Phillis Wheatley




Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was an accomplished African American poet who lived during the Revolutionary War. As a young African girl, she was placed in chains and became human cargo on a ship that sailed from West Africa to Boston, Massachusetts in 1761. Conditions were harsh, and a quarter of those on the ship died en route.1 Most merchants considered Phillis a poor choice for a slave, but John Wheatley chose her, knowing she would be an asset to his wife, Susanna. John named her after the ship that transported her to Boston. Unlike most slave owners, the Wheatleys cherished Phillis. Susanna thought of her as a daughter and she was kept separate from the servants of the family. She “was kept constantly about the person of her mistress.”2
 
Susanna Wheatley, an evangelical Christian, taught Phillis about the Bible, which helped build a foundation for Phillis’ faith in Jesus Christ and her understanding of Scripture. Phillis was also taught how to read and write and she demonstrated remarkable intelligence. “Her time, when she was at home, was chiefly occupied with her books, her pen, and her needle…”3 Such circumstances provided an opportunity for her to become well educated and grow in the knowledge of God. Phillis’ faith eventually became the message of her poetic platform.
 
Phillis devoted most of her time to writing. In 1773 she completed her first collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral, which became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language.4 The collection included one of her more famous poems “On being brought from Africa to America.” The poem recited Phillis’ belief that salvation is not just for the white man, but Africans as well—“Some view our sable race with a scornful eye, ‘Their colour [sic] a diabolic die.’ Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join the angelic train.”5 Instead of a pulpit, Phillis proclaimed salvation through her pen.
 
Phillis’ poems impacted many men and women of influence during her generation. Well-known white men and women were among her audience, such as John Wesley, the Countess of Huntingdon (George Whitefield’s patron), Thomas Hutchinson, and George Washington. In her poem “On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770,” Phillis eulogized Whitefield with the utmost honor, “Hail, happy saint, on thine immortal throne, possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown.”6
 
Though Phillis’ work received much praise, it also attracted critics, one of whom was Thomas Jefferson. He seemed to believe that the mind of a slave was inferior to that of the white man. In response to Phillis’ poetry he stated that “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley[sic]; but it could not produce a poet.”7 His criticism reflected his view of slavery that, though all men had the capacity to hold religious beliefs, a slave woman could not write great poetry.
 
The hardships that confronted Phillis were not only associated with her critics, but her health as well. She was frail and battled asthma since her youth, and was once close to death. Three months before the death of Susanna Wheatley, she married John Peters. Both were declared “free negroes” and soon moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts.8 Married life for Phillis was very different from life with the Wheatley family. She was stricken with trials, and sources state her marriage was “strained at best” and “was lamented by most observers.”9
 
John Peters eventually abandoned Phillis and their three children, all of whom were sickly and frail.10 Phillis continued to write and also worked as a seamstress, struggling to provide for her family. Though her poetry continued to prosper, it was not enough to contend with the debt John Peters accumulated. In addition, the wages of a recently enslaved black woman in any profession during her era were insufficient.
 
The early death of Phillis was neither honored nor remembered by many of her day. In 1784 Phillis was dying in her sickbed, “… filthy…in an obscure place of the metropolis,”11 with her last surviving child beside her who was soon to taste death as well. A woman who was once honored in the midst of some of the most prestigious men of her generation died in wretchedness on December 5, 1784.12
 
Phillis Wheatley knew much joy in sickness and mistreatment, and she rejoiced in Jesus in the midst of suffering. Her poetry continues to impact lives today.
 


 

1. Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 7.
2. Margeretta Matilda Odell, Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Boston: Geo. W. Light, 1834), 10.
3. Odell., 17.
4. Odell, 17.
5. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1786), 13.
6. Wheatley, 15.
7. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 44-45.
8. Robinson, 19.
9. Ibid., 20.
10. Odell, 23.
11. Ibid.
12. Carretta, 190.

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