Two Historic African-American Poets


The first ever African-American to have a book of poetry published was Phillis Wheatley. Her master submitted the manuscript to the publisher along with a letter that explained:

PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between seven and eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.

The book’s preface states:

THE following POEMS were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were the Products of her leisure Moments. She had no Intention ever to have published them; nor would they now have made their Appearance, but at the Importunity of many of her best, and most generous Friends; to whom she considers herself, as under the greatest Obligations.

Here is one of the poems from her book:

 O N  V I R T U E.

   O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
   To comprehend thee.  Thine own words declare
   Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
   I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
   Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
   But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
   Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
   Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
   Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
   Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.
        Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
   And lead celestial Chastity along;
   Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
   Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
   Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
   O leave me not to the false joys of time!
   But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
   Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
   To give me an higher appellation still,
   Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
   O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.

After publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley’s masters emancipated her. She married, and bore three children, all of whom died in childhood. She herself died in poverty at the age of 31.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson was a teacher, author, and social activist. The following poem is from her first book, Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895:

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson

 Dear God, 'tis hard, so awful hard to lose
 The one we love, and see him go afar,
 With scarce one thought of aching hearts behind,
 Nor wistful eyes, nor outstretched yearning hands.
 Chide not, dear God, if surging thoughts arise.
 And bitter questionings of love and fate,
 But rather give my weary heart thy rest,
 And turn the sad, dark memories into sweet.
 Dear God, I fain my loved one were anear,
 But since thou will'st that happy thence he'll be,
 I send him forth, and back I'll choke the grief
 Rebellious rises in my lonely heart.
 I pray thee, God, my loved one joy to bring;
 I dare not hope that joy will be with me,
 But ah, dear God, one boon I crave of thee,
 That he shall ne'er forget his hours with me.

I learned about both of these poets through the Project Guttenberg Project, which publishes works in the public domain online so that they may be discovered by new audiences. Here are links to Phillis Wheatley’s Religious and Moral Poems and to Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson’s Violets and Other Tales.

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