|Teen poet Phillis Wheatley. (Photo courtesy of deutschlandreform.com)|
Black History Month: February 2019
New England settlers from the year 1620 onward wrote a lot of things down: how they planned to make decisions together, who would own how much land, what the weather had been, and what the gardens and forests and hunting trips provided.
They passed this tradition to their children, who kept passing it on. As a result, lots of American history was written by people with roots in New England. They wrote about the world they saw and how they celebrated it.
What they wrote wasn’t complete. They left out things they didn’t care about, or didn’t trust. And of course they left out what they didn’t know about America and the world.
Missing from a lot of our written history is the history of people with dark skins in America. Whether they were Native Americans, or forced immigrants from Africa, their voices weren’t often heard in the pages of history here.
Two people who made early changes to that were named Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass.
1. Phillis Wheatley was born in the beautiful lands of West Africa, probably in 1753. Find the countries of Gambia and Senegal on a map of Africa; that’s where she came from. When she was just eight years old, a local man sold her to a trader passing through, who took her on a ship to Boston, the biggest city of New England at the time. The trader sold her again, to make a profit, and she became a slave to Boston residents John and Susanna Wheatley. Their teen-aged kids Mary and Nathaniel began helping Phillis to read and write, and when she was 12, she could already read Greek, Latin, and the Bible. At 14, she wrote her first poem, called “To the University of Cambridge, in New England.” Then she sent a poem to George Washington. Soon she began collecting her poems into a book. When she was 20, her book of poems was published, and the Wheatley family honored her by giving her freedom from enslavement.
I was sad to discover that as an adult, a hard marriage and a life of poverty followed for Phillis, and she died when she was only 31. But she still amazes us as a teenaged poet. You can find some of her poems in collections in books, and online.
Like Phillis Wheatley, you live in New England, and you have learned to read and write. What kind of poems might come from your life? Are there famous people you would like to share them with? Would you write differently if you thought your poem might last for 250 years? Who might read your poems?
2. Frederick Douglass traveled all around New England when he grew up, including visits to St. Johnsbury, Middlebury, Ferrisburgh, and Castleton. When he visited St. Johnsbury, he probably gave a talk at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum – so when you walk up the stairs there, you are walking where he once stepped.
Mr. Douglass is celebrated as a Black American, and he had ancestors from Africa, as well as Native Americans and “white-skinned” settlers. He believed in the equality of all peoples, including women, recent immigrants, and people of various skin colors. He surprised many of his audience members with how sophisticated and elegant his speeches were. It was important for New Englanders to listen to Mr. Douglass this way, because it helped them remember that education and a desire to learn could make any person, of any gender or skin color or background, into a strong thinker and a good communicator.
He fought against racism all his life. But he also fought FOR people: for their freedom, and their right to vote. The last meeting he went to was about rights for women, in 1895, a few days before he died of a heart attack at about age 77. He didn’t know his real birthday, but he always celebrated it on February 14, which is now Valentine’s Day.
Black History Today
Written history still gives more pages to people who are famous, rich, and especially look important. We are still catching up with the life stories of people with darker skin.
You can find some exciting stories of the changes Black Americans have created, in their lives and in the world. Scientists George Washington Carver, Mae C. Jemison, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are considered Black Americans. So are musicians Marian Anderson, Louis Armstorng, Count Basie, and 50 Cent, plus of course Beyonce. You can look for Black American artists, writers, inventors, and explorers. Today there are also many Black American politicians, like former President Barack Obama and General Colin Powell. Local author Reeve Lindbergh wrote the story of pioneering airplane pilot Bessie Coleman, whose heritage was both African American and Cherokee.
When you learn about Black Americans who have made a difference in our world, and tell their stories, you are helping to balance out the silence about Black Americans that Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley found in the books they read. You are making a stronger, braver, more complete America with your own words about them.
One Special Note for Fiction and Poetry Authors
Because I write novels and poems, I am very interested in the idea called #ownvoices. You might recognize the label as a hashtag, like the ones you might see on Twitter or Facebook or other social media. #Ownvoices is a way to suggest that the best people to write about the experience of being different kinds of Americans are the people who really live that way. Like Black History Month, #ownvoices is helping to repair unfairness from the past, and to make the future more fair for people whose voices need to be heard. You might want to talk about this and think about how your own stories and poems reflect your own life – and what kind of imagined lives you’d like to write about, too.
-- Beth Kanell, author