Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784), was the first African American female writer to be published in the United States. Her book Poems on Various Subjects were published in 1773, two years before the American Revolutionary War began, and is seen as one of the first examples of African American literature.
Born in what is modern day Senegal Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at the age of 8. Wheatley was brought to Boston in 1761, where John Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts purchased her and where she adopted the Christian faith. The family of merchants made sure that she received a good education, including study of foreign languages and history. She published her first poem in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. Her slave owners, the Wheatleys, taught her how to write, and from then on she began to write poems. She was the first African American, female slave, to have a poetry book published, her Various Book of Poems was published in the 1700's.
Wheatley published her first poem in the Newark Rhode Island, Mercury on December 21, 1773. In 1770 she wrote a poetic tribute to George Washington that received widespread acclaim in The Port. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who called her "A Great American" and personally thanked her for a poem she wrote in his honor. This praise was not universal. For example, Thomas Jefferson was among the harshest critics of her poetry, writing "The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem." Even today, some writers seem reluctant to credit Wheatley for her accomplishments, insisting on speaking of her by first name rather than by last and thereby diminishing her status.
Wheatley's poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical and abstract themes. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. One of the few which refers to slavery is "On being brought from Africa to America":
- `Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.´
Because many white people of the time found it hard to believe that a black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.
Wheatley is credited with simultaneously founding two literary genres: Black American literature and Black Women literature.
In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. Hammon never mentions himself in the poem, but it appears that in choosing Wheatley as a subject, he was acknowledging their common bond.
After the death of the Wheatley family, Wheatley married a free black grocer named John Peters. Her husband soon left her and Wheatley earned a living as a servant (cleaning,cooking, etc.). She died in poverty at the age of 31. Wheatley's third child died only a few hours after her death. At the time of her death there was a second volume of poetry but neither it nor any other works have ever been found.
- An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, Who Departed This Life December 29, 1783
- Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave (Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834), also by Margaretta Matilda Odell
- Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral Published in 1773
- To His Excellency George Washington written for Washington in 1776
- Slave narrative
- African American literature
- Jupiter Hammon
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