The Work of Afro-American Women
THE AFRO-AMERICAN WOMAN IN VERSE.
Every age and clime has been blessed with sweet singers, both in song and verse. Many
women have attained to rare excellence in each of these lofty vocations. Among modern songsters
Jenny Lind, Patti and Parepa have won golden laurels. In verse Elizabeth Barrett Browning stands
pre-eminent. She not only honored her own English island home, but sunny Italy, the land of her
adoption, has been purified and sweetened by the power of her verse. And with rare appreciation
and devotion has this land of poetry and art showered honors on this sweet singer.
That we, too, of the African race have equally shared in the gift of the muses, having had
sweet singers born among us, I have chosen for my theme, "The Afro-American Woman in
Have we not had among us Elizabeth Greenfield, "The Black Swan," and have we not now
Madame Selika, Flora Batson, Madame Jones and Madame Nellie Brown Mitchell? Crowned
heads, as well as the uncrowned populace, have delighted to do honor to many of the sweet
singers of our race. And have not two continents hung in breathless silence on
68the melody floating heavenward from the lips of our Jubilee Singers?
That we have also among us those with rare talent for verse we hope to prove in the limits of
this short article.
During the year 1761 there sailed from Africa for America a slave ship. Among its passengers
was a little girl, then seven or eight years of age. The following is from Williams' "History of the
Negro Race:" "She was taken, with others, to the Boston slave market. There her modest
demeanor and intelligent countenance attracted the attention of Mrs. John Wheatley, who
purchased her. It was her intention to instruct the child in ordinary domestic duties, but she
afterward changed her mind and gave her careful training in book knowledge. The aptness of the
child was a surprise to all who came in contact with her. In sixteen months from her arrival she
had learned the English language so perfectly as to be able to read the most difficult portions of
Scripture with ease, and within four years she was able to correspond intelligently. She soon
learned to read and even translate from the Latin. One of Ovid's tales was her first attempt. It was
published in Boston and England and called forth much praise. Pious, sensitive and affectionate by
nature, Phyllis soon became endeared not only to the family to whom she belonged, but to a
69large circle of friends. Mrs. Wheatley was a benevolent woman, and took great care of Phyllis,
both of her health and education. Emancipated at the age of twenty, she was taken to Europe by a
son of Mrs. Wheatley." ... "She was heartily welcomed by the leaders of society of the
British metropolis, and treated with great consideration. Under all the trying circumstances of
social life among the nobility and rarest literary genius of London, this redeemed child of the
desert coupled to a beautiful modesty the extraordinary powers of an incomparable
conversationalist. She carried London by storm. Thoughtful people praised her, titled people
dined her, and the press extolled the name of Phyllis Wheatley, the African poetess. ... In
1773 she gave a volume of poems to the world. It was published in London. It was dedicated to
the Countess of Huntington, with a picture of the poetess and a letter of recommendation, signed
by the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor of Boston. In 1776 she addressed a poem to George
Washington, which pleased the old warrior very much. Unfortunately no copy of this poem can be
found at the present date." In a letter, however, he wrote to Joseph Reed, bearing date of the 10th
of February, 1776, from Cambridge, Washington refers to it. He says: "I recollect nothing else
worth giving you the trouble of, unless you can be amused by reading a letter and
70poem addressed to me by Miss Phyllis Wheatley. In searching over a parcel of papers the other
day, in order to destroy such as were useless, I brought it to light again. At first, with a view of
doing justice to her poetical genius, I had a great mind to publish the poem; but not knowing
whether it might not be considered rather as a mark of my own vanity than a compliment to her, I
laid it aside till I came across it again in the manner just mentioned."
This gives the world an "inside" view of the brave old general's opinion of the poem and
poetess; but the outside view, as expressed by Washington himself to Miss Phyllis, is worthy of
reproduction at this point.
Cambridge, 28 February, 1776.
Miss Phillis:--Your favor of the 26th of October did not reach my hands till the middle
of December. Time enough you will say to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety
of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention,
I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming but not real neglect. I
thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you enclosed; and
however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a
striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I
would have published the poem had I not been apprehensive that, while I
71only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the
imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person
so favored by the muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her
I am, with great respect, your obedient, humble servant,
We regret our loss of this poem on account of the great general's modesty, but rejoice in the
fact that the greater number of Miss Wheatley's poems were published in one volume, and given
to the world.
We will quote as largely as the limits of this paper will allow from this volume.