Ann Plato

(b. 1820)

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(?–?), essayist and poet. Little is known about the life of Ann Plato. Apparently, she was a free black in Hartford, Connecticut, at a time when the city's free black residents outnumbered the town's slave population. She was also a member of Hartford's Colored Congregational Church. Knowledge about her is limited to the one book that she published. Entitled Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces of Prose and Poetry (1841), it contains four biographical compositions, sixteen very short essays, and twenty poems.

Her minister, the Reverend James W. C. Pennington, wrote an introductory notice “To the Reader”. After identifying Ann Plato as one of his parishioners, he repeatedly says she is young but does not make clear exactly how old she is. He says nothing about her family except to indicate that she is “of modest worth.” Neither does he tell how long she had been a member of his church, but he does record she is “of pleasing piety.”

If Pennington tells little about Ann Plato, she told even less about herself. There is some evidence that she was either a young teacher or preparing to be one. Her essays are conventional. Designed as didactic renderings of issues that she found important, they focus primarily on religious and educational matters. Her attitude toward Africa appears in an essay entitled “Education” in which she commends those Christian missionaries who were willing to forsake the comforts of home in order to take “a message of love to the burning clime of Africa.” In keeping with an eighteenth-century tendency to eulogize one's friends, Plato mourns—in the four biographies—the early deaths of some friends, one of whom was apparently a slave.

Although Plato's poetry seldom deals with racial issues, she apparently was not totally oblivious to the concerns of her day. One of her poems, “To the First of August,” celebrates the ending of slavery in the British West Indies and may have been written shortly after that law went into effect on 1 August 1838. At the time there were a number of poems written by a variety of poets on the subject, and she presumably joined this contemporaneous group. “The Natives of America” is a dramatic poem which relates her consideration of the plight of Native Americans in the United States. But for the most part, her subjects seem to have little to do with the specific problems faced by African Americans in everyday life.

One might conclude her only value is as a link between Phillis Wheatley, whose work she apparently knew, and later women writers. On the other hand, Plato does show in Essays some tendencies toward a lyricism not associated with Phillis Wheatley. For example, her elegaic “Reflections, Written on Visiting the Grave of a Venerated Friend” goes beyond the expected neoclassical tradition and shows real feeling about death. Her love poem “Forget Thee Not” is another example of a stylized lyric that conveys a sense of emotion. But in following neoclassical conventions, she did not write about herself. As a result, much about Ann Plato has—so far—been lost to history. Yet, one wonders how autobiographical are such poems as “On Examination for a Teacher,” “I Have No Brother,” or “The Residence of My Fathers.”


Subjects: Literature.

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