Wheatley’s early life:
Phillis Wheatley has long been recognized as one of America’s first black poets (although the first published African-American poet in the U.S. was Jupiter Hammon
). Born in Senegal in 1753, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston. Although originally brought into the Wheatley household as a servant, Phillis became a member of the family, and was raised side-by-side with the Wheatley’s two children. What came next was amazing in the context of the times: Phillis learned how to read and write English, then Greek and Latin. At thirteen she wrote her first poem.
Phillis Wheatley became a Boston sensation when one of her poems was published as a broadside in 1770. Three years later, when she was in London on a trip sponsored by the Wheatleys to improve her frail health, 39 of her poems were published as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first full-length book published by an African American poet. Most of Phillis Wheatley’s poems reflect her religious and classical New England upbringing. Written in heroic couplets, many of her poems are elegies or have themes of Christian salvation.
Wheatley’s later life:
Soon after her 1773 trip to London, both of the Wheatleys passed away, and though she was freed from slavery, Phillis struggled to support herself as a poet and seamstress. She married John Peters in 1778 and they had three children, but he couldn’t support the family in the white colonial New England society during the Revolutionary War. Living in extreme poverty in a boarding house, all three children died and Phillis’ health declined severely. She continued to write poems and made a collection she hoped to publish, but those poems disappeared with John Peters after her death in 1784.
A poem by Phillis Wheatley:
ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA
’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 fought now knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Phillis “I’m Talking Now” Wheatley:
“A parlor trick,” thought many, till they heard her speak, heard her poems. The original voice of the Other on US shores, she was one of the tribe of eight poets in our first Survivor Poet game
here at About Poetry in 2001. She was voted off the island by our readers in the first round of the game.