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African American Literature: Voices of Slavery and Freedom


The Earliest Works

 

The earliest surviving works of African American literature date from the mid-1700's and were written by Africans brought to America as slaves. The oldest example is considered to be "Bars Fight," a poem about an Indian raid on a Massachusetts town. Lucy Terry, a young New England slave, composed the poem, which was handed down orally, in 1746. In the late 1700's, Phillis Wheatley, a Boston slave, became the first important black poet. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was the first book by an African American to be published.

 

wheatley

 

Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) was the first important African American poet. She was brought to Boston on a slave ship when she was about 8 years old. John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant tailor, bought Phillis as a servant for his wife.

 

The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read and write. She also studied geography, history, and Latin. She began to write poetry when she was about 14. In 1773, she visited England, where her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published that year.

Wheatley was deeply religious. Some of her poems expressed her satisfaction at becoming a Christian in American society. She also wrote about more worldly issues, as in "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth" (1773). In this poem, Wheatley contrasted her status as a slave with the demand of the American Colonies for independence. After returning from England, Wheatley was freed and married John Peters, a free black man. Her reputation as a poet soon declined, and she died virtually unknown on Dec. 5, 1784.

 

This article is from The World Book Encyclopedia.

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