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Phillis Wheatley: The first published African-American female poet

Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American female poet. She was born in West Africa around 1753, before she was kidnapped and sold into the Maafa (slavery) at the tender age of seven or eight. Her first name was apparently derived from the ship that carried her to America, The Phillis. Phillis was enslaved by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent. She published her first poem in 1767 and her first volume of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Her popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from the Maafa (slavery) on October 18, 1773. Phillis Wheatley was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War and felt that the Maafa (slavery) was an issue that separated whytes from true heroism: whytes can not “hope to find/Divine acceptance with the’ Almighty mind” when “they disgrace/And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race.”

Phillis Wheatley

Although the date and place of her birth are not documented, scholars believe that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal. Wheatley was seized when she was about seven years old and brought to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis. In the month of August 1761, she was sold to a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought her to be a personal servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna named her Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley.

The Wheatleys’ 18-year-old daughter, Mary, first tutored Phillis in reading and writing. Their son Nathaniel also helped her. Soon Phillis was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (particularly John Milton and Alexander Pope), and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer. Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis’s education and left the household labor to their other enslaved domestics. The Wheatleys often showed off her abilities to friends and family.

Although scholars had generally believed that an elegiac poem, on the death of Reverend George Whitefield (1770) was Wheatley’s first published poem; Phillis’s first poem was written when she was thirteen-year-old, after she had heard about a miraculous saga of survival at sea. “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was published on 21 December 1767 in the Newport, Rhode Island. However, it was the Whitefield elegy that brought Phillis national renown. Published as a broadside and a pamphlet in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia, the poem brought Phillis international acclaim.

By the time she was eighteen, Phillis had gathered a collection of twenty-eight poems for which she, with the help of Mrs. Wheatley, ran advertisements for subscribers in Boston newspapers in February 1772. When she was unable to garner support for the publication of her poetry, Phillis travelled with Nathaniel Wheatley to London in 1773. By this time she was suffering from a chronic asthma condition. Phillis had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London (an audience with George III was arranged, but Phillis returned home beforehand), as well as with other significant members of British society. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published, with Phillis having received patronage from Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, in England. As proof of her authorship, the volume included a preface in which 17 Boston men, including John Hancock, asserted that she had indeed written the poems in it.

Poems on Various Subjects is a landmark achievement in U.S. history. In publishing it, Phillis became the first African American and first U.S. enslaved woman to publish a book of poems, as well as the third American woman to do so. The book sold well.

Phillis was freed within weeks of her return from England, some three months before Mrs. Wheatley died on 3 March 1774. Many British editorials had castigated the Wheatleys for keeping Phillis in slavery while presenting her to London as the African genius.

A strong supporter of America’s fight for independence, Phillis penned several poems in honor of the Continental Army’s commander, George Washington. In March 1776, Phillis met with George Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Phillis had written to him previously, including a poem entitled, “To His Excellency, George Washington”. In his reply to her of February 28, 1776, he addressed her as “Miss Phillis.” It is thought by scholars that this might be the first time in George Washington’s life that he addressed a Black woman as “Miss.” Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1776.

On 1 April 1778, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black grocer. She bore him three children, all of whom died in infancy. They struggled with poor living conditions and in 1784 John Peters was imprisoned for debt. Wheatley died that same year on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31. Her third child, an infant son died three and a half hours after her death.


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