Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa in the 1750’s. She was kidnapped, enslaved and taken to America aboard the ship “The Phillis” at a young age. She was purchased by the Wheatley family and as was customary, given their name. Her first name, Phillis, was taken from the ship that transported her to the New World.
Amidst the hardships and challenges of being a slave in Boston USA, Wheatley had an extraordinary yearning to learn. This was not normality during slavery, but through persistence, her owners acquiesced and taught her to read and write.
She developed a love for composing poems, through which her level of intelligence and aptitude for writing became glaringly evident.
When Phillis became a teenager she had her first poem published and it quickly gained recognition for its eloquence and sophistication. Based on the attention her poem received, she decided to write a book. Writing a book was no easy feat for an enslaved Black woman, but she persevered through the contrived backward society that wouldn’t allow people of African descent, especially those in bondage, to pursue any form of education or intellectual pursuits.
In 1773 Wheatley’s first book was published in London, England. The cover read “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” This marked the first African American woman to publish a book and the second African American to publish a poem in history after Jupiter Hammon. The preface of the book was a paragraph attesting to her authenticity as the author, signed by prominent figures in Boston to verify that she, an enslaved Black woman, was the writer of such esteemed poetry.
The diversifications of Wheatley’s poems were broad. One of her most famous poems was one written about her own personal journey titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which spoke of her transition from Africa to enslavement and her conversion to Christianity. Her writings also touched on political and social issues.
Living in a city of turmoil leading up to the American Revolution, she wrote poems in support of the Patriot cause. Her poem “To His Excellency General Washington” praised George Washington, portraying him as a liberator and linking the struggle for American independence with the broader fight against oppression.
Despite her success, Wheatley faced skepticism and prejudice. People doubted her writing skills saying that no African woman was capable of writing such sophisticated material. The success of her books was met with both admiration and disbelief. As a slave Wheatley wasn’t able to celebrate her success.
She suffered from illness and financial struggles plus the death of her masters left her in a deplorable state. She married John Peters, a free African American man, who was as destitute as she was and except for companionship, left her no better off.
Phillis Wheatley’s insistence on being taught to read under the circumstances, as well as writing a book, was testament to a deeper yearning to become something beyond herself. If nothing else, she envisioned a life without boundaries. To move from chains and shackles to her literary achievement was a great accomplishment that should be celebrated.
A statue was erected in her recognition and honor, on Commonwealth Avenue between Fairfield Street and Gloucester Street in Boston, Massachusetts.
Contributed by Ayun Daley
Disclaimer: This information was partly generated through CHATGPT