Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American poet. Born in Senegal and trafficked as an enslaved person at age 7, the poet was named after the ship that brought her to America, The Phillis.
The Quaker family that bought the girl to work in their home, the Wheatleys of Boston, saw that she was smart and a quick learner. They educated her, and young Phillis learned English, Latin, and Greek, and began reading poets John Milton and Homer.
By the time she was 18, she had published several of her own poems, and collected her first book, which included this poem, written in her trademark style, rhyming heroic couplets of iambic pentameter. After the book’s publication, the Wheatley family freed Phillis.
Wheatley became one of the most famous poets of the colonial era, and spoke carefully to her White audience. She did not condemn slavery openly, but instead notes her gratitude for finding Christianity. But the last lines of her poem use Biblical language to note that Black people too can “join the angelic train.”
Being Christian did not equate to believing in freedom for all people, since most of the Founding Fathers of this country were Christian and also enslaved the people who worked their land.
The Ellicott brothers, Andrew, John, and Joseph, were also Quakers, a religion also known as the Religious Society of Friends. While the city they founded was below the Mason-Dixon line,and was populated by many farmers who owned Black people, the Ellicotts never owned slaves and were active in the anti-slavery movement, including Martha Ellicott Tyson, granddaughter of Andrew Ellicott, and the first biographer of family friend and self- taught mathematician and author Benjamin Banneker.
Banneker, in his almanacs that spoke out for the rights of Black people, published Wheatley’s poetry. Later in her life, in a letter to a reverend, Wheatley wrote, “in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom–it is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance.”
On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”Remember,
Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
“On Being Brought from Africa to America” was published in Wheatley’s collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773. This poem is in the public domain.