Phillis Wheatley the Life and Poetry of the First Black Female Slave Writer
Phillis Wheatley was the second African American slave to have risen above the shackles of slavery to emerge as a writer as well as the first African American female writer to be published in the United States in 1773 with her book Poems on Various Subjects published two years before the start of the American Revolutionary War during which she became a strong supporter of independence.Phillis Wheatley was the second African American slave to have risen above the shackles of slavery to emerge as a writer. She was the first African American female writer to be published in the United States with her book Poems on Various Subjects published in 1773, two years before the start of the American Revolutionary War during which she became a strong supporter of independence
Phillis Wheatley Captured and Sold into Slavery:
Born in what is now modern day Senegal, some other sources say Gambia, in West Africa, she was captured by fellow Africans, and sold into slavery and named after the slave ship, the Phillis, that transported her across the Atlantic to America. She was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761. There, a wealthy tailor, John Wheatley, purchased her for his wife, Susannah.
John Wheatley happened to be also a prominent Boston merchant running a wholesale, real estate, warehouses, wharfage, and the Schooner London Packet business. He owned several slaves as well. Realising that the female slaves were already getting beyond their active periods of life, his wife, Susannah, had expressed the desire to obtain a younger black girl whom she could train up gently and gradually into a faithful domestic.
According to an account published by George Light in 1834, Susannah Wheatley visited the slave-market to make a personal selection from those offered for sale. There she found several robust, healthy females, exhibited at the same time with Phillis, who was of a slender frame, and evidently suffering from change of climate. Seeing her humble and modest demeanor and her interesting features, her choice fell on her immediately. The poor, naked little girl child, covered only by a quantity of dirty carpet, was taken home in the chaise of Mrs Wheatley, and on arrival was comfortably attired.
Susannah Wheatley was an ardent Christian and admirer of charismatic and eloquent Calvinist preacher, George Whitefield. Phyllis was fortunate in her surroundings, for Mrs Wheatley had a sympathetic heart. Though very frail, Phillis'' remarkable intelligence drew everyone around her as they grew very much alert and appreciative of her immense gifts.
Phillis Wheatley''s Education in America:
The sooner Phillis was introduced to the Wheatley family, Susannah''s daughter, Mary, undertook to teach her to read and write. Her rapid progress, her amiable disposition and the propriety of her behavior soon won her the good will of her mistress. She was therefore not assigned to menial occupations, as was at first intended; nor was she allowed to associate with the other domestics of the family, who were of her own colour and condition, but was kept close by her mistress.
The family made sure that she received a good education, including the study of foreign languages such as Latin, and history. She was tutored by Mary, in English, Latin, history, geography, religion, and the Bible. She was taught how to read. After 16 months of instruction, Phillis could read English and understand "difficult passages in the Bible". At 12 years of age she began to study Latin so that in a very short time she began to read Latin writers.
As well as knowing the Bible, three poets - Milton, Pope and Gray - touched her deeply, and from then on she began to write poems strongly influenced by them. There is no evidence to state if the Wheatleys were rebuked for educating the young slave girl, but the Wheatleys being deeply committed Christians thought of her as, firstly a soul in need of salvation so they truly had their spiritual defense ready at hand if confronted with such verbal reprimands.
Phillis Wheatley''s Growing Acclaim as a Writer:
Her first poem was published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. She soon got exposed to many of Boston''s "literati," clergy, and other members of society. Through these men she was exposed to a wide variety of books and the Scriptures. Her writing thus reflects familiarity with mythology and Pope''s Homerall and more of which she had read. Phillis was given the freedom to write about whatever she wished, and to develop her own originality. However, she was happy to oblige when asked by others to write a poem for a special event. Many of her elegiac poems were responses to such special requests.
In 1770 the young Phillis Wheatley drew much acclaim in the Boston area with the growing impact of one of her first poems titled "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, " a poetic elegy as a tribute to George Whitefield the popular evangelistic preacher on his passing. This poem spread throughout the Colonies and all the way to England, where Whitefield''s patroness, Lady Huntington, grieving over his death, grew much devotion to the poem and the poet. The poem "catapulted Phillis from the level of local celebrity to a poet with a reputation throughout the Colonies and overseas. This poetic piece became her trademark of "morality" as well as her "giftedness."
In each of her works honour was always given to God. For her poetry revolves mostly around Christian themes, with many being dedicated to famous personalities,and some being religious.
In 1772, Phillis wrote a poem thanking Lord Dartmouth for his part in convincing the King to repeal the Stamp Act. This is the only poem in which she refers to her childhood kidnapping. Referencing the sadness of that event, she bases her love of freedom for the Colonies on her wish that no others should experience the sorrows that her own parents must have felt on her disappearance.
One of the few which refers to slavery is "On 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 dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin''d, and join th'' angelic train.´
Over one-third of her poems consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical and abstract themes. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. She soon collected enough poems to include in a book. She thus became the first African American woman to have a book published when her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773.
Because many white people then found it hard to believe that a twenty year old black slave woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability before 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. After some thorough examination and cross examination they concluded that she had in fact written the poems herself and signed an attestation to that effect which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book had to be published in London because publishers in Boston refused to publish it.
She became a novelty in Bostonian society, an "exotic curiosity," whom the Wheatleys were happy to show off. The "Puritanical whiteness of her thoughts" won her the approbation of many.
Phillis Wheatlry''s Trip to London where she Meets more Notables and Gets Published:
Phillis Wheatley and her master''s son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, as she had become ill and "fresh sea air" was prescribed as a remedy for her respiratory disease.
In London she met Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and the Earl of Dartmouth who helped with the publication.
Accompanied by Nathaniel Wheatley, she set sail for England. While visiting, apart from taking the opportunity to have her works published, she was also able to meet several notables such as British dignitaries and intellectuals such as Lord Lincoln, Lady Cavendish, Mrs. Palmer, a poet, and the Lord Mayor of London who knew her poetry, celebrated her literary ability and strove to assist her in its publication. But it was the Countess of Huntingdon who helped her the most. Wheatley found a reliable ally in her. This evangelical Englishwoman with ties to George Whitefield on whom one of the poems was written had read and liked Phillis''s poetry and arranged for its publication in London.
The frontispiece of the original edition requested by the countess has clear indications of the author''s identity and ability: "Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr John Wheatley of Boston" with an engraving of the young black woman at her desk with a piece of paper in front of her, and holding a book in one hand and a pen in the other which is said to have been done by a young African American slave, Scipio Moorhead.
Whilst in London she also had the honour of being paid a courtesy call by American Statesman, writer and scientist, Benjamin Franklin, then serving as American Ambassador there.
Phillis Wheatley''s Accomplishments as a Writer Liberates Her:
Phillis'' literary gifts, intelligence and piety were a striking example to her English and American audiences of the triumph of native human capacities over unfortunate circumstances of birth. But on receiving news of the fatal illness of Mrs Wheatley, her benefactress, she had to cut short her stay in England, to return to America.
Her popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. This was as a result of growing pressures from Wheatleys'' friends in Britain as well as abolitionists. She even appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 for her poetry, especially the poem she wrote in October 1775 in his honour. This poem written for him entitled "To His Excellency General Washington," was sent to General Washington in 1775 and was eventually published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April, 1776.
Phillis wrote a second military poem a year later, called "Thoughts on His Excellency Major General Lee Being Betray''d into the Hands of the Enemy by the Treachery of a Pretended Friend."
In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. Though Hammon never mentions himself in the poem, in choosing Wheatley as a subject, he seems to be acknowledging their common bond.
After the death of the Wheatley family, Phillis Wheatley married a free black grocer named John Peters in a marriage that produced three children, two of whom soon died of frail health. Peters was said to have been disliked by the Wheatleys. He is said to have been a Negro rights advocate who being without a steady job was imprisoned for debt in 1784 having failed at his grocery business, as well as several other business attempts and remained incarcerated until Phyllis died.
Phillis continued to write, but the struggling economy of the Colonies hindered her effort to make a living at it. To support herself and her family, Phillis "worked as a servant in her final years," doing the hard labor she never had to when a slave.
Phillis'' last years were spent alone and in great poverty in a wreck of a house, a boardinghouse in Boston. By 1784 in December she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave. She died at the young age of 31.
Several days after Phillis'' death in 1784 (and too late to earn her any money), three of her poems were published. Two of these are elegiac, and the third celebrates the end of the Revolutionary War.
Phillis Wheatley''s contribution to literature is important. First, in an era of subjugation of her race, the Blacks, she proved to have an intellect matching or superior to many of those considered her superiors. Second, she wrote in a style controlled by "rigid boundaries," the heroic couplets and the "ornate diction of neoclassicism" that were customary at the time. Her poetry is widely regarded as being "exceptionally mature." Phillis'' ability to practice her art in the deprived social environment in which she lived makes her poetry worth studying for her exceptional accomplishments in such circumstances.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and frontispiece of 1773 edition)
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and front matter of 1802 edition)
Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave (Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834), also by Margaretta Matilda Odell
To His Excellency George Washington written for Washington in 1776
Abcarian, Richard and Marvin Klotz. "Phyllis Wheatley." In Literature: The Human Experience, 9th edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin''s, 2006: 1606.
Cashmore, E. "Review of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature" New Statesman, April 25, 1997.
Gates, H. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America''s First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2003
Robinson, William H. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. 1982
---. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston : G.K. Hall, 1981
William H. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston : G.K. Hall, 1981.
---. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. 1984.
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989
Odell, Margaretta Matilda. "Memoir." Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Boston: Geo. W. Light, 1834. 20 Sep. 2003. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/wheatley/wheatley.html
Richmond, M.A. Bid the Vassal Soar. Washington D.C.: Howard UP, 1974.
"Wheatley, Phillis." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. 20 Sep, 2003. http://www.britannica.com/ebc/article?er=407910
Gates Louis, Jr and Mckay Nellie Y., l (eds) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 1997 New York
AFRICANA Arts and Letters. An A-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians and Artists of the African American Experiences
Works by Phillis Wheatley at Project Gutenberg
Phillis Wheatley at the Open Directory Project
Jupiter Hammon''s Poem to Phillis Wheatley
A Geo-Biography of Phillis Wheatley on Google Earth
Phillis Wheatley: Precursor of American Abolitionism
Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet of Colonial America: a story of her life
Phillis Wheatley: A Life of Triumph Over Obstacles
Poems on Various Subjects Full-text searchable online at University of South Carolina libraries
Arthur E Smith is Senior Lecturer of English at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. His articles, stories and essays have appeared in many venues. He was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College. He has taught English at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education & Technology. Mr. Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally. He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department in 2006. His thoughts and reflections on this trip could be read at www.lisnews.org and ezinearticles.com His other publications include: Folktales From Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and ''The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone''