Phillis Wheatley

phyllis_wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784) was the second published African American poet whose writings helped create the genre of African American literature. She was born in Gambia, Africa, and became a slave at age seven. She was purchased by the Boston Wheatley family, who taught her to read and write, and helped encourage her poetry.

The 1773 publication of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, brought her fame, with dignitaries such as George Washington praising her work. Wheatley also toured England and was praised in a poem by fellow African American poet Jupiter Hammon. Wheatley was emancipated by her owners after her poetic success, but stayed with the Wheatley family until the death of her former master and the breakup of his family. She then married a free black man, who soon left her. She died in poverty in 1784 while working on a second book of poetry, which has now been lost.

Phillis’ popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 at a poetry reading. She was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War. She married a free black grocer named John Peters. This marriage produced three children, two of whom soon died. Her husband left her and Wheatley earned a living as a poet and seamstress. By 1784 she was living in a boarding house and, in December of that year, she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave. She died in poverty at the age of 31. Wheatley’s third child died only a few hours after her death. At the time of her death, there was a second volume of poetry but no publishers were willing to publish it.

In 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim. Wheatley’s poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes.[6] She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. 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.´

Because many white people of the time found it hard to believe that a black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court.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 that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master’s son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.

Through her poetry, Wheatley is credited with helping found African American literature.

Books:
Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley (Author), Vincent Carretta (Contributor)

Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Ann Rinaldi

The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Encounters with the Founding Fathers by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A Voice of Her Own: A Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet by Kathryn Lasky (Author), Paul Lee (Illustrator)

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