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PHOTO ESSAY

Slave Narratives

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Phillis Wheatley, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral", first published in the United States in 1773.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book to be published by an African American woman—laid the foundation for slaves writing about slavery in the United States. In her poetry, Wheatley spoke out against slavery from her position as a slave. At a time when a slave's ability to read and write could be met with severe punishment, the written word took on a unique importance. In subsequent years the slave narrative allowed slaves to record personal experiences and chronicle the history of slavery. Slaves were also able to use the genre to critique slavery, and voices were heard from inside an oppressed population that would not have been heard otherwise. In 1834, fifty years after Wheatley's death, Margaretta Matilda Odell published the work Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley. This memoir paired Wheatley's poetry with a biography of her life and was reprinted three times within four years to meet public demand.

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