Phillis Wheatley (May 8, 1753 – December 5, 1784) was both the second published African-American poet and first published African-American woman. Born in Senegambia, she was sold into slavery at the age of 7 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.
The publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame both in England and the American colonies; figures such as George Washington praised her work. During Wheatley’s visit to England with her master’s son, the African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in his own poem. Wheatley was emancipated after the death of her master John Wheatley. She married soon after. Two of her children died as infants. After her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into poverty and died of illness, quickly followed by the death of her surviving infant son.
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. Wheatley was brought to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis. It was owned by Timothy Fitch and captained by Peter Gwinn.
At the age of eight, she was sold to the wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom if any surname was used for slaves.
The Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary, first tutored Phillis 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 for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis’ education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. One day Phillis was in Susannah’s room dusting off books and she began to write letters from the book on the wall with a piece of coal. One of the slaves in the Wheatley home saw her and went to go find Susannah. When Susannah came, instead of getting mad, she just smiled. The Wheatleys often showed off Phillis’ abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her studies of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley began to write poetry.
In 1773, the family had Phillis accompany their son Nathaniel Wheatley to London, in part for her health. She had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London (an audience with George III was arranged, but Phillis returned home beforehand), as well as with other significant members of British society. A collection of her poetry was published in London during this visit.
After her mistress, Mrs. Wheatley, died on October 18, 1773, Phillis was relieved of any domestic chores, but was not emancipated. In 1775, Phillis Wheatley published a poem celebrating George Washington, entitled, “To His Excellency, George Washington.” In 1776, Washington invited Wheatley to his home as thanks for the poem, and Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette after their meeting. Wheatley supported the American Revolution, but the war years saw a decline in publishing of poetry.
In 1778, Wheatley was legally freed from slavery by her master’s will. His daughter Mary Wheatley died soon afterward. Three months later, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black grocer. They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two infant children.
Wheatley wrote another volume of poetry but was unable to publish it because of her financial circumstances, the loss of patrons after her emancipation (often publication of books was based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand), and the competition from the Revolutionary War. However, some of her poems that were to be published in that volume were later published in pamphlets and newspapers.
Her husband John Peters was imprisoned for debt in 1784, leaving an impoverished Wheatley with a sickly infant son. She went to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house to support them. The racism and sexism that marked the era had forced her into a kind of domestic labor that she had not been forced to do while her freedom was held by her masters. Wheatley died on December 5, 1784, at age 31. Her infant son died three and a half hours after her death.
In 1768, Wheatley wrote “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” in which she praised King George III for repealing the Stamp Act. 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. 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. 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”:
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 have commented on her reluctance to write about slavery. Perhaps it was because she had conflicting feelings about the institution. In the above poem, 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.
Many white 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. 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 in London. There Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth acted as patrons to help Wheatley gain publication.
In 1778, the African-American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. He does not refer to himself in the poem, but by choosing Wheatley as a subject, he may have been acknowledging their common ethnicity.
Style, structure, and influences on poetry
Wheatley believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable. John C. Shields notes that her poetry did not simply reflect novels which she read but was based on her personal ideas and beliefs. Shields 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.” For example, her poem “Ode to Neptune” signifies her life in many ways. The language of the poem starts out shaky and chaotic but the mood is adventurous yet scary (reflecting much of her life experiences). By the end of the poem the language and attitude seems to generate an emotion of a calm peaceful journey that served of great importance. 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.” Her structure or form of the poetry expressed the tone.
She used three primary elements: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. The hierophantic solar worship is what she brought with her from Africa; the worship of sun gods is expressed as part of her African culture. As her parents were sun worshipers, it 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.” Shields believes that the word “light” is significant to her as it marks her African history, a past which she has left physically behind.
He notes that Sun is a homonym for Son, and that Wheatley intended a double reference to Christ. 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.
Shields believes that her use of classicism set her work apart from that of her contemporaries. He writes, “Wheatley’s use of classicism distinguishes her work as original and unique and deserves extended treatment.” Shields sums up Wheatley’s writing by characterizing it as “contemplative and reflective rather than brilliant and shimmering.”
Legacy and honors
With the 1774 publication of Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, she “became the most famous African on the face of the earth.” 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.” She was honored by many of America’s founding fathers, including George Washington.
Critics consider her work fundamental to the genre of African American literature. She is honored as the first African American woman to publish a book and the first to make a living from her writing.
- In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Phillis Wheatley as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans.
- A statue of Wheatley is part of the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Ave in Boston.
- In 2012, Robert Morris University named the new building for their School of Communications and Information Sciences after Phillis Wheatley.