Plato, Ann (c. 1820–?)
Plato, Ann (c. 1820–?)
African-American writer and poet. Born around 1820 in Hartford, Connecticut; date of death unknown.
Ann Plato, who is believed to be only the second African-American woman to publish a book (the first was Phillis Wheatley ) as well as the first African-American to publish a book of essays, was born around 1820 and grew up in a small community of mostly free blacks in Hartford, Connecticut. There is scant information about her family, or, indeed, about her. Her poem "I Have No Brother" is about a brother who died when she was young, and it is thought that she had some Native American ancestry, based on her poem "The Natives of America," in which she wrote about the oppression these people faced:
Tell me a story, father please,
And then I sat upon his knees.
Then answer'd he,—"what speech make known,
Or tell the words of native tone,
Of how my Indian fathers dwelt,
And, of sore oppression felt;
And how they mourned a land serene,
It was an ever mournful theme."
Plato was greatly influenced by the Congregational Church, which she joined at the age of 13, and she reflected on her church experiences in one of her poems, "Advice to Young Ladies." When she was only about 15, she was teaching at a church school; another poem, "The Infant Class," begins: "This, my youngest class in school, is what I do admire."
Plato self-published her only known book, Essays; Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry, in 1841 in Hartford. Although she was probably around the age of 20 then, many of her poems may have been written in her early teens. In the introduction, Rev. W.C. Pennington, pastor of the Colored Congregational Church in Hartford and a well-known abolitionist, wrote: "I am not in the habit of introducing myself or others to notice by the adjective 'colored,' &c., but it seems proper that I should just say here, that my authoress is a colored lady, a member of my church, of pleasing piety and modest worth." He added: "The best way to do justice to young writers, is to weigh their thoughts without so strict a regard to their style as we should pay in the case of elder writers."
Plato's book included 16 essays that addressed such subjects as obedience, nature, religion, and death ("Reflections Upon the Close of Life"), and are strongly Christian in tone. The Puritan theme of her essays also dominated the 20 poems included in the book, written in the typical iambic tetrameter of the period. Most of her poems have death as their theme. "To the First of August," however, is about slavery, her sole poem on the subject. It speaks of the British abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1838:
Lift ye that country's banner high,
And may it nobly wave,
Until beneath the azure sky,
Man shall be no more a slave.
Plato's work also included four brief biographies of African-American women, Louisa Se-bury, Julia Ann Pell, Eliza Loomis Sherman , and Elizabeth Low , all of whom suffered illness and died before they reached 30 years of age. Of Eliza Sherman, who died of a lung infection in 1839, Plato wrote that the climate of the South would have been more suitable for reasons of her health, but the laws of slavery, of course, prevented her from going there. It is apparent from these writings that the early death of these women profoundly affected Plato. Even her Author's Farewell spoke of her obsession with the end of life.
Modern critics have been harsh about the overly virtuous tone of Plato's book, which was quite common for literature of the time; Joan Sherman , in Invisible Poets (1974), said that her essays are "the pious, moralistic effusions of a Puritan girl," and William Robinson called them "routine" and "mercifully brief." Plato's importance, however, lies less in the content of her book than in the mere fact of it. At the time she published, slavery, while roundly condemned in most Northern states, was still the law of the land in some half of the United States (in a number of Southern states it was illegal to teach blacks to read or write), and women of any race were routinely undereducated in comparison to men. Both African-American and a woman, Plato was remarkable for her time because she wrote in a number of mediums and because she decided to publish her work.
Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.
Busby, Margaret, ed. Daughters of Africa. NY: Pantheon Books, 1992.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania