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African American Firsts In Literature
African Americans have long staked their claim to fame in many areas including the arts, literature and science. We are all familiar with names such as Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Denzel Washington and other contemporary artists. In honor of this Black History month, I would like to highlight the achievements of two early African Americans in literature. Two courageous women who endured hardship and little recognition to leave us a legacy we can be proud of.
1. Phillis Wheatley. Born in Africa around 1753, Ms. Wheatley is credited as being the first African American to publish a book. Phyllis arrived in Boston on a slave ship at the age of 7 and was bought by a merchant named John Wheatley to be a personal maid for his wife. Phyllis proved to have a gift for poetry, which the Wheatleys encouraged. Phyllis wrote an elegy on the passing of the Reverend George Whitefield, a noted evangelist; which was published in 1770. Two years later when the Wheatleys tried to publish some of her poems, the publishers refused to believe that Phyllis had written them.
Accompanied by her master's son Nathaniel, Phyllis sailed to England where she met some prominent citizens and it was there in 1773 that 31 of her poems were published in a book titled Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Mortal. Phyllis returned to America and continued to write poetry. When George Washington became commander-in-chief, she wrote him a poem of congratulations. He invited her to visit him at his headquarters.
Wheatley was emancipated after her master's death and she married soon after, but her marriage was not a happy one. She lost two sons as infants and her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784. Phyllis fell into poverty, became ill and died on the same day as her third baby.
2. Another first in literature was a novel published in 1859 by an African American female novelist, Harriet Wilson. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was not only the first published novel by an African American, but also the first novel by a black writer to be published in the United States.
Harriet was born a free woman of color, of mixed race, in New Hampshire, and worked as an indentured servant in Boston. The novel was based on Harriet's experiences and provides a picture of racism in the North before the war. The book went almost unnoticed when it was first published, but was rediscovered in 1981 by African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Harriet also had a sad marriage, being abandoned by her fugitive slave husband. Our Nig was a desperate attempt to recover her son, whom she had placed in foster care because of her failing health. But she was unsuccessful; the child died six months after the book was published and Harriet disappeared from public record.
I can't help but feel an immense sense of gratitude to all the pioneers who did not allow the indignities of racism, illness and poverty to stop them from developing their art. I also feel that whatever effort I make to improve myself as a writer pales in comparison to what our ancestors did. They are truly an inspiration to us all.