Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley frontispiece.jpg
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley , attributed by some scholars to Scipio Moorhead
Born1753 (1753)
West Africa
(likely Gambia or Senegal)
DiedDecember 5, 1784(1784-12-05) (aged 31)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Period American Revolution
Notable works Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
SpouseJohn Peters
ChildrenUncertain. Up to three with none surviving past early childhood. [1]

Phillis Wheatley, also spelled Phyllis and Wheatly (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first African-American author of a published book of poetry. [2] [3] Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.


On a 1773 trip to London with her master's son, seeking publication of her work, Phillis was aided in meeting prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. Figures such as George Washington praised her work. [4] A few years later, African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in a poem of his own.

Phillis was emancipated (set free) by the Wheatleys shortly after the publication of her book. [5] However, both the Wheatleys soon died, and Phillis was cast into poverty. A marriage did not help to eliminate that. Despite her earlier fame, she died in poverty and obscurity at the age of 31.

Early life

Phillis Wheatley's church, Old South Meeting House Old South Meetinghouse BW.jpg
Phillis Wheatley's church, Old South Meeting House

Although the date and place of her birth are not documented, scholars believe that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal. [7] She was sold by a local chief to a visiting trader, who took her to Boston in the British Colony of Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, [8] on a slave ship called The Phillis. [9] It was owned by Timothy Fitch and captained by Peter Gwinn. [9]

On arrival in Boston, she was re-sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named her Phillis, after the ship that had transported her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom if any surname was used for enslaved people. [10]

The Wheatleys' 18-year-old daughter, Mary, was Phillis's first tutor in reading and writing. Their son, Nathaniel, also helped her. John Wheatley was known as a progressive throughout New England; his family gave Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and one unusual for a female of any race. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages, as well as difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, "To the University of Cambridge [Harvard], in New England". [11] [12] Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis's education and left household labor to their other domestic enslaved workers. The Wheatleys often showed off her abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her readings of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace, and Virgil, Phillis began to write poetry. [13]

Later life

In 1773, at the age of 20, Phillis accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley to London in part for her health (she suffered from chronic asthma) [14] , but largely because Susanna believed Phillis would have a better chance of publishing her book of poems there. [15] She had an audience with Frederick Bull, the Lord Mayor of London and other significant members of British society. (An audience with King George III was arranged, but Phillis returned to Boston before it could take place.) Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, became interested in the talented young African woman and subsidized the publication of Wheatley's volume of poems, which appeared in London in the summer of 1773. As Hastings was ill, she and Phillis never met. [16] [ page needed ]

After her book was published, by November 1773 the Wheatley family emancipated (formally freed) Phillis Wheatley. Her former mistress Susanna Wheatley died in the spring of 1774, and John Wheatley in 1778. Shortly after, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free black grocer. They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two babies. [17]

Her husband John Peters was improvident, and was imprisoned for debt in 1784. With a sickly infant son to care for, Phillis went to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house, labor that she had never performed before. Wheatley became ill and died on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31. [18] Her infant son died soon after.

Other writings

Phillis Wheatley wrote a letter to Reverend Samson Occom, commending him on his ideas and beliefs of how the slaves should be given their natural-born rights in America. Wheatley also exchanged letters with the British philanthropist John Thornton, who discussed Wheatley and her poetry in correspondence with John Newton. [19] Along with her poetry, she was able to express her thoughts, comments and concerns to others. [20]

In 1775, she sent a copy of a poem entitled "To His Excellency, George Washington" to the then military general. The following year, Washington invited Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she did in March of 1776. [21] Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1776. [22]

In 1779 Wheatley issued a proposal for a second volume of poems, but was unable to publish it because she had lost her patrons after her emancipation; publication of books was often based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand. The American Revolutionary War (1775–83) was also a factor. However, some of her poems that were to be included in the second volume were later published in pamphlets and newspapers. [23]


External video
On being brought from africa to america.jpg
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg "On Being Brought from Africa To America by Phillis Wheatley; Narrated by Teyuna T Darris", 0:47, July 8, 2015, [24]

In 1768, Wheatley wrote "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty", in which she praised King George III for repealing the Stamp Act. [5] As the American Revolution gained strength, Wheatley's writing turned to themes that expressed ideas of the rebellious colonists.

In 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to the evangelist George Whitefield, which received widespread acclaim.[ where? ] Her poetry expressed Christian themes, and many poems were dedicated to famous figures. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes. [25] She seldom referred to her own life in her poems. One example of a poem on slavery is "On being brought from Africa to America": [26]

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 dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Historians[ who? ] have commented on her reluctance to write about slavery. Perhaps it was because she had conflicting feelings about the institution. Also, she wrote her early work while still enslaved, even if she was well treated. In the poem above, critics have said that she praises slavery because it brought her to Christianity. But, in another poem, she wrote that slavery was a cruel fate. [27]

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773 Houghton AC85.Al245.Zy773w - Wheatley, title page.jpg
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral , 1773

Many colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave was writing "excellent" poetry. Wheatley had to defend her authorship of her poetry in court in 1772. [28] [29] She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation, which was included in the preface of her book of collected works: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773. Publishers in Boston had declined to publish it, but her work was of great interest to influential people in London.

There, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and the Earl of Dartmouth acted as patrons to help Wheatley gain publication. Her poetry received comment in The London Magazine in 1773, which published as a "specimen" of her work her poem 'Hymn to the Morning', and said: "these poems display no astonishing works of genius, but when we consider them as the productions of a young, untutored African, who wrote them after six months careful study of the English language, we cannot but suppress our admiration for talents so vigorous and lively." [30] Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed in 11 editions until 1816. [31]

In 1778, the African-American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley ("An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley"). His master Lloyd had temporarily moved with his slaves to Hartford, Connecticut, during the Revolutionary War. Hammon thought that Wheatley had succumbed to what he believed were pagan influences in her writing, and so his "Address" consisted of 21 rhyming quatrains, each accompanied by a related Bible verse, that he thought would compel Wheatley to return to a Christian path in life. [32]

In 1838 Boston-based publisher and abolitionist Isaac Knapp published a collection of Wheatley's poetry, along with that of enslaved North Carolina poet George Moses Horton, under the title Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A Native African and a Slave. Also, Poems by a Slave. [33] Wheatley's memoir was earlier published in 1834 by Geo W. Light, but did not include poems by Horton.

Style, structure, and influences on poetry

Wheatley believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable. [34] John C. Shields, noting that her poetry did not simply reflect the literature she read but was based on her personal ideas and beliefs, writes,:

"Wheatley had more in mind than simple conformity. It will be shown later that her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her."

This poem is arranged into three stanzas of four lines in iambic tetrameter, followed by a concluding couplet in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ABABCC. [34] [35] Shields sums up her writing as being "contemplative and reflective rather than brilliant and shimmering." [35]

She repeated three primary elements: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. [36] The hierophantic solar worship was part of what she brought with her from Africa; the worship of sun gods is expressed as part of her African culture, which may be why she used so many different words for the sun. For instance, she uses Aurora eight times, "Apollo seven, Phoebus twelve, and Sol twice." [36] Shields believes that the word "light" is significant to her as it marks her African history, a past that she has left physically behind. [36] He notes that Sun is a homonym for Son, and that Wheatley intended a double reference to Christ. [36] Wheatley also refers to "heav'nly muse" in two of her poems: "To a Clergy Man on the Death of his Lady" and "Isaiah LXIII," signifying her idea of the Christian deity. [37]

Classical allusions are prominent in Wheatley's poetry, which Shields argues set her work apart from that of her contemporaries: "Wheatley's use of classicism distinguishes her work as original and unique and deserves extended treatment." [38] Particularly extended engagement with the Classics can be found in the poem "To Maecenas", where Wheatley uses references to Maecenas to depict the relationship between her and her own patrons, [39] :168728 as well as making reference to Achilles and Patroclus, Homer and Virgil. [39] :167 At the same time, Wheatley indicates to the complexity of her relationship with Classical texts by pointing to the sole example of Terence as an ancestor for her works:

The happier Terence all the choir inspir'd,

His soul replenish'd, and his bosom fir'd;
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,

To one alone of Afric's sable race; [39] :168

While some scholars have argued that Wheatley's allusions to classical material are based on the reading of other neoclassical poetry (such as the works of Alexander Pope), Emily Greenwood has demonstrated that Wheatley's work demonstrates persistent linguistic engagement with Latin texts, suggesting good familiarity with the ancient works themselves. [39] :15962 Both Shields and Greenwood have argued that Wheatley's use of classical imagery and ideas was designed to deliver "subversive" messages to her educated, majority white audience, and argue for the freedom of Wheatley herself and other enslaved people. [39] :1702 [40] :252

Scholarly critique of Wheatley

Black literary scholars in the 1960s and to the present have critiqued Wheatley's writing due to its absence of a sense of her identity as a black enslaved person. [41] A number of black literary scholars have viewed her work—and its widespread admiration—as a barrier to the development of black people during her time and a prime example of Uncle Tom syndrome. These scholars believe that Wheatley's lack of awareness of her condition of enslavement furthers this syndrome among descendants of Africans in the Americas. [41]

It is thought by scholars that Wheatley's perspective came from her upbringing. The Wheatley family took interest in her at a young age because of her timid and submissive nature. [42] Using this to their advantage, the Wheatley family was able to mold and shape her into a person of their liking. [42] The family separated her from other slaves in the home and she was prevented from doing anything other than very light housework. [42] This shaping prevented Phillis from ever becoming a threat to the Wheatley family or other people from the white community. [42] As a result, this allowed Phillis to be able to attend white social events and created a misconception of the relationship between black and white people for her. [42]

Legacy and honors

With the 1773 publication of Wheatley's book Poems on Various Subjects, she "became the most famous African on the face of the earth." [43] Voltaire stated in a letter to a friend that Wheatley had proved that black people could write poetry. John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver some of his personal writings to "Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo." [43] She was honored by many of America's founding fathers, including George Washington, who wrote to her (after she wrote a poem in his honor) that "the style and manner [of your poetry] exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents." [44]

Critics consider her work fundamental to the genre of African-American literature, [2] and she is honored as the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry and the first to make a living from her writing. [45]

She is commemorated on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. [49] The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C. and the Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas, are named for her, as was the historic Phillis Wheatley School in Jensen Beach, Florida, now the oldest building on the campus of American Legion Post 126 (Jensen Beach, Florida). A branch of the Richland County Library in Columbia, South Carolina, which offered the first library services to black citizens, is named for her. Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, New Orleans, opened in 1954 in Tremé, one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the US.

On July 16, 2019, at the London site where A. Bell Booksellers published Wheatley's first book in September 1773 (8 Aldgate, now the site of the Dorsett City Hotel), the unveiling took place of a commemorative blue plaque honoring her, organized by the Nubian Jak Community Trust and Black History Walks. [50] [51]

Wheatley is the subject of a project and play by British-Nigerian writer Ade Solanke entitled Phillis in London, which was showcased at the Greenwich Book Festival in June 2018. [52]

See also

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Further reading

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