Little about Phillis’ date and place of birth is known. However, it is believed that she was born in 1753, in West Africa, perhaps in current day Senegal or Gambia (Berkin 827). She was sold by her local chief, during the Trans-Atlantic trade, to a visiting trader in the locality. Additionally, Phillis was kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved at the age of about eight or seven years (approximating based on her missing teeth) in Boston, North America, a colony of Massachusettes. During the slave trade, she was purchased by the Wheatly family from Boston who ensured that she learned to read and write upon discovering her poetry talent they reinforced it too. Wheatly had bought Phillis for his wife Sussana who named her Phillis because her name was unknown at the time. She got her name after the ship that transported her from Africa, which was known as ‘Phillis.’
Wheatly’s children, Mary and Nathaniel are credited with helping Phillis with reading and writing. By the time Phillis was 12 years old, she could read English, Latin, and Greek and could read vividly tricky Bible passages. She was also able to study Geography and Astronomy. Phillis, at the age of 14 years, wrote her first poem which she addressed to Cambridge University in New England. By that time the Wheatly family had discovered how talented Phillis was and, therefore, they exempted her from all household labor to let her concentrate on her literary works. Her studies of John Milton, Homer, Alexander Pope, Virgil, and Horace influenced her and propelled her into writing poetry. Phillis Wheatly was the first African-American female poet to publish a book, in 1773, and the third American woman to publish a poetry book (Berkin 828).
At the age of thirteen, she wrote the poem ‘On Messrs, Hussey and Coffin,’ which was about two men who almost drowned at sea. It was published on 21st December 1767. Additionally, the poem was her first work to be published other than the one addressed to the University of Cambridge, which was released later in 1773. Her talent saw her become part of the Wheatly family and this gave her the go-ahead to interact with the guests who came to visit the Wheatlys, some of whom were prominent people (Phillis 106).
In 1773, twenty-year old Phillis accompanied Nathaniel, Wheatly’s son, to London to seek medical services. She was suffering from a chronic asthmatic condition. Sussana Wheatly also saw it as a chance for Phillis to publish her poetry book in London. In America, slaves were not allowed to publish. Therefore Phillis could not find anyone to publish her work as the publishers were not willing o violate the set regulations. While in London, Phillis had an opportunity to meet Lord Mayor and other significant members of the British society. Unfortunately, during this visit, Phillis was unable to reach her patron, Selina Hastings, who had helped her to publish her work. Phillis wrote various letters to various people. Amongst them was Samson Occom, a reverend, in which she congratulated him for his ideologies on the plight of the slaves and the accordance of their natural birthrights in America. Wheatly wrote to John Thornton too.
In 1775, she wrote a poem and dedicated it to George Washington. Consequently, in the subsequent year George invited Phillis at his headquarters in Cambridge. In 1776, the poem was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. She wrote letters to various ministers and other people on the freedom and liberty of the slaves. Therefore, Wheatly significantly contributed to American Revolution and opposition to slavery. Phillis, in 1768, wrote a poem in which she applauded King George III for the Stamp Act, in which Phillis expressed her ideology regarding the rebellious colonialists. Additionally, by the time she was eighteen years old, she had gathered twenty-eight poems with the help of Mrs. Wheatly who significantly funded the publishing of Phyllis’ works. Throughout her life, Phyllis wrote close to a hundred and forty-five poems, but unfortunately, some were lost because she could not find a donor, to help her publish her book after the death of Mrs. Wheatly.
The poems that Phyllis wrote were mainly influenced by her life and the people who influenced it. Among them were the works of well-known poets who she studied. Phylis was also proud of her African heritage, and it was evident in her work. Additionally, religion was quite apparent in her writings which she happened to draw from her African religion. The theme of faith reflected in her poems made Protestants from both England and America to enjoy them. Notably, both slave-owners and the abolitionists read her work.
On returning to Boston from London, Phillis faced some challenges. First was the death of her masters. Sussana died in 1774 followed by John Wheatly in 1778. Nevertheless, she enjoyed herself as a freed slave because the Wheatlys set her free after the release of her book, Poems on Subjects Religious and Morals, published in London. In 1778, Phillis married a free African-American in Boston. She has had known him for at least five years before their marriage. John and Phillis had three children all who died in infancy. Their marriage was quite rocky with poverty being a significant challenge.
Poverty saw Phillis take a job as a maid and she worked under horrifying and squalid conditions. During the time, there were growing tensions because of the Revolutionary War, which made it almost impossible for her to continue with her poetry works. It became challenging for her to publish the second volume of her poems. For the colonialists, it was not easy to believe that Phillis, an African-American, could write such good poetry, and therefore, she had to defend her works in court in the year 1772. Phillis is believed to have died in Boston on 5th December 1784 following complications of childbirth. Sadly, even with her exceptional contributions to literature, she died alone after the imprisonment of her husband, Peter. Indeed, her contributions and believe in poetry were incomparable as they were based on her ideas and beliefs and presented uniquely. In her writing, Phyllis used three key aspects, and they included Christianity, classics and hierophantic solar worship. When her book, Poems on Various Subjects, was published in 1773, Phillis became the most famous African-American woman of her time. She was also the first one to live off poetry.
Phillis Wheatly contributed significantly to the American Literature as she created a basis upon which many other writers emerged. She was an inspiration to the African-American slaves who came after her. A good example was Jupiter Hummon who wrote her first poem in 1778, An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly. Other African-American writers such as Jesse Redmon Fauset and Ai decided to venture into poetry too because of her works. Following literature pieces, Phillis changed the ideology that existed then that African-Americans could neither read nor write besides being creative. Their place was believed to be only in the slave yards. Moreover, the actions of Wheatly created an avenue upon which the black people in America and the generations that came after her fought for their civil rights and the abolition of slavery. Besides, with the help of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and other like-minded people, slavery was abolished (Henry 56). The works of Phyllis Wheatly created the genre of African American literature that never existed before her writings. As mentioned, she was the first African-American woman to publish a book. Using her poetry, Phillis proved that given an opportunity, an African-American can make achievements just like a white person. Indeed, she displayed the intelligence, capability, and creativity of people who benefited from education (Doak 265).
The memorial of Phillis Wheatly exists to-date. A memorial honor is accorded to her for being the first African-American poet. In 2003, a statue was erected on Commonwealth Avenue, which is part of Boston Women’s Memorial and contains other statutes of Bostonian Women, in her honor (Sewall 404). Besides, one of her poems was engraved to her statue to signify the value of her work. As long as the statue exists, her work is unlikely to be forgotten. After her death, memoirs and poems of her were published. Furthermore, various locations and institutions were been named after her, for example, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA (in Washington, D.C), Wheatly Hall (at UMass, Boston, and Phyllis Wheatly High School (in Houston, Texas).
The works by Phillis helped to break the precedents that existed when she lived (Carretta 301). Before her work, African-Americans were not allowed to write or even learn how to read. In America, literally tasks were exclusively for the whites at that time, which is why Phillis could not find anyone to publish her book, Poems on Various Subjects in America. She had to go to London from where she had her first book published. Even though she did not manage to publish in America, she did so in another predominantly Whites’ country, which was no small feat. As forementioned, the colonialists could not believe how incredible her works were, and thus she had to face them in court. All the same, this opened an avenue for other African-American poets who found it more manageable than before thanks to her. Her works have also been cited by revolutionary scholars to change the prevailing belief among the whites that the black people are intellectually incapable, which has been as an excuse to justify the failure to promote education amongst them.
In conclusion, American Literature is never complete without talking about the literary works of Phyllis Wheatly. Through her vast writings, she put the African-American woman in the limelight. Her work revolutionized African illiteracy as it encouraged Africans to seek educational intelligence. The American Revolution was also influenced by Phillis’ works. Though the challenges and the endurance she portrayed, Wheatly was indeed a great inspiration to many poets who came after her.
The Famous People. “Phillis Wheatley biography,” 2017. Accessed from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/phillis-wheatley-106.php
Henry Louis Gates. Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s Second Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic Civitas Books
Doak, Robin S. Phillis Wheatley: Slave and Poet, Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007.
Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Sewall-Belmont House. Black Women in America, Peake Delancey, 2003.
Carretta, Vincent. Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.