Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)
One of America’s first poets, Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in Africa. She was captured by slave traders and brought to America where she was sold in July 1761 to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. Her name (Phillis) was derived from the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.”
Her owners educated her, and within sixteen months of her arrival in America she could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. She also studied astronomy and geography. When she was fourteen years old, Wheatley began to write poetry, publishing “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” in 1770, which brought her great notoriety. In 1773, with financial support from the English Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley published her first collection of poems. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was the first book written by a black woman in America and the second one to be written by any woman.
Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life. For example, the famous poets she studied, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Women in an African-American tribal group who practiced oration influenced her to write in a style that is known as elegiac poetry. Wheatley’s education in Latin influenced her to write in a short epic style. Some of her most popular poems were “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” and “To the University of Cambridge in New England”.
Wheatley developed notoriety in the United States and England. She was a supporter of General George Washington and the patriots during the Revolutionary War. During the peak of her writing career she wrote a well-received poem praising the appointment of Washington as the commander of the Continental Army. However, she felt that slavery was the issue that prevented the colonists from achieving true heroism.
In 1778, Wheatley gained her freedom when her master died. That same year she married John Peters, a free black man from Boston with whom she had several children. Wheatley passed away in December 1784, due to complications from childbirth.
In addition to making an important contribution to American literature, Wheatley’s literary and artistic talents helped show that African Americans were equally capable, creative, intelligent human beings who benefited from an education. In part, this helped the cause of the abolition movement.
- Articles is partially excerpted from a NWHM Newsletter.
- Sewall-Belmont House, Black Women in America, Peake Delancey, 2003.
- “Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet of Colonial America: a story of her life,” About, Inc., part of The New York Times Company, n.d., http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_phillis_wheatley.htm (10 February 2006).
- “Women in History. Phillis Wheatley biography,” Lakewood Public Library, n.d., http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/whea-phi.htm (10 February 2006).