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Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

February 7, 2011

John Piper tells the story behind Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet to publish in English, and her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  An excerpt:

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, had to be published in London because the Boston publishers, where she lived as a slave, did not believe a young black woman could have written them. The British publishers required an official “Attestation” from leaders in Boston that the poems were hers.

So on a spring morning in 1771, “a young African girl walked demurely into the courthouse at Boston to undergo an oral examination, the results of which would determine the direction of her life and work. Perhaps she was shocked upon entering the appointed room.

There, gathered in a semicircle, sat eighteen of Boston’s most notable citizens. Among them was John Erving, a prominent Boston merchant; Rev. Charles Chauncey, pastor of the 10th Congregational Church; and John Hancock, who later gained fame for his signature on the Declaration of Independence. At the center of this group would have sat his Excellency, Thomas Hutchinson, governor of the colony, with Andrew Oliver, his lieutenant governor, close by his side.

“Why had this group . . . seen fit to summon this adolescent African woman, scarcely eighteen years old, before it? This group of ‘the most respectable characters in Boston,’ as it would later define itself, had assembled to question closely the African adolescent on the slender sheaf of poems that she claimed to have written by herself.

“. . . The African poet’s responses were more than sufficient to prompt these eighteen august gentlemen to compose, sign, and publish a two paragraph “Attestation,” an open letter “to the Publick” that prefaces Phillis Wheatley’s book, and which reads in part:

We whose Names are under-written, to assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a family in this town. She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

So important was this document in securing the publisher for Phillis Wheatley’s poems that it forms the signal element in the prefatory matter printed in the opening pages of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was issued in London in the fall of 1773 because Boston printers remained skeptical about her authorship.”

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