February 11, 2013

A Principle which we call Love of Freedom

In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.

The quote is from a letter dated February 11, 1774, by Phillis Wheatley, recognized as the first poet of African descent published in the New World. At the time she wrote this letter, Phillis was about 20 years old, having been brought to the Massachusetts Colony without her permission when she was a young girl. Enslaved by the Wheatley family, her true name was forgotten and she was instead named for the slave ship which brought her from her native Africa. Her enslavers taught her to read and write and particularly helped develop her religious life.

Phillis was, by then, already a published poet and the novelty of an African poet made her somewhat popular. She was no less enslaved, however, and her letter expresses the tension against the system of slavery as the colonists were beginning to look for a revolution to protect their freedom. She saw the hypocrisy in the situation, and compared her fellow slaves to the Biblical Egyptian slaves, admitting that they shared the same desire for freedom:

God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite, How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine.

Some of her poems include subversive cries against slavery, but this letter is explicit. She is "impatient" and "pants" for freedom, and notes how obvious the problem should be. It was published in several newspapers as early as a month later. It would not be another four years before she was granted her freedom.

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