J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Phillis Wheatley Day at Old South, 18 Aug.

The Old South Meeting House traditionally observes 18 August as Phillis Wheatley Day, commemorating the anniversary of when the young African-born poet joined the congregation in 1771.

This year that date falls on this coming Saturday. At 12:00 noon and 1:00 P.M. a Freedom Trail Foundation Player will portray Wheatley, sharing with visitors her experiences as an enslaved writer in colonial Boston. This program will be free as part of paid admission to the historic site.

Here’s some of Wheatley’s writing on her faith as it pertained to her African heritage and enslavement. The first is the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” composed in 1768 when she was still in her teens and published in her 1773 volume:
’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 11 Feb 1774, after becoming free, Wheatley wrote to the Rev. Samson Occom, a Mohegan minister, with more thoughts on the state of slavery:
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one without the other:

Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian Slavery; I don't say they would have been contented without it, by no Means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honor upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures.

This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.
In both documents Wheatley adopted the western notion of Africa, which she must have barely remembered and then through the lens of trauma, as a “Pagan land” of “thick Darkness.” And in both she presents Christianity as a source of redemption and refinement. But in the latter letter, which was published in New England newspapers, Wheatley challenged Americans sounding “the cry for Liberty” to live up to that Christian ideal.

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