12 Mar Phillis Wheatley Peters – An African American Writer
The story of Phillis Wheatley is one to ponder. Although a slave girl, her open-mindedness and sharp mind earned her a place in history. She is credited for some very interesting poems. Continue reading to find out more about Phillis Weatley Peters.
Phillis Wheatley Peters – An African American Writer
Written by Chinyere Nwosu
Who is Phillis Wheatley?
Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American to publish a book in the United States. She was born in West Africa on May 8, 1753, and died in Boston, Massachusetts, United States, on December 15, 1784. She was married to John Peters. (Her date and place of birth aren’t documented. However, she came with the slaves from West Africa, most likely present-day Gambia or Senegal. Therefore scholars believe that she was born in 1753 in West Africa. Records show she was sold to a visiting trader by a local chief and arrived in Boston on a slave ship called “The Phillis” on July 11, 1761. Using the information, scholars believe she was 7-8 years old when she was sold in Africa.)
The Phillis was owned by Timothy Fitch and captained by Peter Gwinn.
How did Phillis Wheatley become a poet?
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and sold into enslavement at the age of seven (7) and transported to North America. As the fate of many slaves, she was felt by many hands, and many bargained to buy her. Eventually, she was bought by the Wheatley family of Boston. John Wheatley was a wealthy tailor and merchant; Phillis was to serve his wife, Susanna. The Wheatley family gave her their last name.
She learnt to read and write, and she wrote many poems. Mary Wheatley, the first daughter of John and Susanna Wheatley, was Phillis’ first tutor in reading and writing. Their son, Nathaniel, also helped. Being progressive-minded, John Wheatley afforded Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and unusual for a woman of any race, as it were. At age 12, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages. AdditioShe also read difficult Bible passages. At age 14, she wrote her first poem – “To the University of Cambridge [Havard], in New England”. The Wheatley family encouraged her talent after they saw her poetry. Some writers whose work influenced Phillis’ writings include Virgil, Homer, John Milton, and Alexander Pope, amongst others.
She travelled to London in 1773, seeking publication for her work and her health (she suffered from chronic asthma), guided by her enslaver’s son, Nathaniel. On this trip, Phillis met many prominent people, some of whom became her patrons. Interestingly, she had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London, Fredrick Bull. Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, subsidized the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s volume of poems, which featured in London in the summer of 1773. Phillis never met Selina Hastings as Selina was ill.
Her poems were first published in her famous collection – Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Notable figures like George Washington and famous authors such as Jupiter Hammon (who wrote an ode to Wheatley) praised her works. The publication brought her fame and she was soon emancipated by her enslavers.
Phillis Wheatley’s married life and death
After her enslavers died (Susanna in spring 1774 and John in 1778), Phillis married John Peters, a free, black, poor grocer. History has it that she gave birth to three (3) children. However, they all died in early childhood. The couple lived in poor conditions. John Peters was improvident and was imprisoned in 1784. Phillis became a scullery maid in a boarding house to provide for her sickly son. Phillis died on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31 and her infant died soon after.
Phillis lost her patrons following the death of her master, the Wheatleys. Book publication, in those days, was based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand. For this reason, her second collection was, therefore, not published. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) has also been cited as a contributing factor. Some poems in the second collection were later published in pamphlets and newspapers.
Challenges for the African-American poet
Many colonists found it difficult to believe that an African-American slave woman was writing excellent poetry. For this reason, Phillis Wheatley was examined by a group of Boston luminaries in 1772. In the end, the court concluded that she had written the works ascribed to her and signed an attestation, which was included in the preface of her book – Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
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Carretta, Vincent. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
Catherine Adams; Elizabeth H. Pleck (2010). Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. New York: Oxford University Press.
Charles Scruggs (1998). “Phillis Wheatley”. In G. J. Barker-Benfield (ed.). Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 106.
Doak, Robin S. Phillis Wheatley: Slave and Poet, Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic Civitas Books, 2010, p. 5.
Page, ed. (2007). “Phillis Wheatley”. Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1. p. 611.
Phillis Wheatley, Poetry Foundation, (accessed 11/03/2023)
White, Deborah (2015). Freedom on My Mind. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 145.
Wikipedia, Phillis Wheatley, (Accessed 11/03/2023)
Yolanda Williams Page, ed. (2007). “Phillis Wheatley”. Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 610