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Despite all the hardship of being a Black person in Colonial America, some Black people were able to defy the harsh conditions and create art. Today we're learning about a teenager who attained literacy and wrote poems that reached a large slice of the population and helped changed the ways that white Colonists thought about Black people.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now! https://bookshop.org/a/3859/9780316492935

VIDEO SOURCES

Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
Woody Holton, Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era: A Brief History with Documents (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
·Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1969).
Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2015).
THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU, (2017), https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Bad-Ass-Librarians-of-Timbuktu/Joshua-Hammer/9781476777412 (last visited Oct 14, 2020).
ORAL EPICS FROM AFRICA :VIBRANT VOICES FROM A VAST CONTINENT /, (c1997), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.32106014509043.
Claude Sumner, The Light and the Shadow: Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat: Two Ethiopian Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century 172–182 (2005).
On the Death of George Whitefield by Phillis Wheatley Analysis & Poem, , POEM OF QUOTES: READ, WRITE, LEARN , https://www.poemofquotes.com/philliswheatley/on-the-death-of-george-whitefield.php (last visited Oct 22, 2020).
Waddill v. Chamberlayne, 1735 Va. LEXIS 3 (Apr. 1, 1735).


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VIDEO SOURCES

-Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
-Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
-Woody Holton, Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era: A Brief History with Documents (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
·-Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1969).
-Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2015).
-THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU, (2017), https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Bad-Ass-Librarians-of-Timbuktu/Joshua-Hammer/9781476777412 (last visited Oct 14, 2020).
ORAL EPICS FROM AFRICA :VIBRANT VOICES FROM A VAST CONTINENT /, (c1997), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.32106014509043.
-Claude Sumner, The Light and the Shadow: Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat: Two Ethiopian Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century 172–182 (2005).
-On the Death of George Whitefield by Phillis Wheatley Analysis & Poem, , POEM OF QUOTES: READ, WRITE, LEARN , https://www.poemofquotes.com/philliswheatley/on-the-death-of-george-whitefield.php (last visited Oct 22, 2020).
-Waddill v. Chamberlayne, 1735 Va. LEXIS 3 (Apr. 1, 1735).


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#crashcourse #history #philliswheatley
Hi.

I'm Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History. We spend a lot of time in this series talking about how hard it was to be a Black person in the colonies and how colonial law oppressed people of African descent.

I mean, most of us would look at these circumstances and just wonder how anyone survived, how people were able to wake up every single day and keep going in the midst of indescribably cruel conditions. But what's most remarkable is that Black folks didn't let these conditions crush them or define them. Slavery was what was being done to them.

It was not who they were. They defined themselves by the families they formed, the communities they built, the culture they created. American culture, from music to art to literature, would not be what it is today without the creativity, ingenuity, and brilliance of enslaved people.

They created art that spoke to the conditions around them, and art that imagined what life might look like on the other side of freedom. It was art that served as both a mirror for their lives and a window into what their lives might one day be. Today, we're going to talk about a teenager who embodied this in her work ane who, through her stunning poetry, began to change the way that others viewed Black people in the colonies.

Put on your bonnet and pick up your quill pen, because today, we're talking about Phillis Wheatley. Let's start the show. Phillis Wheatley was the first English-speaking Black woman to ever publish a book.

It's easy to think about Western poetry and literature as the gold standard. After all, most high school English classes in the U. S. often teach and center the works of people like e.e.cummings, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Frost, and Homer.

And while a bunch of these folks are great, it's important to note that the West does not have a monopoly on poetry, and just because we've been taught that a certain type of poetry is considered "standard," doesn't mean we shouldn't interrogate the very notion of who is deciding what is or isn't considered standard in the first place. There are many other important examples of literature that came from the African continent, like the Timbuktu manuscripts, epic texts and oral poems like the epic of Sunjura(?~0:11) and literature written by the kings of Zera Yacob. Even within her era, Phillis Wheatley was not the first Black woman poet in New England.

Before we leave, for example, there was Lucy Terry Prince, who wrote her poem, "Bars Fight," in 1746, but it wasn't published until about a hundred years later. Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in the Gambia River Region of West Africa. She was taken captive when she was about eight years old and, like millions of others, brought across the Atlantic to the New World.

After arriving in New England in 1761, she was sold to a couple named John and Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatleys' daughter had died nine years earlier, and historians like Vincent Carretta have speculated that their grief led them to treat Phillis as a surrogate for their late daughter. This is another example of the complexity and cognitive dissonance of slavery, purchasing a human child to replace the human child that you lost.

That's a lot to unpack for your eighteenth century therapist. Anyway, Phillis was brought to the United States following the Great Awakening, a religious that emphasized the importance of conversion, through a process of spiritual rebirth and accepting Jesus Christ  as one's personal savior. The three theologians that started this movement were Methodist Anglicans who came from the Church of England.

They were John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. Whitefield was known for his religiosity and passion and he was one of Phillis's greatest influences. He used to travel through the country, preaching and sharing his ideas about the Great Awakening.

His messages not only influenced the broader American public and poets like Phillis, but also introduced the first generation of Black Christian authors to Methodism. And there's a lot of them. They included Olaudah Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and Boston King.

Phillis had what was, in many ways, an unusual upbringing relative to the plight of most other enslaved people in the United States. Yes, some enslaved people were brought to church, but Phillis also  was allowed to learn to read and write. In fact, within four years of arriving in Boston, Phillis was literate and eloquent enough in the English language to write a letter to a minister, and compose a short poem mourning the death of a neighbor.

But her big break came in 1770 when she published a poem about George Whitefield, whom she had first heard preach when she was a young child. Let's go to the Thought Bubble. Welcome to Crash Course Poetry Night.

I'm your host, Clint Smith. Wow. We have a full house tonight.

Ben Franklin, good to see you. Sorry, man, you're going to have to leave that kite outside. Wesley brothers, didn't expect to see you tonight. I thought you had a sermon to give.

So, being a bit of a poet myself, I'm happy to introduce a young legend in the making. Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, show your love for Miss Phillis Wheatley.

She will be performing an excerpt from her piece with quite the title, "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, The Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield."

Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal'd accents flow'd!
While emulation in each bosom glow'd;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin'd,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.

His lonely Tabernacle, sees no more
A WHITEFIELD landing on the British shore.
Then let us view him in yon azure skies:
Let every mind with this lov'd object rise.
No more can he exert his lab'ring breath,
Seiz'd by the cruel messenger of death.
What can his dear AMERICA return?
But drop a tear upon his happy urn,
Thou tomb, shalt safe retain thy sacred trust
Till life divine re-animate his dust.

Thanks, Thought Bubble.

This poem was an eighteenth century banger, and it propelled Phillis Wheatley to fame. As her success grew, she became a symbol of the intellectual abilities of people of African descent and thus became an important part of the anti-slavery movement. You see, during this time, white people viewed Black people as less intelligent, but Phillis's poetry directly countered that false stereotype.

Historian Winthrop Jordan has written that Phillis Wheatley ultimately "became antislavery's most prized exhibit, her name virtually a household term for the Negro's mental equality." Another historian, Jessica Parr, stated in her work that Phillis Wheatley force the American colonists to question their ideas about Black people's intellect and humanity. Remember, it was not uncommon for African Americans to be legally analogized to horses and other animals during this period. But Phillis's capacity to not only learn but to become an artist who wrote beautiful poetry forced many white people to ask, "Were Black people actually just like us?" 

Many famous white philosophers who had been largely celebrated for their intellectual contributions, like Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, were also people who debated the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of Black people, and questioned if they were really fully people at all.

Phillis Wheatly's literary success even brought into question what they believed. Her influence in the debate about Black humanity lasted well past 1773, when she finally gained her freedom. But not everyone was convinced of Phillis's talent.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his 1785 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, "Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.  --Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.  Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."

Jefferson, of course, is wrong and it's not the only time Jefferson was wrong on race, far from it. In that same book, he wrote he had a suspicion that Black people are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind. Jefferson's quite blatant racism in Notes on the State of Virginia is a reminder that the story we often hear about how great the Founding Fathers were doesn't always tell the full story.

But I digress. This isn't about him. This is about Phillis.

Wheately would die prematurely at the age of 31 on Decembe 5, 1784. But she accomplished so much over the course of her life. She published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773.

This made her the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book and the second American woman of any race to do so. She was also the most visible Black woman in New England during the American Revolutionary Era. According to the historians Catherine Adams and Elizabeth Fleck, Phillis Wheatley was, "The besk-known black person in all of the colonies, hailed as a poetic genius, widely praised for her literary talents, her life was in many was the exception to the common condition of black women of her place and time."

What's more, she created a moment of accountability for the American colonies.

Phillis Wheatley brought into question the false assumption that Black people were incapable of greatness, intelligent thought, and art. We should be clear, that while Phillis's life and work are worthy of celebration and commemoration, it should not have been necessary for Black people to write and publish beautiful poetry in order to justify their humanity. Phillis's humanity was not contingent on whether or not she wrote these poems.

Her humanity was always there, simply because she was human, and that's enough. It's enough for Phillis, and for every other enslaved person. Still, her life is noteworthy.

Her work has lived long beyond her time and she remains a remarkable example of how the gifts of people of African descent shine even under the most inhumane circumstances. Phillis Wheately created the bedrock upon which generations of Black writers would flourish. Poets like Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Claudia Rankin are all part of her lineage.

Even rappers like Lauryn Hill or Kendrick Lamar can look at the impact of Phillis Wheatley on Black poetry and rhetoric as a part of their own origin story. So, whether you're boppin' to the Fugees or Drake, thank Phillis Wheatley. She really did pave the way for so many of us.

Crash Course Black American History is made with help of all these nice people, and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. And if you'd like to keep Crash Couse free for everybody forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content that you love.

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