TSL Women’s History Month: Don’t Forget Phillis Wheatley

According to history, poet and author Phillis Wheatley was born in Gambia or Senegal, abducted at 7 years old and brought to America as a human chattel to toil her life away in the so-called New World.

However, unbeknownst to her enslavers at the time, Wheatley was a prodigy.

Muslim Women’s Day is also celebrated this month (March 27), so this incredible woman and artistic force can be celebrated twice.

According to Emergence of African-American Literacy Traditions Family and Community by Phyllis M. M. Belt-Beyan, Wheatley began writing in Arabic on a chalkboard and walls just two weeks after her arrival at the Wheatley Peters household. She would do this almost daily. At the time, literacy for people of African descent was strictly prohibited. But her new overseers were amused by the brilliance of this young child and decided to educate her.

This is often framed as some sort of altruism by history, but it was likely more out of humor and curiosity that this decision was made as it was often coined that an educated slave was a ruined slave during those bigoted times.

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According to the book, she would become fluent in English and Spanish within a year of her arrival to America, and go onto publish her first works by the time she was 13. Her first book was Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773.

Author Will Harris, in Phillis Wheatley: The Muslim Connection, wrote that he believes she is mimicking the language of a Quranic verse in this hymn that discusses her coming to a foreign land.

“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.”

Wheatley’s works would be read by the most highly regarded men of her time; George Washington and Voltaire among many others. However, her brilliance drew controversy as many didn’t believe a slave girl could write as well as she did. She even had to defend her authorship in court in 1772.

She was emancipated when her slave master, John Wheatley, died. She married shortly thereafter and attempted to start a family. However, two of her children died of illness and her husband was imprisoned for unpaid debt in 1784.

Wheatley would fall into poverty almost immediately and died a short time later. Her only remaining child, an infant son, died soon after his mother’s passing.

The founder of the African-American literary tradition likely was a Muslim and may have only embraced Christianity as a survival tactic. This is a substantial revelation and is yet another example of how Islam has been threaded into the very fibers of Old Glory from the beginning. It’s also a reminder to appreciate and celebrate the wisdom, talent and legendary life of Phillis Wheatley,

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