• Phyllis Wheatley: First black woman poet published
  • Emma Thandi Mashinini : Struggle Stalwart


 Phyllis Wheatley: First Black woman (poet) published

Despite the odds, the first black woman writer published her book of poetry in 1773 and she was a slave.

Phyllis Wheatley was born in 1753, in West Africa, either in today’s Gambia or Senegal. She was sold as a slave at the age of 7 and taken to North America. In Boston, the Wheatley family bought her, and gave her their name.


Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784)

The Wheatley’s taught Phyllis to read and write and this was usual as slaves were forbidden, on pain of death, to read. Phyllis was highly educated, extraordinary for women in general. By the age of 12 she read Greek and Latin classics and the Bible. By the age of 14 she wrote her first poem. The Wheatley’s supported Phyllis’ education and gave her household chores to other slaves.

In 1773 Wheatley published her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and became famous in England and in the American colonies. This was one hundred years before the first white woman, Olive Schreiner, published her book in South Africa in 1883. Wheatley also made a living from writing and used her pen to oppose slavery (see her poem below). President George Washington praised her poetry and her style of writing.

After her master John Wheatley died, Phyllis was emancipated. She married John Peters and had three children. Phyllis died in 1784 shortly after her husband was imprisoned for debt.

             On being brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. Some view our sable race with scornful eye, “Their colour is a diabolic die.” Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train 

Emma Thandi Mashinini – Struggle Stalwart

Emma Mashinini belonged to that generation of activists and union leaders that had to work under harsh conditions and who carried out their lives with great commitment and courage. They broke many new frontiers promoting trade unionism and challenging racism, sexism and exploitation. Emma was also was one of the few women trade union General Secretaries in those days. In this role she was strong and fearless, as she was in her manycommunity roles.

Emma was born in Rosettenville, Johannesburg on 21 August 1929. She passed away on 10 July 2017, eighty seven years later. Emma was forced to leave school at the age of 14 and in 1956 she started work at Henochsberg’s clothing factory and there joined the Garment’s Workers’ Union (GWU). In 1975, she left Henochsberg and took up the position of General Secretary of a new union that she had formed, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA).

Emma was arrested in November 1981 under Section 6 of the apartheid Terrorism Act and spent six months in solitary confinement. Emma played a leading role in the struggle for equal rights for women in the workplace, with her always maintaining that gender equality was inextricable bound with the struggle for workers’ rights. This included leading the highly successful campaign in CCAWUSA for maternity and parental rights.

Since then Emma held a number of other key positions. She also received many awards and accolades.

Emma is the author and co-author of a number of books. This includes her autobiography Strikes Have Followed Me All My Life, which was first published in 1989 and was re-issued twice, in 1991 and 2012. It is well worth reading this book to learn more about the lives of struggle veterans and how they carried out their work under difficult circumstances.

At her memorial service on 13 July 2017 in the Johannesburg City Hall a number of speakers quoted Emma as recently saying that the present situation in South Africa is not what she struggled for. Those are important words that need to be taken forward.

By Jeremy Daphne