Phillis Wheatley is renowned as the first African-American poetess and the second African-American to get her/his book published. Her work is highly looked upon, today, as it marks the beginning of the genre of African-American literature. Though Wheatley was kidnapped and enslaved against her will, her creative abilities could not be concealed for a long time. Her masters taught her to read and write and encouraged her to write poetry. Wheatley's poems not only brought her freedom, but also fame and recognition worldwide.
Though the exact birth date of Phillis Wheatley is not known, it is assumed that she was born in the year 1753, in Gambia (today Senegal), Africa. In the year 1761, she was abducted and taken to America, in a slave ship named 'Phillis'. This was how she got her name, Phillis. Reaching Boston, she was purchased by a wealthy merchant, John Wheatley, who took her to work as a servant and an attendant to his wife, Susanna.
From being just a servant, Phillis became one of the members of the family and was raised just like the couple's two children. This is how she attained the surname - Wheatley. John and Susanna convinced Phillis to study. Apart from mastering foreign languages, like Latin and Greek, Phillis also learned English, history, geography, religion and the Bible (from Mary - the couple's daughter). At Old South Meeting House, Phillis Wheatley was baptized into Christian religion.
Phillis Wheatley wrote her first poem when she was thirteen years old. In 1768, she wrote another poem, 'To the King's Most Excellent Majesty', which was dedicated to George III, praising his decision for canceling the Stamp Act. Later, in 1770, after penning down a poem on the death of the evangelical preacher George Whitefield, she became an instant hit in Boston and received great admiration and acclaim for her work. However, her literary capabilities surprised many whites, for whom intelligence was not synonymous with black people.
Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court and was inspected by a group of Boston luminaries. It was three years later, in 1773, that she gained her due as a poet. Though the publishers in Boston refused to publish her material, she was not disheartened. Wheatley, along with her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, to get her book published. Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon, and the Earl of Dartmouth helped her get her book published. With the release of 'Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral', she became the first Africa-American woman to get a book published under his/her name.
'Poems on Various Subjects' featured thirty nine of Wheatley's poems. Her popularity grew by leaps and bound in United States and England. Apart from fame, the poetess also gained freedom from slavery, on October 18, 1773. Three years later, in the March of 1776, Wheatley gave a recital of her poetry, before General Washington. During the revolutionary war, she was strongly against slavery and enslaved labor. Wheatley was of the opinion that independence should be a right of each and every person in this world.
Phillis Wheatley's poems were mostly written in the elegiac poetry style, focusing on moral and religious subjects. Her writing style was also in sync with the type of oration taught to her by the women in her African American tribal group. Apart from the elegies, she had also written heroic couplets, poems dedicated to famous personalities and poetry focused on the theme of Christian salvation. Her poems mirror her religious and classical New England upbringing. Wheatley never centered her poems on the theme of racial equality. The only exception to this was the poem "On being brought from Africa to America".
Personal Life & Death
Phillis Wheatley married a free black grocer, named John Peters. The couple had three children, out of which two died as infants. After her husband left her, Wheatley earned her living as a seamstress and a poetess. In the December of 1784, she left for the heaven abode. Hours after her death, her third child also departed. At the time of her death, Wheatley was only 31 years old and had a second volume of poetry waiting to be published, as she had found no publishers willing to print it.
Phillis Wheatley's first book 'Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral' earned her rave reviews. She became the first African American poetess to publish a book, apart from being the most famous African on the face of the earth. Apart from this, she has many more firsts to her credit. Wheatley was the first African-American woman to earn a living from her writing and first woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatly, and Selina Hastings).
Wheatley was the first accomplished African-American woman of letters. She was honored by many of America's founding fathers, including George Washington. Her book, in the present time, is referred to as basis of the genre of African American literature, its source and inspiration. A building has been named in the honor of Phillis Wheatley at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She was also listed as one of the '100 Greatest African Americans', by scholar Molefi Kete Asante, in 2002.
1767 - An Address to the Atheist and An Address to the Deist
1768 - To the King's Most Excellent Majesty
1769 - Atheism
1771 - An Elegaic Poem On the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield
1772 - A Poem of the Death of Charles Eliot
1773 - Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and frontispiece of 1773 edition), To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor on the death of his Lady, An Elegy, To Miss Mary Moorhead, On the Death of her Father, The Rev. Mr. John Moorhead
1784 - An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and the Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, Liberty and Peace, A Poem
1802 - Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and front matter of 1802 edition), To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth (from Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral - 1802 edition)
1776 - To His Excellency George Washington
1834 - Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave (also by Margaretta Matilda Odell)