What can we say about a woman who was welcomed as America’s first poet, published in both England and America, but who nonetheless died in poverty and obscurity before she reached the age of 40? Phillis Wheatley inspired some of America’s most honored leaders and demonstrated how much African Americans had to offer in the arts and culture. But despite her triumphs, she was finally defeated by the economic force of the slave trade.
Born in Africa about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston by slave ship at age 7 or 8. She was bought by the Wheatley family who recognized that she was too frail (not to mention too young) for hard labor, so she was kept as a house slave. Mrs. Wheatley taught her English and how to read and write. The girl’s talents soon became apparent and she was encouraged to read widely and to write poetry.
As a woman of her time, she read and admired the poems of John Milton and Alexander Pope and wrote in the fashionable heroic couplet style. Some of her poems were published as broadsides and circulated widely, but she had to go to England to find a publisher for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral–the first book of poems published by an African American.
Some of Wheatley’s poems present a surprisingly benign view of the effects of slavery, which she appears to welcome as a way of discovering Christianity.
On Being Brought from Africa to America
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Taught my benighted soul to understand
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
As a devout Christian, Wheatley expressed her gratitude for having been introduced to the Christian religion in America. Some commentators have criticized her work because of this, but there is no reason to think that Wheatley approved of slavery or accepted her status. She was writing only about her own life in this poem. Because of her unusual experiences, she never observed the worst cruelty of the plantation culture nor suffered the hardships of most enslaved Africans, but she was aware of them.
Soon after her book was published, the Wheatley family emancipated Phillis. In 1778, or thereabouts, Phillis Wheatley married a free Black grocer and started a family. By this time, both Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley had died, so Phillis has no one left to help further her work. She and her husband struggled with poverty, while he tried to establish himself as a businessman. Although Wheatley did not give up writing poetry, she found it difficult to secure a publisher. She was never able to publish a second book of poems she had planned, and many of her later poems have been lost. She did, however, correspond with some well-known people, including George Washington, about ways of securing freedom for African Americans. Her death at the age of 31, ended her all-too-short career.
Phillis Wheatley’s life leaves us with far more questions than answers. If she had lived into the nineteenth century and continued her work, would her early promise have been fulfilled? Perhaps her example would have convinced more people of the talents and possibilities of African Americans. Might Phillis Wheatley have become the poet laureate of the abolition movement?
We will never know the answers to those questions, but there is much to celebrate about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. She was a pioneer whose work should not be forgotten.