Poetry of Enslavement
George Moses Horton (circa 1978-1883) was an African-American poet who published his first book while still enslaved. Enslaved to the Horton family of North Carolina, George Moses Horton taught himself to read as a child. Unable to write, he composed poems in his head, which sympathetic white people who recognized his talent transcribed. He sold love poems, usually acrostics, to students at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
In 1829, he became the first African-American man to publish a book in the South with a collection of poems called A Hope of Liberty, published by Joseph Gales in Raleigh, North Carolina. During his life, Horton published two more books, entitled The Poetical Works of George M. Horton: The Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845) and Naked Genius (1865). To fund his writing, Horton bought time from his owners using the proceeds of his poetry.
Strong themes present in Horton’s work include slavery and bondage, freedom and liberty, and nature. His writings following emancipation expressed frustration with the treatment of African-Americans following the Civil War.
Horton married an enslaved woman (owned by Franklin Snipes) sometime during the 1830s and had two children with her: Free and Rhody.
Phillis Wheatley was a renowned poet during her lifetime, part of which she spent enslaved to the prominent and progressive Wheatley family in Boston. Phillis Wheatley’s owners taught her to read and write, and when they recognized her talent for writing, they had other enslaved people take on her work. Wheatley published her first book titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Mortal, seen below, in 1773. Shortly after the publication, Phillis Wheatley was emancipated.