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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

- Phillis Wheatley, "To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH," poem, 1773
- George Moses Horton
- James Whitfield, "How Long?" poem, 1853 (PDF)
- Benjamin Banneker, puzzle poem, ca. 1792

"Bid the gifted negro soar," wrote enslaved poet George Moses Horton in a poem he wrote while seeking funds to publish his poetry. While many whites denied the artistic gifts of blacks, others recognized their creative achievements, funding the publication and promotion of their work. The poems of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, for example, would likely have remained unknown if not published through white benefactors. How many black poets, then, never saw their writing in print? Here we read the poems of four African Americans—two enslaved and two free-born—all published in their lifetimes.
  • Phillis Wheatley was born about 1753 in Gambia in west Africa and as a child was enslaved and brought to Boston to be sold. Encouraged by her owners to pursue learning, she began writing poetry and in 1773 published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first published book of poems by an African American and by a slave (Jupiter Hammon was the first black American to publish a poem.) Wheatley addressed one of her poems to the newly appointed secretary of state for the colonies, who was expected to be more tolerant toward the demands of the increasingly enraged colonists. "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth," veils Wheatley's appeal for slaves' freedom within its more direct appeal for the colonies' freedom (not from Britain at this point, but from the tyrannical policies of King George III).

  • George Moses Horton was born enslaved in North Carolina in 1797. As a young man he taught himself to read and soon began to write poetry. Discovered by white benefactors, he began to publish his poetry in 1828 in newspapers and in published collections (the first, The Hope of Liberty, published in 1828 in an unsuccessful attempt to raise money for his freedom and migration to Liberia). Here we read two of his poems on slavery—"The Slave's Complaint" and "A Slave's Reflections the Eve Before His Sale"—plus his letter to Horace Greeley requesting aid in publishing his poems, to which he appended a poem "The Poet's Fe[e]ble Petition." (See also the Horton poem "Slavery" in Theme V: EMANCIPATION, #2.) Despite his quest for emancipation, Horton did not become a free man until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

  • James Monroe Whitfield was born into a free black family in New Hampshire in 1822. As an adult in Buffalo, New York, he worked as a barber while publishing his poetry—Poems in 1846, America and Other Poems in 1853, and numerous poems published in African American newspapers. He was a harsh critic of slavery and of the American society that tolerated an inhumane system for its economic gain. After the success of America and Other Poems, Whitfield became a spokesman for abolition and the emigration of American blacks to Africa. He died in 1871 in San Francisco, having moved west before the beginning of the Civil War. In this poem Whitfield asks "How Long?" before the oppressed of the world, "trampled by the strong," will remain enslaved. Written in driving iambic tetrameter, mostly in alternating rhyme with occasional emphatic rhyming couplets, it is meant to be read aloud.

  • Benjamin Banneker is known for his published almanacs and his 1791 correspondence with Thomas Jefferson on slavery. Free-born, he was a self-taught naturalist, astronomer, and mathematician who created intriguing mathematical puzzles as well as puzzle poems, one of which we read here (and try to solve; the answer is included).
Compare these poems with other antebellum African American poems, such as "The Slave Mother," by Frances Watkins (see Theme III: COMMUNITY #1) and Horton's "Slavery" (Theme V: EMANCIPATION #2), and with poems by postbellum black poets including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Fenton Johnson, Sterling Brown, and others in Volumes II and III of The Making of African American Identity. (8 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What themes do you find repeated in these poems?
  2. How does each poet personalize the themes?
  3. What can you infer about their motivations and choices of audience?
  4. To what extent do these poets use standard poetic structures? Why?
  5. How do these poets define themselves as poets, in their terms in their time?
  6. In other words, to what extent does their poetic impulse define their identity?
  7. From what you can infer, how might white readers have responded to these poems?
  8. Why did the authors write their poems? At what audiences were they aimed?
  9. Where might you find undiscovered poems by antebellum African Americans?
  10. Compare the poems of the enslaved poets, Wheatley and Horton. with the poem of Whitfield, who was free-born. What differences could you ascribe to their differing status in society?
  11. In addition to their status (slave or free-born), compare these poets by gender, geographic region, personal attributes, audience for their work, and the spur that led to their writing (as far as you can tell). What patterns do you find?
  12. Compare (a) the veiled call for freedom in Wheatley's poem with (b) Horton's plaintive appeal for freedom in "The Poet's Feble Petition" with (c) Whitfield's strident demand in "How Long?" What accounts for these poems' differing tones?
  13. Compare these poets with the artists of the previous section (#4). What differences and similarities do you find in their artistic drives and achievements?
  14. Compare these antebellum works with postbellum works by African Americans in Vols. II and III of The Making of African American Identity, e.g., those by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Fenton Johnson, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and others. What distinguishes the poetry written before and after the Civil War?

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Wheatley poem: 2
Horton poems & letter: 3
Whitfield poem: 2
Banneker puzzle poem: 1
TOTAL 8 pages
Supplemental Sites
Phillis Wheatley, overview, in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, 1834, full text in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

"I, Too, Sing America": James M. Whitfield's America and Other Poems (1853), primary texts and resources by Robert S. Levine, in The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman, and American Culture

James Monroe Whitfield, 25 poems, in Old Poetry, from Social Design, Inc.

Autographs for Freedom, ed. Julia Griffiths
George Moses Horton, other poems in The Making of African American Identity, from the National Humanities Center
George Moses Horton, poems and biography in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Library
Jupiter Hammon, poems
Benjamin Banneker, mathematics puzzles, in Convergence, from the Mathematical Association of America
Benjamin Banneker's 1791 correspondence with Thomas Jefferson on slavery, in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

- Signature of Phillis Wheatley, in letter to Obour Tanner, 14 February 1776. Reproduced by permission of Swann Galleries, New York City.
- Signature of George Moses Horton, in undated letter to North Carolina governor David L. Swain (1832-1835). Reproduced by permission of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.
- Signature of James Monroe Whitfield, in Julia Griffith, ed., Autographs for Freedom, published for the Rochester [New York] Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, Vol. I (Boston: John Jewett & Co., 1853), p. 54. In the public domain.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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