It could be said that Phillis Wheatley's journey from African slave to free published poet paved the way for the likes of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. But have you ever heard of her, and her extraordinary story?
Sadly, most people haven’t. That’s why we’ve chosen to honor her today on the occasion of International Literacy Day.
"Literacy is a foundation to build a more sustainable future for all."
It’s difficult to know what’s fact and what's fiction in the various recountings of Phillis Wheatley’s life and career. She never had a chance to record her own history, and biographies were not regularly kept about the enslaved. So what we know of her is based on the remembrances of those, mainly whites, who wanted to look better for having been associated with her.
Historians believe that she came into the world in 1753 in West Africa. Her exact date of her birth and given name are unknown, though we do know that she was sold into slavery in 1761 and began the long voyage across the Atlantic in the hold of a ship named The Phillis. In Boston, she became the property of a wealthy merchant, John Wheatley, who bought the sickly eight-year-old for his wife, Susanna. He gave the enslaved girl his name as well as that of the ship that carried her away from her native home.
The Wheatley family’s twin children, Mary and Nathaniel, then aged about 18, thought it right to teach her to read and write. She surprised them by proving a very able student. According to John Wheatley’s papers, within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to read complex passages from the Bible. So the family went with it, nurturing her innate curiosity. She read classical literature and studied geography, history, as well as Latin alongside her bible studies. Phillis thus gained an extraordinary education for any woman of that time, and an unprecedented one for a slave.
She was most passionate about poetry. When she was more or less fourteen, Phillis wrote her very first title: "To the University of Cambridge, in New England." She continued to write throughout her teenage years, exploring themes of religion and morality, often through a classical lens. Her writings show that she had a profound understanding, even at a young age, of the poetry of Alexander Pope, John Milton, William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer.
Her literary gifts did not escape the notice of the Wheatley family. They decided to help Phillis get published. But no African-American woman had ever been published in the American colonies. And few people wanted to believe that her work was her own. In 1772, Phillis had to defend her poetry in court. Her masters, John and Susanna Wheatley, and other respected members of Boston society were called upon to vouch for her.
Believing Phillis would have better luck finding a publisher in London, Susanna Wheatley appears to have sent Phillis there in 1773, accompanied by Nathaniel. They met with many members of high English Society, eventually sending one of Phillis’s poems to Selena Hastings, the Countess of Huntington, who directed her to Archibald Bell.
Though his publishing house was in London, Bell was, ironically, a Boston-based bookseller. He agreed to publish Phillis's first book, Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, although he, too, required proof of her authorship. The book was released soon after in London.
Phillis received widespread acclaim for her collection, earning such high-powered fans as Thomas Paine and George Washington. The General praised her "great poetical talents" and invited her to his headquarters in Cambridge in 1776.
Shortly after its publication, Phillis won her emancipation. She fell in love with and married John Peters, a free African-American grocer.
But the fairy tale middle of a tragic beginning, it appears, would not survive to the end.
The Wheatley parents died in 1774 and 1778, and without their advocacy, perhaps, Phillis was unable to publish her second book of poetry, which she completed in 1779. Though some poems eventually found publication in newspapers, this was not enough to keep the Peters out of debt. John went to debtors prison in 1784, forcing Phillis to take on a job as a scullery maid in order to support herself and their sick child.
She died, far too young, in 1784. She was only 31.
Phillis left behind the legacy of precocious intellect as well as first-ever published African-American woman poet. She is a fundamental figure in the history of African-American literature, breaking many barriers for the benefit of authors who followed. She continues to serve as an inspiration to writers of all backgrounds today.
Phillis Wheatley pursued her passion, despite the odds, and through her groundbreaking literary work, she made it possible for more women of color to do so as well. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
Many thanks to Kelli of Boston, MA, for bringing this amazing figure to our attention.
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Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.