Have you ever heard of the remarkable woman, Phillis Wheatley? I hadn’t until I read a little blurb in my university course’s textbook on American Art. I finished this course last week. There had been a lot of heavy reading and writing, but chock full of rich and beautiful artwork and information.
Phillis was born about 1753 in Senegal/Gambia, West Africa. She was kidnapped around age eight and transported on a slave ship to the United States. The captain of the ship discovered little Phillis was a fragile girl not suited for hard labor when they’d stopped at the first two ports of call, the West Indian and Southern colonies while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The captain believed her to be terminally ill. Landing in Boston, Massachusetts, the captain wanted at least some financial compensation before Phillis’ death. He got his wish. A prominent Boston tailor purchased Phillis for her to be his wife’s domestic servant (Poetry Foundation).
Although frail, Phillis’ health did improve a bit, disproving the sea captain’s belief that she was terminally ill.
The Wheatleys found Phillis to be precocious, so they taught her how to read and write. Soon, the young, intelligent girl was engrossed in various subjects, such as astronomy, history, the Bible, and classic British, Greek, and Latin literature. But Phillis desired to learn more and stated so in her poem called “To the University of Cambridge in New England,” that was most likely her first poem written but wasn’t published until 1773 (Poetry Foundation).
Phillis wrote a poetic elegy for the Reverend George Whitefield that brought her international recognition. It was published as a pamphlet in 1771 with Ebenezer Pemberton’s funeral sermons for Whitefield in London that was distributed in Boston, Philadelphia, and Newport (Poetry Foundation).
In February 1772 at age 18, Phillis had collected twenty-eight of her poems and with the help of Mrs. Wheatley, ran ads in Boston periodicals for sponsors. But the colonists refused to support her because she was an African. Frustrated by this, Phillis and the Wheatleys looked to London. Phillis sent the Whitefield poem to Countess of Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, who was a parishioner of Reverend Whitefield. A backer of abolitionist and evangelical causes, the countess connected bookseller Archibald Bell with Wheatley to prepare for a book of her poems (Poetry Foundation).
Suffering from asthma, Phillis traveled to London with the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, and was welcomed by several English dignitaries and also Benjamin Franklin. Her collection of poems, Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 (Poetry Foundation).
Phillis Wheatley’s work was the first book of poetry by an African American published in that period (Poetry Foundation)!
Phillis did write a few poems against slavery. Below is an excerpt from a poetic eulogy to General David Wooster in which she spoke strongly about the wrongs of slavery (Poetry Foundation).
But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind—
While yet (O deed Ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?
Let Virtue reign—And thou accord our prayers
Be victory our’s, and generous freedom theirs.
On Phillis’ trip back to America, Mrs. Wheatley had fallen very ill. Phillis was made a free woman approximately three months before Mrs. Wheatley’s death on March 3, 1774. She married and spent the rest of her life in financial hardship but still managed to continue writing her poems until she fell ill and died in 1784.
Thankfully, Phillis Wheatley’s memory and poems live on.
Here’s one of her most famous poems (a short one) titled Being Brought From Africa to America:
‘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, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
I enjoyed learning about this famous, amazing African American female slave who rose in respect and accolades because of her beautiful writing and being the first African American in modern times to have her work published, that was admired by such prominent Americans as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock (Poetry Foundation).
Poetry Foundation. “Phillis Wheatley: 1753-1784.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley