Declaration of Independence, Venture Smith, Phyllis Wheatley

Post due Wed. Oct. 6th

Thanks for your insightful responses to the “1619 Project,” lessons from which this course will be closely heeding.  Ulises reminds us what “a great failure” it is “to take away knowledge and hide the truth” from students. But that is what schools in the past have done and continue to do. Mohammed writes that studying the past honestly is “not about hating one’s country but instead learning about the good and bad of the country. You can’t hide what was done and act like it never happened.” Amy adds that “history is meant to be taught, and we learn it to prevent tragedies from occurring again.” This is a very real “threat” as Nelson maintains, for far too many Americans remain “threatened” by learning the darker facts of American history (alongside our nation’s many enormous achievements).

Let’s keep in mind, as Paulina reiterates. the guiding aim of the 1619 project:

“What would it mean to center the experience of Black Americans in our telling of U.S. history?”

With this question in mind, we turn to America’s remarkable break from British rule with the Revolutionary War (1776-1783).  The war officially starts in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (with help from Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and others).  The Declaration claims that “All men are created equal,” but as Brianna reminds us, Jefferson was himself a slave-holder (and had several children with his slave Sally Hemings).  In the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson blames the King of England for the slave trade, but neither this document nor The Constitution (framed in 1787) abolished slavery in America.

For this week, we will review the Declaration of Independence and also read about two important African Americans who accomplished a great deal despite being enslaved.  Specifically, I ask that you read chapter one from the autobiography of Venture Smith and an essay on the first published American poet: Phyllis Wheatley. 

  1. Read the Declaration of Independence, focusing on its key message:

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent & inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

2. Watch my Video lecture on colonial New York Print Culture and Venture Smith. I produced this talk for an academic conference held in New York in 2020.

3. Read Russell Shorto’s “On Slavery’s Doorstep in Ghana”. This essay recounts a trip by descendants of Venture Smith who return to “the door of no return” in Ghana, Africa where Venture left on a slave ship to America in the early 1700s.

Post a comment on ONE of these readings (or video).  Due Wed. Oct. 6th

This is a lot of reading, so do the best you can to complete it. Choose what you have time for.

38 Comments

  1. Brian Chan

    For the reading, I chose Venture Smith’s autobiography. In his biography, Smith talks a lot about his experiences as a child and slave. One of the most important points that stood out to me was when he mentioned, “I hired myself out at Fisher’s Island, and earned twenty pounds; thirteen pounds six shillings of which my master drew for the privilege, and the remainder I paid him for my freedom.” This is important because while Smith worked hard for his money, a lot of it was taken away because his right to work was from his master. The idea of having pay a fee/tax in order to make an honest living is very disturbing. While it reminds me a lot about the taxes we pay today, there are some public services that our money funds so its not a complete loss. Another thing that stood out to me was when Smith mentioned, “Being about forty-six years old, I bought my oldest child Hannah, of Ray Mumford, for forty-four pounds, and she still resided with him. I had already redeemed from slavery, myself, my wife and three children, besides three negro men.” Being a colored man back then wasn’t easy and it was even harder to earn money. Seeing Smith pay for his own freedom and the freedom of 7 other people really shows how hardworking, outstanding, and kind he was. That human quality is hard to find, especially in today’s society.

    • sumayah

      I loved how you compared how smith had to pay taxes/fees and the taxes of today that we all have to pay. Smith had to work hard to earn his freedom, in today’s society people who have jobs work hard and have to pay taxes as well.

    • Mark Noonan

      I’m really impressed that you read the entire biography of Venture Smith, Brian.

      I really liked your points especially your recognition of Smith as a remarkable “renaissance man”.

      This is an excellent observation: “Seeing Smith pay for his own freedom and the freedom of 7 other people really shows how hardworking, outstanding, and kind he was. “

  2. Ulises

    At the end of the Video lecture on colonial New York Print Culture and Venture Smith by our Professor Mark Noonan, he concludes with a well-spoken and potent phrase, which I completely agree with it. Professor Noonan says: “We must remember that there are lines unwritten, lines never printed, lives and spaces whose truths were never told. For all the names that we know, we must also think of those whose names never entered the pages of the news or camera of the smartphone, whether in accomplishment or atrocity.” This quote inspires and leaves everyone who reads it, or listens to it, thinking about it. This shows that it is important to respect and honor what our history is; what people were capable to do and sacrifice themselves to evolve the human thinking and being able to advance future generations. There have been events of the past in which there was a revolution or another circumstance that changed completely our future throughout fatalities, suffering, and any kind of human harm. There are several people that are not aware about those sacrifices, and may not even care: basically, ignorant people. There have been many unsung heroes who have shed blood, who have lost their lives in order to do humanity a great favor. The irony is that new generations do not appreciate it or are not interested in it, making it a great betrayal and disrespect to those heroes. Altogether, the quote from the video proves that we are oblivious to several things, just like events that have occurred that were never brought to light, and all these types of incidents and unsung heroes fully deserve to be honored and respected as this quote means and represents.

    • sumayah

      I agree, what you said was very deep and true. It is so sad that this and the competing generation will care less about the forgotten history, the suffering of many people. In this generation, many people aren’t aware of what the people long ago had to go through which is very sad to me.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thanks for watching my lecture and picking up on its key message, Ulises, which I’m hoping to convey throughout this semester. Certainly, there’s far too many “unsung heroes” in this world; we owe it as historians and citizens of the world to acknowledge this plain but important fact. Extremely thoughtful post.

  3. sumayah

    A Narrative of a Native of Africa: His Life and Adventures was very interesting to read, let alone that it was very descriptive throughout chapter 1. The author talks about his early childhood which was very uncommon to anyone else. The author states “polygamy was not uncommon in that country, especially among the rich, as every man was allowed to keep as many wives as he could maintain. By his first wife, he had three children. The eldest of them was myself, named by my father Broteer.” many people who would read this would think this was an uncommon practice which is not, it is also practiced in my religion except the fact men are only allowed to have 4 wives, no more than that and that’s why that sentence really stood out to me. I really enjoyed the way he kept speaking good about his father, he really admired who he really is, he then states “He was a man of remarkable stature. I should judge as much as six feet and six or seven inches high, two feet across his shoulders, and every way well proportioned. He as a man of remarkable strength and resolution, affable, kind and gentle, ruling with equity and moderation.” I find this line very beautiful!

    • Mark Noonan

      You point out some great facts here about Venture Smith. He was indeed a noble-looking, impressive man in every way — as you illuminate well.

  4. Amina Shabbir

    The biography of Phyllis Wheatley was both detailed and informative. Phyllis Wheatley was sold into slavery when she was seven years old. The Wheatley family bought her, when she was transported from West Africa to Boston. What really stood out to me from all of the other readings was how the Wheatley family provided her education and how she had never been forced to slavery’s treacherous demands . Phyllis Wheatley was the first African American woman to have a poem published. Her first poem was published at the age of 13. The colonists were first hesitant to support her work because she was African American. Along with Mrs. Wheatley, she advertised in Boston newspapers seeking subscribers for collections of her 28 poems. I like how she never gave up. “ A wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist causes, the countess instructed bookseller Archibald Bell to begin correspondence with Wheatley in preparation for the book.” She was known as African genius as this explains how her work left an impact, “The remainder of Wheatley’s themes can be classified as celebrations of America. She was the first to applaud this nation as glorious “Columbia” and that in a letter to no less than the first president of the United States, George Washington, with whom she had corresponded and whom she was later privileged to meet.” Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” recalls her experience as a young girl who was enslaved as well as brought to the American colonies.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent recapping of Wheatley’s biography, Amina. What exactly are the poet’s feelings though of “being brought from Africa to America”? This is a rich question deserving further enquiry.

  5. Mohammed Islam

    The reading that I want to focus on is the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley. I’m not really good in interpreting poems but I kind of liked this poem. One thing that stood out to me was, even after being brought over from their homes and into a new country, they still had faith. I never understood how going through something traumatic would leave someone still believing. I don’t know if it’s just me but I feel as if I was done wrong, I wouldn’t believe in something that’s up there and going to help me. She mentions how white people seen them to be evil based off the color of their skins. She says ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eyes, “Their colour is a diabolic die.”‘ From my interpretation of the last two line, and I’m not sure if this is right. I think she’s basically saying at the end of the day, christians, blacks and everyone else will die and go to meet their higher powers, in this case God. I also like how she’s rhyming. This poem is supposed to be a powerful poem but still has a catchy hook to it. I might be wrong but the beginning also seems to me as if she’s saying it’s better to be alive than dead.

    • Zarif

      I agree, the poem was catchy and had a very strong message.

    • Mark Noonan

      You do a find job here Mohammed of teasing out the key ideas of this tricky poem. It is indeed remarkable that although she was a slave, she retained a strong faith in God — as you write. Her point that we are ALL alike – that you raise – is also spot on. This poem is indeed a sly call for equality for all, by a woman writer who is not really allowed to say this too directly.

  6. Brianna

    I read the biography of Phillis Wheatley. Phillis was a young girl who was kidnapped and taken to Boston on a slave ship with a shipment of “refugee” slaves. She was purchased by a tailor John Wheatley. The Wheatley’s did no excuse Phillis from her domestic duties but taught her to read and write, which stood out to me the most because usually, slave owners did not teach their slaves how to read or write. By the age of 18 she had written 28 poems. She became one of the best known poets in the 19th century. In a poem she wrote called “Poems on Various Subjects” revealed that her favorite poetic form was the couplet. She had a concern for slavery and even wrote a poem but her critics did not consider her biblical language against slavery.

    • Mark Noonan

      Very good recapping of Wheatley’s biography and mention of her important use of Biblical language in her poems, Brianna. It’s interesting to note her continued strong faith in God (and Patriotism) despite being enslaved.

  7. Ariel Montesino

    I decided to read Venture Smith’s autography and there was one thing that caught my attention. This five year old boy is travelling with his mother in a desert with several harmful animals running about all because she didn’t consent to husband having another wife. I could understand why she wouldn’t consent to that but why she would force all her children to go wandering in the desert at such a young age? I’m just gonna guess that because she didn’t consent and her husband wanted nothing to do with them at that point. Honestly, with what his mother had put him through, it’s almost as if he was a slave all throughout his life, even before the invaders came and sold him away.

    • Mark Noonan

      You pick up on an interesting detail here Ariel. One question to ask about this episode of Venture’s mom taking him and siblings in the desert is what it tells about his mom. Certainly, she is strong woman who is not willing to put up with any shenanigans (!) from her husband. Similarly, we learn of what a courageous man his father was.

  8. Karina

    Venture Smith’s ” A Narrative of a Native of Africa: His Life and Adventures (1798)”, is an interesting biography full of many interesting things Smith went through. He was born in Guinea and was raised in an environment where polygamy was considered a norm. Smith’s mother did not approve of his father marrying his third wife , so she decided to leave and take her children with her. At that time Smith was only 5 years old and so ended up travelling through a dessert for five days, being exposed to the many wild animals, such as lions and wolves. Immediately after his mom was able to find him a refugee home, Venture started working by guarding and feeding sheep. What I do not understand is why did his parents wait a whole year until they would send someone to retrieve him after they reconciliated? They should have been the ones going to retrieve their son. Throughout the audio, Smith speaks ever so great about his father, however it was sad to know that he had to witness at a very young age his father getting beaten and tortured to death. His father was good man, and never gave in whenever situations became pretty harsh, such as that which led to his death, he died but never gave away the place where he had his money.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent points Karina, especially your acknowledgement of the love and admiration Venture had for his dad, who seemed to be a remarkable man and leader in his own right.

  9. Christin

    Phillis Wheatley Peters, an enslaved African American, was the first African American to make a title for herself as one of the best poets in the 19th century. Phillis proved colonist that she was capable of more than just house work & acting as a servant. I found Phillis Wheatley’s biography very interesting due to the fact that her “owners”, the Wheatley family, exposed her to education. By a young age, Phillis was immersed in the bible, geography, astronomy, history and British literature. Phillis’s writing pieces were strongly influenced by religion, African heritage, and also other writers she was fond of. However, when the time came to publish her work, colonists refused to support literature by an African. Luckily, a wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist causes/ beliefs contacted Wheatley regarding her writing. When I think about Wheatley and the life she lived as a slave, I cant help but wonder what motivated the Wheatley family to allow her to strengthen her intelligence as much as they did. In addition to that, they did not treat Wheatley as inhumanely as other slaves were treated. As a critical thinker, I cant help but to wonder if they gave access to such a life to Wheatley for selfish reasons, such as having her as a “trophy” or to make a name for their family for having the “most intelligent slave”… simply to be recognized for something that wasn’t normalized and hadn’t been done. I wouldn’t put it past anyone who held humans captive as slaves against their will.

    • Mark Noonan

      Cristin, You raise one of the most intriguing questions about Wheatley here. Why WAS she allowed to be educated and to publish her work? For that matter, why didn’t the family just free her. Your reading that they “used her as a trophy” is entirely convincing.

  10. Tenzin Tsomo

    According to the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This quote is so important because it shows how colonized wants to let the British government know that they would no longer acknowledge British rule, and was a statement to fellow colonists that it was time for the colonies to be governed by colonists. This letter precedes to American Revolutionary War. Declaration of Independence is considered the birthday of our nation as it had helped to form many amendments of our constitution revert because, without it, America would have never existed. This document is a very important part of American democracy because it contains the goals of our nation. Independence means freedom: freedom from control from the British. Freedom means being free; the power to act or speak or think without external restraints. This letter states that authority belongs to people, rather than to kings, that all people are created equal and have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent, thoughtful reading of the central importance of this incredible product of the American Enlightenment, Tenzin.

  11. Enson Zhou

    For my reading this week I chose the declaration of independence transcript. The declaration of independence is a list of rights that colonists must follow in order to achieve revolution. Some of these rights include”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This one right means that everyone has equal rights no matter what their differences were. Unfortunately, this declaration of independence has created some issues throughout the years. In the Text, it says”We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. ”
    Not everyone was granted the equal rights stated in the declaration of independence and the settlers wanted to bring attention to these rights that were not granted,

    • Mark Noonan

      Good reading of the Declaration, Enson. Keep an eye on this “equality clause” as it continues to relate to immigrants who come to America. Are all Americans treated equally even today?

  12. majoguadua

    I couldn’t help but feel this sense of hypocrisy while reading the Declaration of Independence. this part to be more speficic: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

    Thomas Jefferson was one of the participants in the Declaration of Independence and at the same time, someone who was known for owning slaves. This is something that I can’t get square in my mind.

    On the other hand, while reading Phillis Wheatley’s biography I found it fascinating how her talent changed the story of her life. Being a slave owned by a family that purchased her when she was only seven years old, and then taught her to read and write when her talent came out to the light is something incredible. This makes me think the ego of these people was huge enough to have a slave in the family but at the same time, the good samaritan spirit was in them. It seems so relative how people can be good and bad at the same time.

    I also found fascinating Phillis Wheatley’s Poem, I love to read material that is writing in a straight line but has an effect in your mind that is the opposite of something straight. Is like an empty hole sucking your thoughts, and that no matter how many times you read it you still won’t get a square resolution. Because there isn’t. It’s something that makes you feel twisted and you have to enjoy it that way. Thank you Professor for suggesting to read this poem.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thanks for your thoughtful response here, Maria, about the “hypocrisy” and “twisted logic” of Jefferson and Wheatley’s owners participating in the enslavement of humans but, at the same time, encouraging universal equality and self-improvement. As you rightly point out, this makes no “rational” sense at all. The “logic of racism” really is both illogical and vile.

  13. Mehreen Khanom

    No one knows where life will take you in the future. Philis Wheatley Peters struggled through her life while she was enslaved. But her poems made her who she is. While reading her biography, the line “Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual” stood out to me. Her poems and achievements gave her power. At a young age, seven years old Philis faced challenges and traumas but still stood strong. Growing up she wanted to pursue her academic life which helped her become a successful poet. Publishing her poems wasn’t easy being an African but she didn’t let that stop her from achieving her dreams. She used different techniques in her poems that helped to tell her story.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent reading of a key theme in Wheatley’s life: “that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual” despite their treatment and horrific circumstances. This point takes on even greater significance when we realize just how much African Americans have contributed to “American” culture — despite rarely given a fair playing field throughout history. We certainly see this first with Wheatley, as you astutely note.

  14. Amy Li

    I’ve never heard of Venture Smith until reading about his autobiography. He was brought into the country at the age of 8 as a slave. If he had been utilized and given a proper education, he could’ve been big as his mind has such capacity and capabilities. Due to his father marrying his third wife without getting consent from his other two, his mother decided to leave his father with her three children to the east. At then, he was only five years old, and she could barely support her children. His family lived off fruits that grew in the wild, and although there were wild animals, none came to hurt them. The family came across a farmer who allowed them to seek refuge and his mother decided to continue to travel. The type of work he did was tending to sheep. Unfortunately, the two dogs from another house caused lacerations on his flesh from her arm and thigh that these scars remain till this day. His father decided to receive him, and a man with a horse came for him. His father was not ready for war and decided to retreat when invaders attacked. When they came to them, he was hit with the gun’s blunt forearm and roped on his neck. Smith saw his father being tortured by the invaders who wanted to find out where his money was and did not comply. Eventually, Smith witnessed the death of his father, which scene remained in his mind since. The invaders did not stop, taking all prisoners and of theirs values. Smith was put into a castle and was placed in the market. The origin of his name came from being brought by a private venture. He, along with 260 slaves, was purchased from the vessel. It’s so bitter to hear about how his family and people were all stolen from their lives and made to become slaves. I can’t imagine living a content life just to let it be taken away by some invaders. Smith witnessed both brutality and the death of his father. The type of PTSD given by the invaders is just saddening. However, this is just the beginning of his journey. Smith later, as an adult, was able to purchase his freedom and of his family, which I find incredible.

    • Mark Noonan

      Thanks for this interesting recapping of Smith’s both tragic and extraordinary life, Amy. Your point about the “type of PTSD” Smith must have felt both as a slave and “witnessing” the brutal death of his father is illuminating. Certainly, we must take seriously the psychological cost of racism on ill-treated Americans such as Smith and the millions of others who faced similar circumstances — as you astutely suggest.

  15. Zarif

    This Declaration of Independence reading is very interesting, it showcases how being fair and equal is right and how communities should be treated. However, the reading explains all the past mistakes of the King of Great Britain, which goes against everything that is fair and that is stated in the Declaration of independence. It may have its flaws but it takes a group of people to think and make the right decisions. I like how the text states the different things thats needed to make a group of people feel comfortable where they live. 

    • Mark Noonan

      Very good point about the universality of the Declaration. Its demand of equality and fair treatment for all certainly applies to all people everywhere.

  16. Nelson Estrella II

    The biography on Phillis Wheatley is extremely interesting. The biography talks on how Wheatley was “one of the best poets in pre 19th century America”. Wheatley was kidnapped from Senegal west Africa when she was the age of seven. She was taken all the way to Boston and was bought by the Wheatley family. Wheatley was a Christian who believed in god, She was tutored by Mary in reading and writing but She endured a hard childhood with being enslaved but fell in love with writing poems, by the time she was 18 she gathered a collection of “28 poems”. Wheatley became to be one of the most famous African American poets of all time, her legacy in Boston is unmatched!

    • Mark Noonan

      Wheatley’s story certainly is an amazing one. It’s also important to recognize that she was
      America’s FIRST published poet despite being enslaved — as you relate.

  17. Paulina Vega

    The reading I chose was “Declaration of Independence”. What stood out to me in the reading was “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” This quote stood out to me because what the quote is saying is that when the people feel like their happiness or safety is being disturbed by their government, they have the right to remove them. In a way I agree with the quote because if the government is doing something that the people don’t feel comfortable with. They should go out of their way and do something to fix it.

    • Mark Noonan

      Excellent reading Paulina. Indeed, the Declaration is important for its defense of standing up for oneself if one is mistreated.

  18. haroodg

    I was most impressed by Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s comments in Russell Shorto’s “On Slavery’s Doorstep in Ghana” article. I was reminded of what my father told me about Haitians and Haitian culture by what the professor said in the article. Many blacks and African descendants have been inculcated with the voices of African culture through their music. Music acted as a means of communication for many people because it was a form of expression. When Prof. Opoku-Agyemang asked the descendants of Venture Smith “Are they not indications of a buried trauma?” Made me think about the sensations I feel when I listen to Kompa (modern méringue). In spite of this music being very upbeat, it shares a tempo with other Haitian genres. There are many modern applications of this tempo, which is not only unique to Haitian culture but is also found in African culture. How something so simple as a beat can evoke such emotion makes me think of what our ancestors were trying to express with these rhythms. Is this the trauma of African slaves being passed through the sounds of their music?

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