Poet: Phillis Wheatley
Born: 8 May 1753, West Africa
Died: 5 December 1784, Massachusetts, USA
Wheatley was the first African-American author of a book of poetry. She was born in West Africa, sold into slavery, and transported to North America at the age of seven or eight. Purchased by the Wheatley family, they taught her to read and write, encouraging her poetic talent. On a trip to London with her master’s son in 1773, she was aided in meeting prominent people who became her patrons. The publication of her ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ brought her fame in England and the American colonies. Wheatley was emancipated shortly after the publication. She married around 1778 and had three children, two died in infancy. Her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784 and Wheatley fell into working poverty and died of a resulting illness. Her last son died soon after.
Scholars believe Wheatley was born in West Africa, most likely what is now Gambia or Senegal. She was sold by a local chief to a visiting trader, who then took her to Boston, then part of the British Colony of Massachusetts on the slave ship Phillis. On arrival she was re-sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston Merchant, initially as a young girl servant for his wife, Susanna. She was named Phillis after the ship that had transported her to America. She was given the last name of Wheatley as was the custom if any surname was used by enslaved people.
The Wheatleys’ daughter was Phillis’s first teacher in reading and writing, with the help of their son. The Wheatleys’ were known as progressive throughout New England; and for an enslaved person Phillis received an unprecedented education, and one unusual for a female of any race. By 12 she was reading Latin and Greek classics, passages from the Bible and at the age of 14 she wrote her first poem ‘To the University of Cambridge, New England.’ Recognizing her abilities the family supported Wheatley in her education and often showed off her talent to friends and family. Influenced by Pope, Milton, Homer, Virgil, and Horace Phillis began writing poetry.
Phillis accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley to London in 1773 partly for her chronic asthma but also because it was believed she would have a better chance of her book being published. She had audiences with several significant members of British society including Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, who subsidized the publication of the book in the summer of 1773. After the book publication the Wheatley family emancipated Phillis. Susanna Wheatley, her former mistress, died in 1774 and John Wheatley in 1778. Shortly after, Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free black grocer. They struggled with poor living standards and the deaths of two babies.
John Peters was improvident and in 1784 was imprisoned for debt. With a sickly baby son to care for Wheatley went to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house, Se became ill and died in 1784 followed shortly by her infant son.
On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.