspective. Wheatley is ingenious in the way she subtly ties in the roots of slavery and racism in a way that whites did not feel guarded. Not only does her work allow those with a conscious to at least somewhat consider the African-American point of view, but it invites criticism by those who care not to see African-Americans as intelligent equal beings that deserve respect. Some of the African-American community also criticizes that Wheatley did not speak enough about the injustices of slavery and prejudices of her time (Scheick). These critics are simply unable to see the Wheatley’s intent as her writing breeds originality and attention to a young and well-educated African-American woman whose words could stifle her freedoms if put any other way. In evaluating Wheatley’s On Being Brought from Africa to America, An Hymn to the Evening, and To the University of Cambridge, in New-England it is clear to see that she could only be imitative in style perhaps, but nuances of her heritage is what places her “writing at the heart of any definition of an African-American canon” (Harris).
On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley’s short poem reads powerfully. How could one possibly breeze past such a sharply positioned argument which directly places her race front and center?

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die,”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

The clear prejudices towards African-Americans in this piece is what makes Wheatley indigenous to the literature of African-Americans. The irony in which she calls on Christians to see that in God’s eyes her “sable race” is as worthy of His salvation in heaven as theirs is a bold and unseen approach by other writers in the eighteenth century. However, it is her introduction that is so humble that her work could be received (Flauzbaum). Wheatley refers to her “Pagan land” and how being brought to America taught her of God, and redemption. A reference which any white could easily agree. Wheatley sets a trend for other African-American authors to write in a way that their words will not fall on deaf ears.
An Hymn to the Evening continues to show Wheatley’s significance as a leader in African-American literary tradition. Here she does not bring any attention to her race, but instead unifies all living creatures as “living temples” for God. Was equality not longed for in the heart of all African-Americans? She describes beautifully the natural events of the day and night that every being experiences. In...

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