By Laura Linker
Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), an eighteenth-century black slave taught to read by her owners, composed over 100 poems in her lifetime, many of them drawing on the Bible as a source of infallible authority. The first slave to publish a book, Wheatley often urges America to repent of its participation in the slave trade. (She was also the originator of ‘Columbia’ as a term for America, which she invented in her 1776 poem ‘To His Excellency George Washington’.) Steeped in western canonical authors, including Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton, she draws on classical and religious allusions to challenge legal and social limitations that denigrate slaves, adopting established poetical forms only to use them as sites of resistance. Her poetry demonstrates remarkable technique and learning.
One of her most interesting poems, ‘On Imagination’, employs art as a means of freeing the mind and the muse, conceptualized as a figure…
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