Home > Uncategorized > February 16 – Phillis Wheatley

February 16 – Phillis Wheatley

Yesterday I mentioned Sarah Roberts, a young, Black girl denied an education by Boston’s white elite. Today, I think it’s only fair to feature a young, Black woman who was given an exceptional education by an elite, white family in Boston… so exceptional, in fact, that this woman would become the first African American to publish a book, and the first to make a living from her writing. Do you know who she was?…

Phillis Wheatley was born free in 1753 somewhere near present-day Gambia or Senegal, but was kidnapped as a child by slave-traders. She arrived in Boston on July 11, 1761 on the slave ship The Phillis, and was sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant and tailor. He and his wife, Susanna, decided to name the girl after the ship which brought her from her native Africa.

Phillis was originally purchased as Susanna’s personal servant, but the progressive family soon began treating her as a part of the family, raising her along with their own two children. The Wheatley’s decided to offer Phillis a first-rate education – something inaccessible to most women of any race of that time – and under the tutelage of John’s daughter, Mary, Phillis learned to read and write.

From a very young age, Phillis exhibited a gift for literature. By the age of 12, she was already reading Greek and Latin classics as well as works by Alexander Pope and John Milton. She began writing her own poetry when she was 13, and became a celebrity in Boston at age 17 for her poem honoring George Whitefield, a deceased evangelical preacher. Later, she also wrote a poem dedicated to George Washington, for which he invited her to his home to thank her. Much of her poetry revolved around Christianity, classical influences, and abstract themes. Very rarely did she write about slavery or her own condition, although it is clear from her poems that those experiences infused with her words anyway.

Boston Women’s Memorial: Phillis Wheatley. Commonwealth Avenue and Fairfield Street, Boston, MA

By 1773, the self-proclaimed “Negro Slave Poet of Boston” had made an international name for herself. She traveled to London and held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and other important members of British society. While there, she also published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral featuring 39 of her poems. This was the first book published by a Black American, and it marked the birth of the African American literature genre.

Phillis Wheatley was legally freed in 1778 when John and Susanne died. Sadly, after a brief, unhappy marriage to another free Black and the death of her two infant children, she died poor and alone at the age of 30. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on in her published works and memoirs.

Thanks for reading,

francis

On Virtue
O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.
Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give me an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.

– Phillis Wheatley

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