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Poetic Justice

February is Black History Month. Phillis Wheatley pioneered the genre of African American literature. Born in Gambia, she was enslaved at seven years old. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston. The Wheatleys taught her to read and write, and encouraged her love for and creation of poetry. Many whites challenged the notion that it was possible for an African slave to write quality poetry. In 1772, Wheatley was required to defend her authorship of her poems in court. Her work and credibility was reviewed by a panel of some of Boston’s influential thought leaders and politicians who ultimately found and certified by attestation that the poems attributed to her were, in fact, written by her. She later used that certification to seek their publication. In 1773, Wheatley's “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” were published, bringing her unprecedented fame. She was “the first American slave, the first person of African descent, and only the third colonial American woman to have her work published.”

Her popularity as a poet in the United States and England paved the way to freedom on October 18, 1773. Three years later “[S]he appeared before fan General George Washington at a poetry reading in March, 1776. She was a strong supporter of American independence, reflected in both the poems and plays she wrote during the Revolutionary War.”

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