Phillis Wheatley was a poet and the first African American woman to have her work published.
Phillis Wheatley, as her name became, was born in West Africa (probably Senegal). Her African birth name is unknown to us now, because when she was only 7 years old she was kidnapped and shipped to America to be sold as a slave. The ship she sailed on was called The Phillis, from which she got her new name. The family she was sold to were the Wheatleys.
The Wheatley’s daughter taught Phillis to read and write, which was quite unusual for a slave. She was a quick learner; by the time she was 9 years old she had mastered English, by the time she was 12 she could handle Greek and Latin too! The Wheatley family encouraged her learning and she began to read all the books she could lay her hands on.
Phillis wrote her first poem at the age of 13 and very quickly had it published in the local paper, The Newport Mercury. Her reputation as a poet soon began to spread after she wrote a poem about a well known Reverend who had died.
As she developed her talent, she wrote more and more poems. Many people however didn’t believe that the poems they were reading could really have been written by a black slave. In 1772 Phillis had to defend her work before it could be published.
Phillis had travelled to London with the Wheatley’s eldest son. She had been unable to raise the sponsors needed to publish a book in America, but was more successful in England, where she met with the Mayor of London and an important Countess called Selina Hastings.
Together they found a bookseller and printer to publish her collection of poems, but because she was a slave he said he needed proof that she was really the poet. And so eventually several well-to-do men from Boston, back in America agreed, and testified to the fact, that she had indeed written these brilliant poems. Her book of poems was called Poems on Various Subjects – Religious and Moral. It was published in London, in 1773.
Their ‘attestation’ appeared in the front of her first collection of published works which was released the following year. It read:
“WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”
With Poems on Various Subjects she became the first African American to publish a book, male or female. Despite the fact that she was still a slave, the very fact that she wrote so beautifully and intelligently greatly challenged the ideas many people held about black people.
Although her poems didn’t always overtly challenge slavery, she none-the-less did include ideas which led to abolitionists embracing her work. This extract from one of her poems challenges those with religious beliefs about keeping slaves:
“But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind
While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric: blameless race
Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers
Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.”
She also wrote many letters, and in one she sent in 1774, when speaking about slavery she said,
“in every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”
In 1775 Phillis wrote a poem about George Washington and sent it to him (as you do!) He obviously liked it because he invited her to his house to meet with her.
In 1778 her master, John Wheatley died and Phillis became a freed woman as he had written in his will. She soon met and married a free black man called John Peters. Sadly, her freedom and new married life were to become perhaps the hardest years of her life.
Life was disrupted by the American Revolution, Phillis and her husband became very poor, and suffered the tragic loss of two children. Often when slaves were freed they found it hard to earn an income, as many people were still deeply racist and wouldn’t give them work. Phillis did find work eventually, as a scullery maid – very different to the life she had been used to as a writer.
Determined to use her skills as a poet Phillis tried to gain enough sponsors to publish a second collection of poems which she had been working on, however it wasn’t to be. Despite this she continued to write, and published more poetry in pamplets.
But things got worse for Phillis. Her husband John was put in prison because he couldn’t pay his debts, leaving Phillis and a very young, very sick, child to fend for themselves. In 1784 Phillis died in poverty at her home in Boston, her young son followed her just three and a half hours later.
Despite the tragic end to her story, Phillis Wheatley is remembered as an important figure in American Literary history. Some critics say that she should have been more vocal about slavery in her poetry, however the fact she wrote at all did a lot to change people’s minds about what a black person could do, and showed them that they were in fact no different. After her death Phillis, and her poems, were often used as an example by those striving to end slavery for good.
In Boston today there is a memorial statue of Phillis Wheatley. Engraved on the side are the words from a wonderful poem she wrote about imagination:
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Find out more….
You can read all of Phillis Wheatley’s published poems, most of which can be found for free online. Have a look here, where you can download a free copy of her book.
Here is a short video clip about Phillis:
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