Commentaries on the Exhibit’s Works




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A brief commentary prepared by Sheila Hassell Hughes, PhD, Professor, English, on the following work:

Phillis Wheatley
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
London, 1773; first book published by an African American; frontispiece illustration of author is by African American slave artist Scipio Moorhead


Phillis Wheatley’s was the first published book to have been written by an African American. Bought in Boston as a slave around 1760, seven-year-old Wheatley showed interest in writing, and her owners determined to educate her.In 1773, while in England with her owner’s son, Wheatley met the Countess of Huntingdon, who offered to sponsor the publication of her poems in London. Upon challenge of the author’s authenticity, eighteen prominent men—John Hancock among them—signed a document of corroboration.

Critical evaluations have been mixed; from a modern viewpoint, Wheatley’s writing can appear eager to please white readers at the expense of racial pride. As a slave, however, her literary choices were constrained. That Wheatley even wrote—and had the temerity to engage in literary conversation with established greats—remains remarkable.

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Sheila Hassell Hughes, professor of English, reads a selection.

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Sheila Hassell Hughes, professor of English, reads a selection.

Wheatley: ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’


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