Phillis Wheatley

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Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784), enslaved at the age of eight, is widely known as the first African-American woman in United States history to have her poetry published. Constant themes in Wheatley's poems are death, religion, and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. Wheatley also composed many poems that are a type of tribute to admirable figures or influential persons in her life. Wheatley traveled to London and back, with flexibility rare to other enslaved persons, and held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London as well as other delegates. Wheatley's works, at the time, were respected in the realm of literature and impressed all who didn't believe a young slave could produce such works.


Early life

Although the date and location of her birthplace is not perfectly documented, it is believed that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753, somewhere in West Africa, most likely somewhere in present-day Gambia.[1] Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761,[2] on a slave ship called The Phillis,[3] which was owned by Timothy Finch and captained by Peter Gwinn. At the age of eight, she was sold to wealthy Bostonian merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife, Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. Phillis began her education being tutored by the Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary. John Wheatley, known as a progressive throughout New England, and the rest of the Wheatley family’s open-mindedness allowed Phillis to receive an unprecedented education for not only an enslaved person, but for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was already reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Amazed by her literary ability, the Wheatley family made Phillis’ education an important concern, and left the household labor to the other enslaved persons that the family owned. Influenced heavily by the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley’s studies began to gravitate toward the realm of poetry.

Her work

Phillis Wheatley’s first published work was a poem entitled “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin” which appeared on December 21, 1767, in a newspaper called the Newport Mercury:

“Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?"

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