Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal around 1753, and was kidnapped into slavery at the age of 8. She arrived in Boston on the ship The Phillis and was sold to John Wheatley, who gave the young girl to his wife as a servant. Susanna Wheatley immediately noticed how intelligent Phillis was, and instead of training her to only be a servant, taught her theology, English, Latin and Greek. Of course we must still recognize here that although she was educated, she was still a slave, and her first book even appeared with the name of her owner alongside hers.
Wheatley’s first published poem was “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” which was published on December 21 1767 in the Newport RI paper Mercury. She wrote this poem when she was thirteen years old, after hearing the story of Hussey and Coffin, who narrowly escaped dying at sea during a storm off Nantucket:
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?
To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?
To stop your passage with a churlish Line,
Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down
With Aspect windy, and a study’d Frown?
Regard them not; — the Great Supreme, the Wise,
Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.
Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d away
Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;
Where wou’d they go? where wou’d be their Abode?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,
Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou’d adore.
Had the soft gliding Streams of Grace been near,
Some favourite Hope their fainting hearts to cheer,
Doubtless the Fear of Danger far had fled:
No more repeated Victory crown their Heads.
Had I the Tongue of a Seraphim, how would I exalt thy Praise; thy Name as Incense to the Heavens should fly, and the Remembrance of thy Goodness to the shoreless Ocean of Beatitude! — Then should the Earth glow with seraphick Ardour.
Blest Soul, which sees the Day while Light doth shine,
To guide his Steps to trace the Mark divine.
This poem is even more incredible when you take into account that she didn’t start learning English until she was in the colonies at the age of eight. When she was eighteen years old, she had written twenty-eight poems which she wanted to publish. When Americans proved unwilling to support an African poet, she turned to London. Mrs. Wheatley forwarded one of her poems to the Countess of Huntington, who commanded the bookseller Archibald Bell to start the process of publishing.
This book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773. Because no one would believe that a slave woman had written it, 17 Boston men needed to sign affidavits in the preface to attest to the fact that she had indeed penned the works. In the publishing, she became the first slave in the U.S. to publish a book of poems. People claim she was also the first African American and third American woman to do so. I understand granting those accolades to her but the fact remains that she was not American; she was stolen from her home in Senegal. Perhaps saying ‘the first African in America and the third women in America to do so’ is more accurate. Wheatley’s achievements helped spur on the antislavery movement. These lines in one of her elegies speak to the hypocrisy of claiming Christianity while enslaving Africans:
But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind
While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric: blameless race
Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers
Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.
She herself was manumitted three months before Mrs. Wheatley died. Unfortunately, life for free Black men and women in the colonies was harsh, as they had to compete directly with whites. Wheatley and her husband fell into poverty and as she had never had great health, she became sick. After her husband was put into debtor’s prison, she passed away on December 5 1784. Although she was one of their most famous poets, the colonists would not support a second book that she was striving to get published.
Further Readings and Sources:
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Phillis Wheatley.” Encyclopædia Britannica,
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Dec. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Phillis-Wheatley.
Michals, Debra. “Phillis Wheatley.” National Women’s History Museum, 2015, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/phillis-wheatley.
“15 Black Women Poets Everyone Should Know.” For Harriet | Celebrating the Fullness of Black Womanhood, 28 Apr. 2014, http://www.forharriet.com/2014/04/15-black-women-poets-everyone-should.html.