The evolution of the African diaspora is closely intertwined with the history of the United States. Accordingly, the first generation of American authors and poets featured individuals of African origin, both enslaved and free. Lucy Terry – an African slave whose freedom was purchased by her husband in 1756 – is considered the first African-American to write any piece of literature, that being a ballad poem entitled “Bars Fight.” The poem was passed down orally in Terry’s hometown in Vermont for decades, being published decades after her death in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts in 1855. In the history of published works, Jupiter Hammon was the first Black man in North America to be a published writer, making him the progenitor of African-American literature. Specific historical records that detail Hammon’s life are limited, but it is known that he was the child of an enslaved family of three, purchased to serve the Lloyd family at their manor in New York. The Lloyd family allowed Hammon to study reading and writing through a missionary education program by the Anglican Church. While initially meant to give Hammon the knowledge to help the Lloyd family further their business interests, the literary skills he attained through it allowed him to form a writing style defined by metaphors and symbolism. Taking the form of a broadside paper, Hammon’s very first published poem was “An Evening Thought: Salvation in Christ, with Penitential Cries” in 1761. His second printed work appeared seventeen years later in the form of a poem entitled “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley.” Written during the American Revolution, Hammon wrote the poem to express his admiration for the works of the then-enslaved Phillis Wheatley, who happened to be the first African-American female author to be published in North America. Hammon’s most popular published work appeared in an address he gave at the inaugural meeting of the African Society of New York City in 1786. Titled as “An Address to Negros in the State of New York,” Hammon was at the time of its delivery still enslaved at the age of seventy-six. Drawing inspiration from Christian theology, motifs, and symbolism, Hammon remarked that if he and his fellow Africans should “ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.” Although Hammon mentioned in the speech that he felt no personal desire to be freed from slavery, he shared his wish that the other slaves, particularly “the young negroes,” be liberated. Some historians and scholars have interpreted these remarks as an indication that Hammon believed in ending slavery via gradual emancipation, where slaves would be slowly released from their bonds over time. Years after Hammon’s death in 1806, his “Address” saw frequent use and reprints by the growing abolitionist movement in New York, especially among Quakers who called for immediate emancipation in the antebellum era.
Among the early notable African-American writers in the United States, one of the most widely-known is Phillis Wheatley. Born in around 1753 in West Africa (possibly modern-day Gambia or Senegal), Wheatley was sold into slavery by a local African chief and was delivered to the city of Boston in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1761. The name of the ship that carried her over the ocean was The Phillis, under the command of Peter Gwinn. John Wheatley – a wealthy merchant and tailor – purchased the young African slave to aid his wife Susanna. As per the customs of the time period, John and Susana gave the woman the last name of Wheatley, and the first name of Phillis, after the ship she was delivered by. Now under the jurisdiction of the Wheatley family, Phillis received tutoring in reading and writing by John and Susanna’s older children. In spite of his ownership of numerous African slaves, John Wheatley had a reputation in Boston for having socially-progressive attitudes, more so than his peers at least. To that extent, Phillis received an education in the family that was far more extensive than many other African slaves had in Massachusetts at the time. Phillis was capable of reading entire passages from the Holy Bible as a pre-teen, and could read in Latin and Greek by the age of twelve. She began to write poetry at the age of fourteen, drawing literary influences from Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace, and Virgil. Phillis’ first notable poetic work was a written tribute to the recently-passed George Whitefield, an evangelist and co-founder of the Methodist denomination of Christianity. As Phillis’ poetry grew more popular in Boston, it also became apparent to her and the Wheatley family that the majority of the publishing houses in the city would not want to publish the written works of an African slave, regardless of the observed quality of the works. Traveling to London together in 1773, the twenty-year-old Phillis accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley – the family’s son – to find better opportunities to have her poems published. After networking with several notable figures in London – including the Lord Mayor of the city and almost meeting King George III – Phillis soon met religious leader Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. Hastings’ interest in Phillis’ poetry was piqued, to which she offered to finance the publication process for her written works. In the summer of that year, the first collection of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry was officially published in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The compilation was a critical and financial success, with one reviewer in The London Magazine remarking that when readers consider that the poems were the “productions of a young untutored African, who wrote them after six months casual study of the English language and of writing, we cannot suppress our admiration of talents so vigorous and lively.” François-Marie Arouet – better known by his pen name Voltaire – remarked in a personal letter to a friend that Phillis’ published work was proof that Africans were equally capable of the poetic arts as others. Additionally, John Paul Jones – a Captain of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution – requested that one of his fellow officers send some of his own personal writings to Phillis, who he described as the “African favorite of the Nine and Apollo,” the Nine referring to the Muses of ancient Greek myth. In November 1773, Phillis was released from slavery by the Wheatley family, and was now a free African-American woman in Boston. In the remaining years of the 1770s, Phillis used her newfound freedom to send letters and correspondences to different philanthropists and figures, expressing her personal sentiments on granting African slaves the natural-born rights and freedoms afforded to others. During the American Revolutionary War, Phillis most-notably sent a copy of her poem “To His Excellency, George Washington” to the eponymous Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The poem is notable for being the very first documented written work to use the mythical personification of Columbia to describe the United States. While the word Columbia had been in use since the late 1600s, its use to describe items, places, and people as distinctly “American” increased in the years before the American Revolution, including Phillis’ foundational use of it to create a female, mythical personification of the emerging republic in her poem:
One century scarce perform’d it’s destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
The poem and its patriotic sentiments resonated with pro-revolutionary readers, and George Washington’s appreciation of Phillis’ talent prompted him to personally invite her to visit his headquarters in March 1776. Washington later wrote to Phillis with further praise for her works, remarking that her “style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” The poem received wider circulation in Thomas Paine’s Pennsylvania Gazette in April that same year. Phillis eventually married a free African Bostonian named John Peters, having two children with him. Due to Peters’ repetitious poor financial decisions, he was arrested and imprisoned for his unpaid debts in 1784, leaving Phillis to look after the young, ill children. One of their two infant children died that same year, followed shortly by Phillis herself at the age of thirty-one on December 5, 1784. The second child died soon thereafter on an unknown date. Her written works have long since maintained her life and legacy, as it received extensive praise and reprints throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the city of Boston today, Phillis Wheatley is held in honor with Abigail Adams – the wife and First Lady to President John Adams – and abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone – at the Boston Women’s Memorial. In London in 2019, the Nubian Jak Community Trust – a program designed to highlight the historical achievements of minority peoples in the United Kingdom – set up a commemorative “blue plaque” at the exact building where Phillis’ first book of poetry was published.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum