Phillis Wheatley was born in Gambia or Senegal on the west coast of Africa about 1753. In 1761, once she was around eight years old, Phillis Wheatley was abducted and brought to Boston. She was a small, sick child who caught the attention of John and Susanna Wheatley. Purchased as a domestic servant for Susanna, the little girl was named after the ship that brought her to America, the Phillis, and her master, Wheatley.
Mrs. Wheatley noticed the girl’s intelligence and impressive ability to learn quickly. She relieved the child of most domestic duties and educated her, with assistance from her own daughter, Mary, in reading, writing, religion, language, literature, and history.
Phillis began publishing her first poems around the age of twelve, and soon afterward her fame spread across the Atlantic. In 1771, Phillis, in continuously poor health, set off for London with her master’s son, Nathaniel. It was here that she was solely accepted and adored—both for her poise and her writing. It was here where she wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and decency with which I was treated by all.”
Phillis Wheatley managed to publish her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book written by a black woman in America. The book was printed in London simply because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. It enclosed a forward, signed by John Hancock and other Boston notables—as well as a portrait of Wheatley—all designed to prove that the work was indeed written by a black woman.
Wheatley’s poems mirrored many influences in her life, among them the well-known poets she studied, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Pride in her African heritage was also evident. Her expressive style embraced the lament, likely from her African roots, where it was the role of girls to sing and perform funeral dirges. Religion was another key influence, and as a result of her religious works, protestants in America and England enjoyed and became fans of her work. Everyone read her work on both sides of the slavery argument; one side to persuade the broader population to support the
institution of slavery, and the abolitionists on the other side as proof of the intellectual abilities of people of color.
Her popularity as an author both within the United States of America and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. After sending the literary work, to His Excellency, George Washington, Wheatley was invited to meet General Washington in March 1776 to discuss her poetry. Wheatley was a powerful supporter of independence for the colonies throughout the Revolutionary War. However, she believed that slavery was the problem that prevented the colonists from achieving true independence.
After the death of the Wheatley’s family, she married a free black grocer named John Peters. With John, Wheatley had three children, two of whom died very young. Later, Wheatley’s husband left her, and she began to earn a living as a servant. By 1784 she was living in a boarding house and, in December of that year, she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave. She died in an impoverished condition at the age of thirty-one. Wheatley’s third died within a couple of hours after her death. At the time of her death, there was a second volume of poetry produced but mysteriously neither
it nor any of her other works have ever been seen.
Phyllis Wheatley made important contributions to American literature. Her literary and artistic talents helped show that African-Americans were equally capable, creative, and intelligent human beings who benefited from education. Her life and her sacrifice contributed greatly to the cause of the abolitionist movement.
PUBLIC NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Urban Intellectuals, affiliates or partners.