Before Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks, there was Phillis Wheatley, the first black woman poet of note in the United States. Despite being kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., Wheatley became one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America. She also became the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in 1773.
So how did a young girl from Africa become a pioneering poet? Wheatley’s story is disheartening, enraging and revolutionary. Born in West Africa, presumably modern-day Senegal or the Gambia, Phillis was seized from her home when she was about seven years old. She was transported to the Boston docks with a shipment of “refugee” slaves, who because of age or physical frailty was unsuited for rigorous labour in the West Indian and Southern colonies, the first ports of call after the Atlantic crossing. In August 1761, Susanna Wheatley, wife of prominent Boston tailor John Wheatley, purchased the young girl who was described to be “slender and frail” at the time to fulfil her domestic needs.
According to Biography.com, under the family’s direction, Phillis (who, as was the custom at the time, adopted her master’s last name) was taken under Susanna’s wing. Her quick intelligence was hard to miss, and as a result, Susanna and her two children taught Wheatley to read and was actively encouraged in her literary pursuits by the household. She received lessons in theology, English, Latin and Greek. Ancient history was soon folded into the teachings, as were lessons in mythology and literature. At a time when African Americans were discouraged and intimidated from learning how to read and write, Wheatley’s life was an anomaly. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.
Wheatley wrote her recognised first published poem at around age 13. The work, a story about two men who nearly drown at sea, was printed in the Newport Mercury. Other published poems followed, with several also being published, further increasing Wheatley’s fame. It wasn’t until 1773 when Wheatley gained considerable stature after her first and only book of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published. 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, Wheatley became the first African American and first U.S. slave to publish a book of poems, as well as the third American woman to do so. It was in the same year, 1773 that Wheatly travelled to London escorted by the Wheatleys’ son to promote her poems and receive medical treatment for a health ailment that she had been battling. Her personal qualities contributed to her great social success in London and upon her return to Boston, at the desire of friends she had made in England, she was soon freed. Both Mr and Mrs Wheatley died shortly thereafter. In 1778 she married John Peters, a free black man but their marriage proved to be a struggle, with the couple battling constant poverty. Ultimately, Wheatley was forced to find work as a maid in a boarding house and lived in squalid, horrifying conditions. She did continue to write, but the growing tensions with the British and, ultimately, the Revolutionary War, weakened enthusiasm for her poems. While she contacted various publishers, she was unsuccessful in finding support for the second volume of poetry. Phillis Wheatley died in her early 30s in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784.
Two books issued posthumously were Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1834)—in which Margaretta Matilda Odell, a collateral descendant of Susanna Wheatley, provides a short biography of Phillis as a preface to a collection of her poems—and Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro Slave-Poet of Boston (1864). Wheatley’s work was frequently cited by abolitionists to combat the charge of innate intellectual inferiority among black people and to promote educational opportunities for African Americans.
featured image: Statue of Phillis Wheatley in Boston.© Jixue Yang/Dreamstime.com