Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley (ca 1753 – December 5, 1784) was born in Senegal / Gambia, Africa. She was America’s first African-American poet and one of the first women to be published in colonial America. She was also the first slave in the U.S. to have a book of poetry published.

She was kidnapped as part of the slave trade as a young child and brought to North America in 1761. John Wheatley of Boston bought her from the slave market as a personal servant to his wife, Susanna. As was customary at the time, she was given the surname of the family to whom she was in bondage.

The portrait of Phillis Wheatley shown in this post is an engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African-American in Boston who was a talented artist. It’s the only existent portrait of her.


Early promise and keen intellect

It was soon apparent that Phillis had remarkable intellectual abilities, and under Susanna’s guidance, was educated along with Wheatley’s daughters. Within a year and a half, she was able to read the Bible and wrote English fluently. This was quite a rarity at a time when slaves were actively discouraged from learning to read and write. In most cases, it was forbidden altogether.

Not only was Phillis encouraged in her literary talents, she also learned Greek, Latin, ancient history and theology. She was able to translate a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, inspiring a poem that would later be published. 


First verses and a poetry collection

Phillis began writing verse as she mastered the English language, and when she was between 13 and 14 years old, her first poem was published in The Newport Mercury. Further publication of her poems spread the word of her talent in the colonies.

At age 19, she visited England with a son of the Wheatleys; while there, her poetry brought her a great deal of acclaim. A volume of her poems was published, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, in New England (London, 1773). An edition was printed in Boston not long after.

Under the influence of the Wheatley’s Puritan household, Phillis had become a devout Christian. This, along with her education in classic languages and literature, had a profound impact on the subject matter and structure of her poetry.


Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

This portrait of Phillis Wheatley was the frontispiece of
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)


Admired by Washington and Jefferson

In late 1775 she sent verses to General George Washington. In response, he wrote:

“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you inclosed; and, however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents …”

The verses she shared with the soon-to-be first president of the U.S. were published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April 1776. Thomas Jefferson was also a reader of her poetry, writing that her verses were “beneath criticism.”


Unfortunate circumstances

When Wheatley family was broken up by death in the 1770s, Phillis was freed from slavery. Still, she was devastated by the deaths of Susanna and John. The social structure of the time made it incredibly difficult for her to fend for herself.

In 1778 she met and married John Peters, a free black man, but the union was an unhappy one, likely exacerbated by their impoverished circumstances. During the Revolution, the couple resided in Wilmington, Delaware, then returned to Boston, where they lived in abject poverty.

Phillis was unable to secure a publisher for her second volume of poetry in her short lifetime. However, there were at least four posthumous editions of her poems, and a collection of her letters were printed in 1864, many decades after her death. Phillis died on December 5, 1784, from complications due to childbirth. She was in her early thirties.


Colonial Boston

Colonial Boston, image courtesy of thehistorycat-us.com


Contemporary view of her poetry

The consensus of modern and contemporary literary critics seems to be that Phillis Wheatley an important American poet, if not a great one. It also has to be taken into account that as a slave, even one that received such an exceedingly rare education there must have been significant constraints on her freedom of expression.


Major Works and Best-Known Poems

  • “An Elegiac Poem on the Death of George Whitefield, Chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon” (1770)
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston (London, 1773; Albany, 1793; republished as The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans)
  • “Elegy Sacred to the Memory of Dr. Samuel Cooper” (1784)
  • Letters of Phillis Wheatley (Boston, 1864)

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