Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatly was born in Gambia, Africa about 1753. In 1761, she was captured by slave traders at an impressionable age of 7 or 8 years and transported in a slave ship, Phillis, to America. The young African girl was bought by an elite Boston family, John and Susanna Wheatly. John Wheatley was a prominent merchant with a real estate business, wharfage, warehouses, and the schooner, London Packet. The Wheatley family named her after the slave ship, “the Phillis”, that brought her to America. Phillis Wheatley was a frail little girl who spoke no English when she arrived in Boston. Mary Wheatley, the daughter of her owners, taught her English, history, geography, Latin, astronomy, religion, and the Bible. Phillis soon proved to be a precocious child learner and within sixteen months of her arrival in America she could read the Bible, British Literature, and Latin and Greek classics. She became well versed in contemporary works, especially those of Alexander Pope. As accomplished as Phillis Wheatly was, she was denied access to freedom that was readily available to white elites and members of the Wheatley family, which was typical of the experiences of black people in colonial America.
Phillis Wheatly began to write poetry at the youthful age of 14 years. In 1767, she published her first poem, “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin” in the Newport Mercury, but it was in 1770 that the publication of an “Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” brought her great public attention. George Whitefield was a celebrated evangelical Methodist Minister whose travels through the American colonies drew international attention. In 1773, John and Susanna Wheatley sent Phillis to London, accompanied by their son, Nathaniel Wheatley, to publish her first anthology of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Morals” with a forward signed by John Hancock and other white elites. Wheatley’s anthology of poems was the first publication by a black woman and the second by a female after Ann Bradstreet. The trip to London to find a publisher was necessary because no publisher in America would publish her book, apparently because she was black. Wheatley was widely admired, especially in Britain, and her poems were popular. The Wheatley family emancipated her shortly after her anthology of poems was published, possibly because of pressure from Phillis’ English admirers. Phillis published numerous individual poems in addition to her anthology of poems. Her published poems include the following:
"An Address to the Atheist” and "An Address to the Deist” (1767)
“A Poem on the Death of Charles Eliot” (1773)
“An Elegy to Miss Mary Moorland, on the Death of her Father, the Reverend Mr. John Moorland” (1773)
“An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and the Learned, Dr. Samuel Cooper” (1784)
“To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth," from Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1802 edition)
Wheatley was strongly opposed to slavery. She wrote many letters to ministers and others in a position of authority denouncing slavery and about freedom and liberty for all. In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man from Boston. They had three children, all of whom died incredibly young. To support her family, she worked as a scrub woman in a boarding house while still writing poetry. Her poems and writings also helped the cause of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 due to complications from childbirth.
Despite growing up in slavery, and spending much of life enslaved, Phillis Wheatley led a revolution all by herself, and her achievement has marked American history. Her poems reflect many influences in her young life, including the poets like Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray whom she studied, and religion, a key influence on her life. Her African roots and heritage are also evident in her poetry. Wheatley was a black teenager who attained literacy and wrote poems that were the proof of the intellectual abilities of people of color and helped change the ways white colonists looked at black people. Her literary and artistic talents are also proof and a part of the little-known legacy that documents that African American are equally capable, intelligent, and creative human beings who benefited from an education. She is one of many enslaved black people who made important contributions to American literature. Despite all the hardship of being a black person in colonial America, some black people were able to defy the harsh conditions and be creative. The United States' art would not be what it is today without the contributions of black people like Phillis Wheatley.
Phillis Wheatley’s life shone brightly on the stage of the Quintessence Theater in Philadelphia, from May 10 through June 4, this year. The Theater presented a new play about Wheatley’s life, written by Paul Oakley Stovall and Marylin Campbell-Lowe and directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. The production was amazing, and the cast was captivating. Their work portrayed a keen insight into the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. I attended the play with Roberta Brooks of Coalition4Justice, Montgomery County, PA. Roberta and I had the opportunity to chat and take pictures with the cast after their brilliant performance. Here we are pictured with Asia Rodgers who brought Phillis to life and Phillip Brown who portrayed both her husband, John Peters, and Ignatius Sancho. Sancho was born on a slave ship around 1729 and went on to become an accomplished composer, shopkeeper, and an abolitionist in Britain.
From the left: Dr. Bernadine Ahonkhai with Asia Rodgers (who portrayed Phillis Wheatley); middle: Roberta Brooks, Phillis Wheatley, and Dr. Bernadine Ahonkhai; right: Dr. Bernadine Ahonkhai, Phillip Brown (who portrayed both Wheatley's husband, John Peters, and Ignatius Sancho, an accomplished free slave and abolitionist), and Roberta Brooks.
Many Americans today feel uncomfortable about how black people were enslaved and treated as inhuman and less than white people in America for decades, even as many enslaved and free black Americans prove that given the benefit of education, blacks can excel just as their white counterparts, and in some cases more than. Phillis Wheatley’s life and story is one such proof that decries white supremacy ideology and myth. Discover more about the incredible life of Wheatley and her contribution to United States literary and artistic art in: Phillis Wheatley: The First Published African-American Poet | Black Patriots | History.