Poems on Various Subjects

Scipio Moorhead, engraved portrait of Phillis Wheatley, and title page, Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773. Image from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Phillis Wheatley, transported from Africa to North America in 1761 at the age of seven or eight, became the first African-American woman to publish a book in 1773 with Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. She was enslaved by the Wheatley family of Boston, who allowed her an education upon discerning her literary talent. One of the most famous poems from the collection of is “On being brought from Africa to America,” which ignores the cruelty and injustice of slavery and the slave trade. Instead, she reflects in this poem on the “mercy” that she has been given and the “redemption” that she has experienced. The notable omissions of this poem indicate how Wheatley’s freedom of expression was limited by her position.

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