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Phillis Wheatley: at 20 years old, became the first African American published author in 1773 AD

 

Phillis Wheatley - pic1 - print portrait
Old South Meeting House and Phillis Wheatley (Source)

Phillis Wheatley[1] is one of the most iconic examples of growth over achievement and empowerment. Despite going through devastating situations and falling prey to the cruelties of her historical era, she had the opportunity to get an informal education, and go down as one of the West’s earliest female writers. To gain a sense of female writers Phillis Wheatley preceded, these include Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Edith Wharton, Gabriela Mistral, Agathie Christie and Jeanette Winterson. Phillis Wheatley sparks the question, how many of these illustrious women could have walked down the road Phillis Wheatley was forced into before becoming a published writer and doing so by age 20?

A mile is 1,760 yards and over 2,000 steps. A day’s journey involved forty thousand steps. A hard week involved walking two hundred thousand steps. Enslaved Africans walked for miles, days and weeks after reaching the Americas barefoot. They were driven south or west over mountains, flatlands, step after step, each step further away from home, neck in a coffle, in lines of slaves fastened together in lock-step. They suffered fatigue, some were forced to drink whiskey to lose their wits, women were violated at every opportunity, some women were married women and most forced migrants covered up to 700 miles in the “land of the free” before stepping off slave route roads to be sold. It takes a million and a half steps to cover seven hundred miles.

Phillis penned down her thoughts and expressed herself so beautifully, that some today still read her poetry after 250 years because of her growth story. She was a genius born in the 18th century who proudly rose above utter despair from bondage.  Phillis Wheatley gained her fame from the publication of a collection of verses called “Poems on Various Subject, Religious and Moral” on September 1, 1773. She is also the second woman to publish a book of poems.

Background

Phillis Wheatley is considered the first published African-American female poet.  She was raised in West Africa. Her birth was in the year 1753. Quite early in her life, Phillis was sold as a slave to a visiting trader. She was later taken to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, in a ship called The Phillis. She was resold at Boston as a servant for the wife of a rich merchant. The merchant who bought her was by the name of John Wheatley.

His wife was Susanna Wheatley. They named the girl according to the name of the ship in which she came: Phillis. Unusually for the time, the Wheatley family did something unexpected and determined to educate their female African-American slave and support her talent. Phillis was emancipated by the Wheatley Family in 1773, shortly after the publishing of her book.

Education

Mary, the Wheatley’s daughter, was the first person who helped Phillis with reading and writing. The progressive and open-minded nature of the family was well known throughout New England. Even the son of the Wheatley family helped Phillis with her education. This effort by the Wheatley family brought out the talents of the prolific poet lurking within Phillis. Phillis Wheatley was able to learn miscellaneous writings in the Bible by the age of 12. She had also begun reading Latin and Greek classics.

Phillis Wheatley - pic2 - poems cover
Poems (Source)

Slavery and literature

Slavery will always be a stain on American history. So many authors and poets expressed their protests against slavery through literature. Phillis Wheatley also believed that slavery was a devastating practice. She supported the patriotism of Americans but also held anti-slavery position. Her opinions littered her works of poetry along with the letters she wrote. Phillis received reciprocation for her thoughts and work from other authors and philanthropists.

British Philanthropist John Thornton exchanged letters with her and also wrote about her work. Phillis wrote letters to ministers and prominent people on the subject of slavery and her opinions on it. Reverend Samson Occom was one such person who received a letter from her. He also believed that slaves should be protected and that they should rights in America.

She used poetry as a medium for instigating change. She praised King George III in one of her poems from 1768 called “To the King’s most excellent majesty.” She wrote this poem in support of repealing the Stamp Act.

Poetry and style

Christianity, Classicism and Hierophant solar worship make up frequent elements of her writings.  John C Shields significantly commented on the writing of Phillis Wheatley. He highlighted the importance of ‘light’ being used in her poetry[2]: describing it as a symbolic reference to her past in Africa. He stated that her poetry embraced her personal ideas along with the literature that influenced her. Phillis was very much fond of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace, and Virgil, who influenced her poetry work.  Shield considered her writing reflective and contemplative. He explained the popular usage of ‘Sun,’ theorising that maybe her parents were sun worshippers. He also noted that the usage of ‘Sun’ could be an intended double reference to Christ as it is a homonym for Son.

The audience of the 18th Century

The possibilities of poetry we could have been exposed to cannot be estimated. She passed away at a very young age, around her 30s. Her writings were published at time when the general audience would have been hostile. The time and cultural disputes of her time make us really wonder, what she could have achieved with encouragement. Phillis was lucky to have been bought by a family that recognised her talent and supported it. In her poetry, she talks about cultures and religion. A mind of a young child was able to beautifully contribute to our literature about the struggles and thoughts of that time.

In one preface of her works Phillis comments on the nature of the colonists. Most of them found it very difficult to accept poetry from a slave.  Inspirational and respectful people of that time such as John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts and Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor were amongst the group that examined her work.

The first published African-American female poet

There have been debates in the field of literature about Phillis Wheatley being the first African-American female poet. This is a positive sign there might have been other African Americans writing poetry during that time. Yet in her era, she emerged and made a name for herself.

Educated women in colonial America

The education received by women during the age of Colonial America was very inadequate. The narrow-minded society of the time created a system of sex bias. In a society where women were not prioritised for education, Phillis Wheatley being a slave from Africa was able to get educated. She was educated enough to have her poetry be one of the milestones in literature today. Phillis Wheatley was able to grasp the things being taught to her at an impressive pace. She was able to quickly read complicated verses from the bible and also learn foreign languages. She first arrived in America at the age of 7. When we look at the time she spent in picking up the English language and learning to write, it is incredible.

The astonishing talent of Phillis was also recognised in a comment published in The London Magazine in 1773[3]. It was in response to her poem “Hymn to the morning’. The comment said, “these poems display no astonishing works of genius, but when we consider them as the productions of a young, untutored African, who wrote them after six months careful study of the English language, we cannot but suppress our admiration for talents so vigorous and lively.”

This expresses the magnitude of the achievement Phillis Wheatley made as a young female poet who spent much of her life as a slave.  Today, we see attempts to acknowledge her success in different ways. Her commemoration on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail is one such example.

Personal Life

After 1773, she met a free black grocer named John Peters and married him. Her marriage took place around the year 1778. Phillis could not publish her second book due to difficult living conditions.  The couple faced a lot of tragic incidents: two of their child passed away; conditions of poverty were overwhelming and Phillis Wheatley’s husband was imprisoned in 1784 due to debt. The imprisonment of John Peters left Phillis with the responsibility of taking care of a sickly infant son. In order to earn her bread and butter, she worked as a scullery maid doing labour she had never been used to, even as a slave. She passed away at a very young age due to complications from childbirth.  Wheatley died on December 5, 1784.

Phillis Wheatley - pic3 - african american poet
African American Poet (Source)

Recognition Today

Phillis’s writings are world renowned today. They have become precious literary and historical sources. Scholar Molefi Kete Asante made a list of 100 greatest African Americans in 2002 in which Phillis Wheatley made the list. The Boston Women’s Memorial [4] made a sculpture of Phillis in 2003.

There are also buildings and halls named after her. The Robert Morris University [5] named one the new buildings of their Scohol of Communications and Information Sciences after Phillis Wheatley in 2012. The well-known Wheatley Hall at UMass Boston is also named after her.  Phillis has been honoured at several occasions by America’s founding fathers and eminent people.

Phillis Wheatley has contributed an immeasurable amount to literature and history. She is a symbol of empowerment, which she gained through poetry. Critics consider the work done by Phyllis as essential fundamental work of African-American Literature.  Gates, in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, says “she became the most famous African on the face of the earth.” She is certainly famous.

Phillis Wheatley - featured - memorial statue6.jpgPhillis Wheatley - featured - memorial statue7.jpg

 

Phillis Wheatley - featured - memorial statue1

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Citations

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillis_Wheatley

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley

[3] https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015021278604

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Women%27s_Memorial

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Morris_University

 

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