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250 Years Ago, Poet Phillis Wheatley Faced Severe Oppression With Courage

statue of Phillis Wheatley
Image Creditalh1 / Flickr

The sickly child would one day become a published poet, the mother of African American literature, and a guest of Gen. George Washington.

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The small, sickly child stood on the auction block in Boston on July 11, 1761, with only a scrap of dirty carpet to cover her. Kidnapped from her family, she had miraculously survived the harrowing 245-day transatlantic journey from West Africa. Of the 96 who left their homeland on that ship, the frail girl was among the 76 who survived the horrifying voyage. An examination of her teeth revealed her to be about seven years old.

Surely no one standing near the block that day could ever believe this child – sold for a pittance by the slaver who was sure she would die before he could get rid of her – would one day become a published poet, the mother of African American literature, and a guest of George Washington.

But the child, named for the slave ship “Phillis” and for the Wheatley family who purchased her, was a prodigious learner whose intelligence and poetry gained her supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. As historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. proclaimed, she “wrote her way to freedom.”

Her book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” was published in England in 1773 when she was still a slave, making her the first female African American published poet, and author of the first book written in English by a sub-Saharan African. Her work was praised by French philosopher Voltaire, British abolitionist Granville Sharp, and Benjamin Franklin.

Two years later, in 1775, as the colonies were poised to fight for freedom under the leadership of George Washington, Phillis wrote a poem praising his appointment as commander of the Continental Army and wishing him “all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in.” Her poem, printed by Thomas Paine in the Pennsylvania Magazine the following year, ended with the verse:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine!

The general wrote her back on Feb. 28, 1776, thanking her for her poem, recognizing her talent, and inviting her to visit him at his military headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be … the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. … If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

From Heartbreak to Success

It was a long journey from the Senegambia region of West Africa in 1760 to the headquarters of the general of the Continental Army in March 1776. She was born around 1753, probably among West Africa’s Fulani people. Captured by a slaver, she was forced onto a brigantine and embarked for America.

She was purchased by prominent Boston merchant John Wheatley for his wife, Susanna. The Wheatleys had lost three children in infancy and were raising their teenage twins, Mary and Nathaniel. Strong Congregationalists, the Wheatleys wanted Phillis to learn to read the Bible, so against the prevailing attitude of the time, they began tutoring her at home, and were astonished by her ability.

“Without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she, in eighteen months’ time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her,” John Wheatley wrote.

By age 12, Phillis was proficient in Greek and Latin texts. She read the Bible, translations of Homer, the Latin classics, books on mythology, and the English poets, falling in love with the writing of contemporary English poet Alexander Pope. She also studied geography and astronomy. At 13, her first poem was published in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper about two men who narrowly escaped being drowned off Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Phillis Becomes a Published Trailblazer

Phillis’s notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic grew in 1770 with the publication of “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” for Englishman George Whitefield, a leading evangelist in the Great Awakening. So astonishing was her talent that she had to prove she was the author of her collection of poems. John Wheatley put together a group of 17 leading men in Boston, including John Hancock, who met with Phillis and attested her authorship.

In 1773, Phillis traveled to England with Wheatley’s son Nathaniel, to promote her collection of poems. Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon, who supported abolition and had been a patron of Rev. Whitefield, agreed to pay for the publication of the collection of 39 poems.

The countess told the Wheatleys that a portrait of Phillis would “contribute greatly to the Sale of the Book.” The book’s frontispiece, an iconic image of the young black poet, may be the first such piece depicting a woman writer in American history.

Phillis had to cut short her trip when Susanna became ill; John Wheatley freed her shortly after she returned home. When Susanna died a few months later, Phillis shared her grief in a letter to a friend dated March 21, 1774:

I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress, let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tenderness of all these were united in her. I was a poor little outcast a stranger when she took me in, not only into her house but I presently became, and honor in her most tender affections, I was treated by her more like her child than her servant.

A Passion for Freedom

Phillis’s warm feelings for her owner Susanna did not mean she supported slavery. Her poems and letters showed her deep understanding of the abomination of slavery. In her book she wrote:

By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

In 1774, Phillis increased her anti-slavery voice, corresponding with key abolitionist figures: Rev. Samuel Hopkins, a theologian and leader of the emerging American abolitionist movement; British abolitionist leader Granville Sharp; and British merchant and philanthropist John Thorton, the sponsor of abolitionist preacher John Newton.

That year, in a letter published in the Connecticut Gazette to her acquaintance Mohegan Indian Presbyterian minister Samson Occum, Wheatley wrote:

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 by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.

Wheatley increasingly came to believe the colonial struggle for freedom from Britain would lead to the end of slavery in the former colonies. Her unpublished poem “On the Death of General Wooster” proclaimed:

But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’Almighty mind—
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?

Wheatley’s Steadfast Hope

Phillis married John Peters, a free black man, in 1778 in Philadelphia, and continued writing poetry. Biographers have depicted Peters in various lights: as a businessman struggling to make ends meet during the long war and imprisoned for debt, or as a man who abandoned his wife and three children who died in infancy.

Phillis, that former slave child who survived the long perilous journey to America, likely carried damaged lungs and lifelong asthma from those long months at sea. Despite a brilliant mind and another collection of poems looking for a publisher, she ended up sick and dying with her infant son in a boarding house in the Boston slums on Dec. 5, 1784. She was only 31 years old.

Strongly religious, Phillis was baptized on Aug. 18, 1771, and become an active member of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. In a 1774 letter to British philanthropist John Thornton celebrating her freedom from slavery, she reminded him that her “most perfect freedom” was as a “Servant of Christ.”

Most of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry cannot really be understood outside of its religious context. For example, one of her most cited poems, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” shows her recognition that while enslavers, like Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 37, intended her harm, God used it for good, welcoming her to the “angelic train” through her Savior. An 18th century Congregationalist would understand that her poem in no way excuses the sinful act of slavery, but that God can use even sinful acts of humans to achieve a greater purpose.

‘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 die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.