Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was the first published Black poet. Phillis Wheatley was captured as a child and brought to America via the transatlantic slave trade. She was taught to read and write by her masters, the Wheatleys. They treated her as family and shared her poetry with friends. In her time, few white people believed Black slaves were capable of such intellectual endeavors. She opened the door for other marginalized writers by publishing her poems first in newspapers and eventually publishing a poetry collection titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).

Phillis Wheatley Phillis Wheatley

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Contents
Table of contents

    Phillis Wheatley Facts and Historical Context

    John and his wife Susanna Wheatley noticed that young Phillis Wheatley had a propensity for literature. Within a few months, she learned to read and write in English. The Wheatleys were progressive for their time and encouraged her studies. The family gave her less physical labor and allowed her to spend more time reading and writing.

    Phillis Wheatley, map slave trade, StudySmarterThe strongest slaves were first sold in the Caribbean and Southern colonies where physical labor was most demanding. Phillis Wheatley ended up in rapidly industrializing New England, where there was a demand for domestic labor. Wikimedia Commons.

    Slavery social codes in New England allowed for much more cultural assimilation of slaves. Some Christians felt obligated to teach slaves to read and write, being motivated to spread the gospel. In Phillis Wheatley's case, Susanna Wheatley was looking for a personal servant and companion, someone who could assist as a chambermaid. John Wheatley was an important merchant and tailor in Boston. Often he had to entertain guests of noble stature on short notice and needed help with domestic chores. Often Phillis Wheatley was present at these social affairs.

    America was built on the institution of slavery, and during Phillis Wheatley's life, it was everywhere and normalized. Even the most open-minded of people took it for granted. The idea that slaves could do anything else besides hard manual labor did not cross most people's minds. Abolitionism, while having outspoken proponents, was still in its infancy and did not require that one think that racism was immoral—just that slavery was immoral. Quakers believed that holding any men in bondage was immoral, but powerful people, like politicians, paid little attention.1

    Abolitionism - the anti-slavery movement to end the institution of slavery.

    Phillis Wheatley's Biography

    Phillis Wheatley was brought through the transatlantic slave trade when she was a child. Her actual birthday and month are unknown. Her slave masters, John and Susanna Wheatley, guessed she was about seven or eight, based on her shedding of teeth when they purchased her in Boston, Massachusetts. This would place her birth year around 1753. They named her after the boat she traveled on, and as per custom, gave her their last name as well.

    Phillis Wheatley was still expected to do her chores but experienced a high level of autonomy. Mary Wheatley, the eldest daughter, wanted to be a teacher, so she took it upon herself to tutor Phillis Wheatley. She was an avid learner. She quickly learned to read and write in English. Alexander Pope, a British poet, was one of Phillis Wheatley's first inspirations to write poetry. After learning Greek and Latin, she read and translated classical literature, like poetry by ancient Rome's Ovid. The Wheatleys knew that white audiences would be especially impressed by Phillis Wheatley because most held the belief that Black slaves weren't capable of such intellectual endeavors.

    Phillis Wheatley, portrait of Phillis Wheatley, StudySmarterPhillis wrote a letter to the presumed author of this print portrait, Scipio Moorhead. Wikimedia Commons.

    Phillis Wheatley was given candles to read and write by night. Her first poem was inspired by two of John Wheatley's guests. They talked about surviving a terrible storm while at sea. “On Messrs [Misters] Hussey and Coffin” (1767) became her first published poem. Phillis, just fourteen years old, continually impressed Mrs. Wheatley and felt this particular poem should be seen. On December 21, 1767, it was printed in the Newport Mercury newspaper.

    John and Susanna Wheatley manumitted Phillis Wheatley after she published her first book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. Shortly after, John and Susanna Wheatley died. Wheatley married freedman and grocer John Peters. Phillis Wheatley gave birth to three children, but they did not survive past infancy. During the American war for Independence, many people lost their fortunes and good standing. John Peters, already at a disadvantage as a free Black man, ended up in jail unable to pay debts. Phillis Wheatley spent her last days working at a boardinghouse. She died on December 5, 1784, from complications due to childbirth.

    Manumission - officially granting freedom to a slave.

    Phillis Wheatley: Poems

    Much of Phillis Wheatley's poetry is from the perspective of an outsider. As a Black slave, she never felt truly a part of white communities, especially as she was shown off by the well-meaning Wheatleys. Her special stature in the household kept her separate from the other Black slaves, so she did not feel a part of their community either. As such, Wheatley remained alienated. She sought religion as her redemption, and to find a feeling of belonging.

    "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773)

    "On Being Brought from Africa to America" was first published in her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Phillis reflected upon her experience of being snatched from Africa and delivered to America. She also chided Christians for their hypocrisy. Christianity is about inclusion and equality, yet it was commonly believed Black slaves couldn't become Christians and were inferior to white people.

    "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" (1770)

    Written when she was sixteen, this poem jumpstarted Phillis Wheatley's popularity in colonial New England and Great Britain. She was an admirer of the famous preacher Reverend George Whitefield. The full title is “An Elegiac Poem, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield.” He died suddenly, and this was her elegy to him.

    Elegy - a poem written in dedication to someone upon their death as a form of grieving

    Whitefield preached a message of equality, which naturally struck a chord with the young Wheatley. She was still enslaved, despite her unusual level of autonomy and socializing.2 His preaching also inspired her to be baptized, which was uncommon for slaves. Her poem was printed as a broadside and distributed throughout colonial New England. The poem was also printed in the Boston newspaper The Massachusetts Spy.

    Broadside - a large poster, with only one side printed, to be displayed in public.

    Phillis Wheatley's Book: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

    Phillis Wheatley wrote the first published book by an African American. At first, it was a struggle to get her book published. In the British American colonies, white women were still using pen names, so it was an additional barrier to be Black and a slave. She could not find a publisher in Boston, let alone the colonies. Susanna Wheatley was determined to get Phillis Wheatley's book published.

    Phillis Wheatley, title page of Phillis Wheatley's book, StudySmarterAuthorship by a slave was unprecedented and required a written acknowledgment from their slave master. Wikimedia Commons.

    Susanna Wheatley contacted the Countess of Huntingdon in London, who had Reverend Whitefield as her personal clergyman. She also donated money to religious and anti-slavery causes. The Countess, after reading Phillis Wheatley's elegiac poem to Whitefield, contacted the most prominent publisher in London, Archibald Bell.

    Publisher Archibald Bell required proof that Phillis Wheatley had indeed written this book. Eighteen significant and respectable community members, including John Hancock who was famous for signing the "Declaration of Independence" with his big signature, interviewed Phillis Wheatley. They all unanimously agreed she showed adequate proof of her abilities and signed a letter of attestation. At twenty years of age, Phillis Wheatley finally had the book published in 1773.3

    Phillis Wheatley: Short Quotes

    Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

    Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

    'Their colour is a diabolic die.'" (4-6)

    Phillis Wheatley is reflecting upon her experience being Black and ripped from her home country at such an impressionable age in this quote from "On Being Brought from Africa to America". She only has her otherness to define herself. She's aware that some people look upon her with disdain on account of her skin color.

    Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

    May be refin'd and join th' angelic train." (7-8)

    In this quote from "On Being Brought from Africa to America", Phillis Wheatley is reminding Christians to practice what they preach. Christians believe God loves all his children equally. That salvation is available to everyone by default. They only need to choose to accept it. However, being Black, Phillis Wheatley was always aware of her otherness.

    What can his dear AMERICA return?

    But drop a tear upon his happy urn,

    Thou tomb, shalt safe retain thy sacred trust,

    Till life divine re-animate his dust." (59-62)

    This quote is from "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield." Phillis Wheatley attended Reverend Whitefield's services regularly. He was very popular throughout colonial New England, and his congregation deeply mourned his sudden and unexpected passing. Wheatley was inspired by Whitefield's sermons on equality. Despite her special treatment, she always felt like an outsider and yearned to be a part of a community.

    Phillis Wheatley - Key takeaways

    • Phillis Wheatley was the first published Black poet.
    • Phillis Wheatley was brought through the transatlantic slave trade and brought to America as a child.
    • Her slave masters encouraged her to read and write.
    • Phillis Wheatley became famous in her time for her elegant poetry with Christian themes of redemption.
    • Her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773.

    1. Ida R Bellegarde, Black Heroes and Heroines Book Four: Phillis Wheatley (1984).

    2. Cynthia Salisbury, Phillis Wheatley: Legendary African-American Poet (2001).

    3. Molly Aloian, Phillis Wheatley: Poet of the Revolutionary Era (2012).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Phillis Wheatley

    Why is Phillis Wheatley important?

    Phillis Wheatley is important because she became the first published Black poet during a time when few white people believed Black slaves were capable of such intellectual endeavors. This opened the door for other marginalized writers.

    How did Phillis Wheatley die?

    Phillis Wheatley died from complications of childbirth.

    What is the origin of Phillis Wheatley's name?

    Phillis Wheatley is named after The Phillis, the boat she arrived from in the transatlantic slave trade, and her slave masters, the Wheatleys.

    When was Phillis Wheatley born?

    Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753.

    What was Phillis Wheatley famous for?

    Phillis Wheatley was famous for writing poetry while enslaved and being the first Black poet to be published.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the birth year of Phillis Wheatley?

    Phillis Wheatley is believed to be from

    Who was one of the signers of the attestation that also signed the Declaration of Independence? 

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