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  • Writer's picture Patricia Masters

Phillis Wheatley

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Phillis Wheatley was an 18th century African slave who became a renowned poet and writer. Born in Senegal or Gabon, Africa in 1753, Phillis was kidnapped and transported to Boston, MA on the slave ship, “Phillis”, when she was 7 years old. Mr. John Wheatley purchased the child for a 'trifle sum’ because the slave merchant thought her to be sickly. Phillis became the personal house servant of Mrs. Susanna Wheatley.

Susanna Wheatley thought it her Christian duty to teach Phillis to read so she that Phillis could read the bible. At the time, it was deemed radical to teach slaves to read. It became apparent very quickly that Phillis was extremely intelligent and within 16 months she was reading English, Latin and Greek under the tutelage of Susanna’s children, Mary and Nathaniel.

In Africa, female children sing dirges to honor the dead. Phillis, true to her African roots, wrote many elegies in poetic form as well as classical poems and odes. By the age of 13, with the help of Susanna, Phillis had her first poem published in a periodical. Phillis was also encouraged to read her poems in parlor literary events before many prestigious Bostonians.

Despite Phillis’ talent and popularity in prominent circles, Susanna and Phillis soon discovered that the colonists were not prepared to publish books of poetry by African slaves… but they did not give up. Through a relationship Susanna had established with the British clergyman and founder of the Methodist and evangelical movement, George Whitefield, an introduction was made to Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon in London, England. The Countess, a widow at the time, was a major benefactor of the evangelical movement and abolitionist causes. The Countess took an interest in Phillis’ work and instructed the publisher, Archibald Bell, to contact Phillis and begin the process of bringing Phillis’ poems to print. Phillis travelled to England with Nathaniel Wheatley and, although she never met the Countess due to the Countess’ illness, they corresponded often. Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773, making Phillis the first African American to publish a book of poetry and the second woman in America to publish a book of poetry. Some say that Phillis Wheatley was the most famous African in the world at that time.

Phillis was given her emancipation in 1774, shortly before Susanna Wheatley's death. John and Mary Wheatley died soon after. Phillis somewhat reluctantly married a free man, John Peters, and had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Life for emancipated slaves was extremely difficult and she lived in abject poverty, often alone for months at a time as her husband dodged creditors. Phillis continued to write and had some of her work published in newspapers, but she was never able to get another book published. Phillis worked as a scullery maid, was often sickly and was grieving her lost children yet, still she wrote. Tragically, Phillis Wheatley Peters died in 1784 at the age 31.

In Phillis’ body of work we can see how she resists slavery from within its walls. She wrote letters and poems alluding to her own loss of freedom paralleling the growing American desire for freedom from England. She subtly reveals what Cornelius Eady, an African American poet calls, “double consciousness.” In her poem, On Being Brought From Africa to America, Cornelius Eady states, “Phillis is a slave talking about being a slave to her masters and telling them…I see the way you see me.” Phillis’ life and talents helped the abolitionists argue that the African slaves had great capacity and intelligence and should be emancipated.

In Phillis’ monumental yet short life, we also see the strong influence of two women, Susanna Wheatley and the Countess of Huntingdon. Although these women were the products of their cultural times and the predominant racism, they used whatever power afforded to women of their rank to assist Phillis, advocate for her and bring recognition to her poetry.

Questions to ponder…

How can we gain strength from Phillis’ story and when dealing with a closed or unjust system, work to voice our truths with courage, clarity and creativity?

Phillis went from slavery to abysmal poverty, yet she continued to write. What is it in your life that provides you with sustenance and keeps you going in bleak times?

If we are in a position to help, how can we use our power or influence to assist others, especially the marginalized ones?

For a full biography of Phillis Wheatley's exceptional life and works click below.

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