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Stories / Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Poet, considered a founder of African American literature, was born around 1753, probably among the Fulani peoples living near the Gambia River in West Africa. Her poetry and prose indicate familiarity with animistic ancestor worship, solar worship, Islam, and an African consciousness she brought to North America after she was captured aged 7 or 8, enslaved, and forced aboard the Phillis, a brigantine owned by Timothy Fitch of Medford, Massachusetts and captained by Peter Gwinn of Boston. According to the Slave Voyages Database, she embarked from the Windward Coast of Africa with 95 fellow Africans and was one of 76 who survived the deprivations of the ship’s cramped and squalid conditions and arrived in Boston 245 days later, wearing only a scrap of carpet. On 11 July 1761, she was sold on the block “for a trifle” to John and Susanna Wheatley, prominent Bostonians who named her after the slave ship that brought her to America. Her name was thus a constant reminder of her enslavement and suffering during the Middle Passage. 

Seeing Phillis attempt to write, the Wheatleys encouraged her to read and write, first in English, then Latin. At age 12 she published her first poem in a local newspaper, but many Bostonians doubted that a young African woman could craft such reasoned and elegant poetry. She successfully defended her intelligence and literary skills before an inquisition by New England’s finest minds, but still failed to find a local publisher for a collection of her poetry. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book written by a sub-Saharan African in English, was therefore published by the Countess of Huntingdon in London in 1773. An overnight sensation in Europe, Wheatley was feted as a prodigy by London’s literati. Returning to Boston, she was granted her freedom, and continued to write poetry, including one honoring George Washington. But her fame was fleeting. A proposed second poetry collection was sold off by her husband, John Peters, a pintlesmith who was perhaps born free, and who abandoned her. Wheatley suffered from asthma (a legacy of the Middle Passage) and the death of three children, before dying in poverty and obscurity, aged 31, in 1784.

Phillis Wheatley was an inspiring example to nineteenth-century African American writers such as Ann Plato, Frances E.W. Harper, Jarena Lee, and Alice Dunbar Nelson. In the view of scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., she is the mother of African American letters. She was a polyglot who knew English, Fulani, possibly some Arabic (she was observed soon after her purchase to be making strange, though indecipherable markings on a wall), and Latin. From West Africa to New England to England, she negotiated with considerable success the mixture of white cultures and languages which encircled the Atlantic. She was thus a fine example of what historians such as Ira Berlin, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton have classified as Atlantic Creoles. 

Read the full, original biography by John Shields in The Dictionary of African Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Voyage of the Phillis, Slave Voyages http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/25481/variables 

Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley  

Massachusetts Historical Society, Henry Louis Gates & Peter Galison on Phillis Wheatley. "No More, America" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTT6qD5hoxE 

Phillis Wheatley Historical Society http://www.phillis-wheatley.org/

Bibliography

Carretta, Vincent, ed. Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (2001).
 

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (2003).

O'Neal, Sondra A. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (1982).
 

Shields, John C., ed. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (1988).

 

Shields, John C., ed. (with Eric D. Lamore). New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (2011).

Adapted by

Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1753

Born, probably along the Gambia River in West Africa, in present-day Gambia.

July 1761

One of 96 Africans enslaved and forced aboard the New England brigantine, the Phillis, and one of 75 who survived the 245-day voyage to Boston. There, she becomes the property of Susannah Wheatley, wife of merchant John Wheatley.

1761-4

Within 16 months of arriving in Boston, Philis learns to read and write in English. By age eleven, she can read Latin and translate portions of classical works, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

December 1765

At age 12, Wheatley published the first of her 55 known poems in the Newport (R.I.) Mercury. Like many of her poems, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” relates to a local event, in this case, two men who escaped drowning off Cape Cod.

1770

Her poem on the Boston Massacre, reflects New England’s early resistance to colonial rule, and marks a growing political independence from her Loyalist owners. “On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770,” commemorates the sacrifice of “Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav’rick” in “Freedom’s Cause.” Attucks, like Wheatley, was of African descent.

1770

Publishes “On the Death of Mr. George Whitefield,” following the death in Boston of the famed English evangelical preacher, a leading figure in America’s Great Awakening. Like one-third of her known poems, it is an elegy, a form perhaps influenced by the cultural traditions of her West African homeland, where women delivered oral laments on the passing of community elders.

October 1772

Wheatley’s elegy on Whitfield earns her fame in both Boston and London, but John Wheatley struggles to find enough New Englanders who will subscribe to a full collection of her poems. Many doubt that a young woman of African descent had the intellectual capacity to understand and craft sophisticated poetry guided by Classical and Biblical literature. To refute such claims Wheatley endures and passes a rigorous oral examination by eighteen men of learning, most Harvard educated, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The men sign a letter of attestation, stating: “We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, 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. She has been examined by some of the best Judges and is thought qualified to write them.”

1773

Despite that testimonial, it is London, not Boston, that publishes Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book is funded and supported by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, a close friend of Susannah Wheatley and Whitfield. It is the first book written by a sub-Saharan African in English and the second book of poetry published by a sub-Saharan African. (Juan Latino’s The Austriad, written in Latin, was published in Spain, in 1573). The book’s frontispiece, which establishes the iconic image of the young black poet, is illustrated by a fellow African-Bostonian, Scipio Moorhead. Wheatley’s Poems become an instant sensation and she is feted as a prodigy by London’s literati when she visits that year. Among those who praise her talents are the French philosopher Voltaire, the British abolitionist Granville Sharp, and former Bostonian, Benjamin Franklin.

Late 1773

Returning to Boston, and “at the desire of my friends in England,” the Wheatleys grant Phillis her freedom, which she enjoys with others in New England’s African American community. These include a close friend and correspondent in Rhode Island, Obour Tanner, a woman some speculate was also enslaved aboard the Phillis.

February 1774

Wheatley writes to Samson Occom: “In every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.” Other letters by Wheatley show a similar abhorrence of slavery, though critics later condemned her early poems that appeared to justify enslavement as God’s will.

1775

On the eve of the American revolution, Wheatley makes clear her political views in a praise poem. “To His Excellency General Washington.” Washington replies with effusive praise from his headquarters across the Charles in Cambridge, and the two meet in March 1776.

July 1778

In an elegy on the death of Major General David Wooster, who, according to Wheatley, “fell a martyr in the Cause of Freedom,” Wheatley challenges the notion that whites can “hope to find / Divine acceptance with th' Almighty mind” when “they disgrace / And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race.”

1778

Wheatley marries John Peters, a free African American, but the couple struggle financially.

1779

She publishes a set of “Proposals” for a new volume of poems dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, but fails to attract subscriptions. Her husband sells the rights to the volume--no copy of which has been found—and abandons her.

September 1784

Wheatley makes another proposal, for the publication of Poems and Letters on Various Subjects, but again finds no takers.

December 1784

Having already lost two children to early deaths, Wheatley dies alone in a shack on the edge of Boston, perhaps as result of an infection from the birth of a third child, who also died.