Childhood & Early Years
Although nothing specific is known about Phillis Wheatley’s early childhood, scholars believe that she was born in and around 1753 in West Africa, possibly in present day Senegal or Gambia. We just know that she was kidnapped and sold to slave traders when she was a child.
The little girl, whose actual name was never known, was brought to the USA aboard the slave ship ‘Phillis’ owned by wealthy Boston merchant Timothy Fitch. It was a difficult trip, spanning 240 days. By the time it docked at Boston harbor on 11 July, 1761, twenty-one slaves had died.
At that time, her front teeth were missing, leading to the belief that she was around seven years old. A very frail girl unsuitable for hard labor, she was sold to John Whitney, a well-known Bostonian tailor looking for a domestic help for his wife Susannah, at a throwaway price.
Scholars believe that there could be two reasons why they chose this frail girl over stronger slaves. Firstly, the little girl was a status symbol, showcasing they had money to spare. But more likely, she reminded them of their departed daughter Sarah, who died exactly at the same age.
On bringing her home, they renamed her Phillis, after the slave ship that brought her to America. Although she was not entirely absolved of her domestic duty she was raised above her station and was given religious instructions. However, she was not baptized until August 1771.
It is not known when, but very soon, she started her education under John Whitney’s daughter Mary and son Nathaniel. After mastering English, Phillis began to study Greek and Latin, shortly surprising everybody by translating Ovid. Slowly, she also started studying ancient history, geography, astronomy and literature.
Sometime around the age of twelve, encouraged by the Wheatleys, Phillis started writing poems. At thirteen, she wrote ‘On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin’, about two men, who nearly drowned in the sea. Published on 21 December 1767 in the Mercury Newport, it became her first published work. .
As her talent became more and more apparent, the family absolved her of her domestic duties, allowing her to concentrate on her studies. She was also allowed to mingle with the distinguished guests who often came visiting the Wheatleys, slowly becoming a part of the family.
One day, as Phillis had gone out, the weather suddenly turned damp. Mrs. Wheatley, fearing for her health, sent the chaise to fetch her back. On seeing the coachman, another slave, sharing his seat with Phillis, she became furious and reprimanded him for forgetting the dignity attached to ‘her Phillis’.
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While ‘On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin’ was her first published work, scholars believe that her first ever poem, written at the age of twelve, was ‘To the University of Cambridge in New England’. Published much later in 1773, the poem addresses the Harvard University students as ‘sons of science’.
From the poem, we can gather that by then, she had become a devout Christian. She thanked God for bringing her safely to the USA and reminded the students, how Jesus has shed blood for them, asking them to shun evil. Indeed, religion played an important part in her works.
Modeling her poems on famous poets of the day, particularly Alexander Pope, she continued to write, having her first published work in 1765. However, much as she admired Pope, she never tried to write satire, one of his major literary characteristics.
Although many white Bostonians adored her, she was very much aware that she was still a slave, not their equal and so wrote nothing that would offend them. In every day behavior too, she would keep a respectful distance, never sharing a table, even if she was invited.
To the King's Most Excellent Majesty’, written in 1768, is another of her major work of this period. In this poem, she praised King George III of England for repealing the Stamp Act. Later, as the American Revolution gained momentum, she started writing from the perspective of the colonist.
Also in 1768, she wrote, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. It is her only published poem, which alluded to her slavery. In it, she chided the white Americans, saying, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain / May be refined, and join th’ angelic train.”
Although her writings were much appreciated in closed circle, she had to wait until 1770 to be nationally recognized. In that very year, she wrote an elegy, ‘On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield’, which gained her national attention.
By 1772, she had gathered a collection of twenty-eight poems to be published in book form. In February, with the help of Mrs. Wheatley, she ran advertisements for subscribers in Boston newspapers, but failed to receive any response.
Realizing that white Americans were not yet ready to support the literally aspiration of an African slave, they now turned to Great Britain, sending the ‘Whitefield’ poem to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. May be because Whitefield had been chaplain to her, she came forward to have Whitney’s collection published.
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Also in 1772, she was forced to defend her poems in court because most white Americans doubted their authenticity. She was examined by Boston luminaries like John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, who later attested her works. She also gained support from Benjamin Rush.
In May 1773, she accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley on a business trip to England. There, with the help of Countess of Huntingdon, she had her only collection of poems, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’, published on September 1, 1773.
The trip was also socially successful, being welcomed by many famous abolitionists. In spite of that, she returned to Boston in the same month due the illness of her mistress, who died six months later on 3 March 1774. But before that, Phillis was set free on October 18, 1773.
A Free Woman
Although Phillis Wheatley had been a slave almost all her life, she never experienced the drudgery that was part of slave life. Instead, she had led a protected a life in the Wheatley household. But the situation changed soon after she became free.
With the death of her mistress in 1774, of Mr. Wheatley and her daughter, Mary, in 1778, her life became more and more tenuous. It became worse, when against the advice of her close friends she married a free black, John Peters. In spite of that, she continued to write.
In 1775, she sent a copy of a poem, ‘To His Excellency, George Washington’ to him. In the following year, he invited her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She met him in March 1776 and in April the poem was republished in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
In 1779, Wheatley tried to publish a second collection of her poems. By then, all her benefactors except Nathaniel were dead. He too had married and moved to England. Wheatley had expected helps from her evangelical friends; but due to war situation and bad economic condition, nothing came of it.
Between 30 October and 18 December 1779, she ran six advertisements soliciting subscribers for a volume “Dedicated to the Right Hon. Benjamin Franklin, Esq.: One of the Ambassadors of the United States at the Court of France”. But this time too, the white Americans refused to respond.
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The book would have included thirty-three poems and thirteen letters. But, as she failed to find a publisher, they remained with her. Ultimately, many of the poems were lost. However, some of the remaining poems were published two years after her death in newspapers and pamphlets.
In last years of her life, she had to face acute poverty, having to maintain herself by working as a charwoman. In spite of that, she continued to write. The last poem that she was able to publish was ‘Liberty and Peace’ (1784); in it she congratulated America on her victory over England.
Phillis Wheatley is best remembered for her 1768 poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. A powerful poem about slavery, it addresses her concern about racial inequality, using Christianity to shed light on the subject.
The poem appeared in her only published book, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’, which itself made sensation in England and America. As most whites refused to believe that blacks were capable of writing poetry, she had to publish an attestation, made by distinguished Bostonians, in the preface.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ was important for another reason also. It was the second book to be published by an African-American and the first book to be published by a black woman. It thus opened door for other African-American writers, inspiring them to create history.
Personal Life & Legacy
On April 1, 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a handsome and well-mannered free black, whom she had known for five years. He aspired to be great, calling himself Dr. Peters, practicing law and keeping a grocery store at the court. However, his business acumen did not match his dreams.
Soon after their marriage they moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts. Shortly returning to Boston they set up their home in the run-down section of the city. In spite of trying his best, Peter could not find any job and their financial condition became poorer day by day.
To dodge creditors and also to find new jobs Peter left her often enough. During this lean period, Wheatley began working as a charwoman, concurrently continuing to write poetries and trying to publish them.
In 1784, Peter was imprisoned for his debts, leaving Wheatley to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house to feed herself and her surviving infant son. Although there is no record, it is possible that she bore Peter two more children, both of whom died in infancy.
Whitney with her frail health was not accustomed to the hard work. She soon became ill and died on December 5, 1784, alone and uncared for among squalid poverty at the age of thirty-one. Her infant son also died at the same time.
Apart from her own works, ’ Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley’, published posthumously in 1834 and ‘Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro Slave-Poet of Boston’ published in 1864, continue to carry her legacy.
Over the years, her works were often cited by reformists to negate the belief, common among the American whites, that Negroes were intellectually inferior and to promote education among them. She also inspired many African Americans to write.
In 2003, she has been featured in the Boston Women's Memorial, located on Commonwealth Avenue, with a sculpture, later being commemorated on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.
Wheatley Hall at UMass Boston, Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C; and the Phyllis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas has all been named after her.