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Canadian Children's  Book Centre
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My Name is Phillis Wheatley: A Story of Slavery and Freedom

Noted historian Afua Cooper has brought her expertise to this fictionalized memoir of Phillis Wheatley, who published a book of poetry in 1773 becoming the first Black person in America to do so.

Seven-year-old Penda Wane is born free on the edge of the great African desert. Training to become a griot – a praise-singer and poet – her whole world changes when she is captured by slave traders. After enduring the long walk to the sea and an even more grueling journey by ship to America, she is left to die on a Boston wharf. The Wheatleys, however, take pity on her and buy her for a ‘mere trifle.’ Penda Wane is renamed Phillis Wheatley and her mistress, Susanna Wheatley, begins an experiment to see if a Black slave is intelligent enough to learn to read and write.

Soon surpassing her mistresses’ abilities, Phillis becomes an accomplished poet but must prove she is, in fact, the author of such poems. Eventually she is sent to England to have her poetry published, as American publishers will not publish the work of a Black slave. Phillis gains her freedom and marries John Peters, a free Black man who is studying law.

Afua Cooper tells the story of how a young girl destined to become a griot in her home country eventually becomes a famous poet in the country in which she is enslaved. She arouses our sympathy as she describes the loneliness Phyllis encounters by becoming a learned Black woman. Through her descriptions of life in Africa, Cooper also helps us to imagine how frighteningly different life in America must have been for those enslaved.

Appropriate for students in intermediate/early senior grades this book is an excellent companion novel to My Name is Henry Bibb, also by author Afua Cooper.

Source: The Canadian Children's Bookcentre. Fall 2009. Vol.32 No.4.

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