...in 1761, John Wheatley, a successful merchant, purchased a frail little black girl off a slave ship in Boston. The Wheatleys named her Phillis, after the vessel that had brought her across the Atlantic from her home in West Africa. The family soon discovered that the young slave was an exceptional child. Their daughter taught Phillis to read the Bible and later English, Latin, and Greek classics. Phillis Wheatley's first poem was published in 1767; she was about 14 years old. When a London publisher issued a book of her verse in 1773, she became the first African in America to have a book of poetry published.In spite of this early success, she died poor and unknown in 1784.
A few colonial masters taught their slaves to read so they could partake of the Bible, but it was very rare for any slave to receive as much education as the girl who became known as Phillis Wheatley. Her owners appeared to be unusually fond of her. The young servant, as many northerners called their slaves, spoke no English when she was sold to John Wheatley, but she learned quickly. By 1765 she had composed her first poem.
In October 1770, she wrote an elegy for George Whitefield, a popular Evangelical minister from England, who had died unexpectedly while traveling in Massachusetts. Newspapers in Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia published it. Wheatley's elegy reached Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon and a great admirer of the Rev. Whitefield. The countess, in turn, sent Wheatley's poem to London papers, which reprinted it many times.
By the early 1770s, Phillis Wheatley had written enough poems to publish a book. Most whites, however, believed that men and women of African descent lacked intellectual capacity. John Wheatley assembled a group of Boston's most respected citizens, including the governor and John Hancock, to "examine" his slave and vouch for the poems' authenticity.
The men agreed to write a preface to Phillis's book assuring "the World that the Poems specified in the following Page[s] were (as we verily believe) written by PHILLIS, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town."
Despite this endorsement, the Wheatleys could not find a publisher for the book in the colonies, and the Countess of Huntingdon offered to finance publication in England. The Wheatleys' son accompanied Phillis, still enslaved, to London to help prepare her poems.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston was published in September 1773; the author was about 20 years old. In its first year, the book was reprinted four times in London. Although her book became available in the colonies the following year, an American edition was not issued until 1786, after Phillis's death. In the remaining years of the eighteenth century, seven editions appeared.
Phillis's mistress had fallen ill while Phillis was in England. In 1773 the young woman sailed back to Boston. Shortly after her return, the Wheatleys emancipated her. However, her freedom, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, "enslaved her to a life of hardship" an all too common fate for a free black woman in eighteenth-century Massachusetts.
In 1774 John Wheatley was widowed. He left Boston, and Phillis lived for a time with his daughter Mary and her husband. She continued writing, but the outbreak of hostilities between the colonies and England further hampered her ability to make a living as a poet.
In 1778 she married John Peters, a free black man about whom little is known. One thing is clear: like most blacks in colonial Massachusetts, the couple found it difficult to get an economic foothold. They lived in poverty.
They had two children; both died in infancy. Shortly after their third child was born, John Peters apparently abandoned his wife. Phillis and her newborn died on December 5, 1784. She was about 30 years old.
By 1779 Phillis had written enough poems for a second book, but she had been unable to find subscribers to finance its publication. The manuscript has never been found, but one poem recently came to light. In a heartbreaking irony, Christie's auction house sold it for just under $70,000.
In the years before the Civil War, abolitionists often cited Wheatley's poetry as proof of black men and women's intellectual abilities. Then, as Gates says, she "disappeared from view" for almost a century. Twentieth-century black writers and critics rediscovered her work, but many of them dismissed her as a "Negro poetess [who] so well fits the Uncle Tom syndrome . . . pious, grateful, retiring, and civil," someone who accepted her "degradation." They assailed "On Being Brought from Africa to America," a poem she had written as a teenager, which begins: "'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. . . ."
It is important to remember that Phillis Wheatley was still a slave when she wrote the poem. Once a free woman, she wrote differently about being "by seeming cruel fate . . . snatch'd from Africa" and prayed "others may never feel tyrannic sway." And in a widely published letter, she insisted in 1774 that "in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and . . . I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us."
In 1773 she had "humbly submitted to the Perusal of the Public" her poems "with all their Imperfections." She was the first American black, male or female, free or enslaved, to do so.
African-American History (McMillan Library Reference, 1996).
American Women Writers, Volume 4 (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982)
The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, by Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).
"Phillis Wheatley On Trial," by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The New Yorker, January 20, 2003.
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta (University of Georgia Press, 2011).