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Phillis Wheatley

Full Name: Phillis Wheatley
1753 (approximately) – 1784
Nationality: Senegalese or Gambian
Notable: Poet

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Phillis Wheatley was born in what is present-day Senegal/Gambia around 1753 and kidnapped from West Africa around the age of seven or eight. She was brought across the Atlantic Ocean in 1761 aboard “the Phillis” from which she was given her new slave name. Phillis was kept aboard until New England following stops in the West Indies and Southern colonies because of her age and physical condition.

Upon arriving in Boston, Phillis was purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. As was the tradition of the time, Phillis was given her owner’s surname and her African birth name lost to history. Members of the Wheatley family noted that the child was barely clothed, sick from the journey and change of climate, and fairly young due to her missing front baby teeth.

Phillis did not become a member of the Wheatley family but was given privileges that were unusual for slaves at the time. To maintain control slave owners typically prohibited reading, writing, or the pursuit of any other intellectual activities that might result in slaves questioning their station in life. Yet, Mrs. Wheatley and her children had taught Phillis how to read and write within one and a half years of her arriving in the household. She had quickly learned English before moving on to history, literature, and theology.

Wheatley’s first poem about two men who were almost lost at sea was published in 1767 while she was still in her early teens. But, it was the later publication of an elegy for a clergyman that brought Wheatley national acclaim. A volume of Wheatley’s poems were published in 1773 and included a foreword by several prominent Boston figures as proof that the poems therein had been written by Wheatley, a Black enslaved woman. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Wheatley became the first book published by a Black woman in America.

The themes of most of Wheatley’s poems revolved around elegies, religion, and the colonies’ struggle for independence. Her poems mostly avoided the topic of slavery and limited the subject to subtle hints and mentions. Yet, she also penned poems and letters to various individuals about freedom and felt that holding on to slavery would prevent the new nation from reaching its full potential.

Due to ongoing ill-health, Wheatley traveled to Europe for medical care during which time her volume of poetry was published. When Mrs. Wheatley became ill Phillis Wheatley (who was still owned by the Wheatleys) returned to America. The exact timeline is unclear but Wheatley was emancipated around this time.

Wheatley married John Peters, a free man from Boston in 1778. Unfortunately, due to the times, Peters faced great difficulties in finding work and the couple slid into poverty and lived in squalor. Wheatley began working as a maid in a boarding house. She continued writing but was unable to arrange for the publication of another volume of poetry. Wheatley gave birth to an estimated three children, none of whom survived infancy. She died from childbirth complications in her early 30s and was buried with her last child.

Bibliography

  1. Michals, Debra, ed. 2015. “Phillis Wheatley.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/phillis-wheatley.
  2. “Phillis Wheatley.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Accessed November 25, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley.
  3. “Phillis Wheatley.” 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 14, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Phillis-Wheatley.

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