By: Thomas Ghebrezgi
Phillis Wheatley should have never been a poet. She shouldn’t have learned how to read or write, let alone speak fluent Greek and Latin, as well as English. Wheatley shouldn’t have been able to get published so young. The fact that she accomplished so much in spite of her situation is nothing short of a miracle.
Born in what is today Senegal in 1753, Wheatley was brought over to America on a slave ship when she was just eight years old. She made the harrowing journey on The Phillis, a British ship that she would later be named after. A prominent Boston merchant named John Wheatley would purchase her as a servant for his wife, Susanna Wheatley.
The Wheatley’s were a modern family for their time, so Phillis received a world class education. At first, she was only taught to read and write. But wisely recognizing her burgeoning talent and intellect, the Wheatley’s encouraged Phillis in her studies. They introduced her to the Greek classics of Homer and Virgil, the teachings of the Bible, and the writing of the poet Alexander Pope. At this point, Phillis became less a slave and more a third child to the family and excused from all of her domestic chores as a servant.
Career as a poet
At the age of just twelve years old, the young Phillis had her first poem published in a nearby paper, the Newport Mercury. She submitted more poems for publication, each one increasing her status as an artist, before eventually releasing her only collection of poetry in 1773, Poems on Various Subjects. Published to widespread acclaim and is today considered a historic achievement in American literature.
Unfortunately, Wheatley’s life would end up taking a series of tragic turns. She went to England to promote her book and seek medical treatment for an unspecified illness. She would go on to earn an audience with the mayor of London and other English elite. Her trip would be cut short, though, the deaths of her masters, John, and Susanna, summoning her back home. After their deaths, she was later granted her freedom, per their will. She married a freedman from Boston named John Peters, a grocer, and had three kids with him. While Phillis continued to submit works on an interim basis, her family struggled with poverty and illness. Two of her children would die in infancy. Her husband would later die in a debtor’s prison in 1784. To support her last child, Wheatley took work as a maid at a boarding house, the first hard work she’d had to do in decades. She continued to try to write, but her work had a tougher time finding an audience amidst the Revolutionary War. Phillis Wheatley passed away on December 5th, 1784. Her last child would die three hours later.
Her legacy is somewhat split in the historical community. While it’s impossible not to recognize Phillis Wheatley for her literary contributions and talent, some maintain that her work glorified her white slave owners and Christian dogma, while ignoring, or even condemning, her African roots. Read this verse from her poem, To the University of Cambridge, in New England and decide for yourself.
Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, 1773
Say what you will about her beliefs, but Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American to ever be published in America and only the third woman to do so, a problem that persists today. For that alone, she deserves to celebrated and remembered.
’Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes