Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley

When she was 14, she published her first book of poetry.

Before that, she learned Latin and Greek, theology, and ancient history; as well as mythology and literature.

Did I mention that her poetry book was published in 1773, and that the author was a slave?

Her name was Phillis Wheatley.  We don't know the actual date or place of her birth, only that she was probably born in Senegal/Gambia about 1753.  Some biographers think that she may have been a Fula, a Muslim people who read Arabic.  In 1761, she was likely kidnapped and taken into slavery. She arrived in Boston, Massachusetts that year on a slave slip called "The Phillis".  There, she was bought by a couple, John and Susannah Wheatley, and became Susannah's personal servant.  They gave her a new name, Phillis Wheatley.  Her first name came from the ship that brought her to Boston; her last name became that of her owners.

I can only imagine what thoughts this little girl was having.  She was around seven or eight years old, taken from her native land, probably chained in the ship's hold--or, at the least, transported in horrible circumstances--then hauled up onto an auction block, inspected, eyed, ogled, and finally, after the words, "Going once, going twice, sold!", delivered into the hands of a master.  She had no idea how he was going to treat her.  Would he whip her?  Rape her?

Apparently, John and Susannah saw something in this young girl.  The Wheatley's daughter Mary began teaching her English, and Phillis learned very quickly.  Less than a year and a half later, she was reading difficult passages in the Bible.  She started studying Latin and English literature when she was 12.

For a white, male 12-year-old, these would be major accomplishments.  For a white, female, 12-year-old, it would be unheard of.  For a 12-year-old female slave?  Impossible!

Except it wasn't.

Wheatley started writing poetry.  When she was around 13, the Newport Mercury published her first poem, about two men who nearly drowned at sea.  As she grew up, her owners would show her off to their friends, who called her a "lively and brilliant conversationalist".  While the Wheatleys appreciated her and her talents, Phillis Wheatley would never be considered their social equal.  She was a privileged slave, but still a slave.  The white world gave Wheatley her "place" in that society.

When Wheatley was 20, her owners sent her and their son Nathaniel to England.  She wrote a poem to Mrs. Wheatley:  "Susannah mourns, not can I bear,/ To see the crystal shower, /Or mark the tender falling tear, /At sad departure's hour."  The lines show Phillis' affection for her mistress.  

While Wheatley was in England, she published her first and only book of poetry, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," and dedicated it to her English patron, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.  The volume included a statement from John Wheatley and a preface where 17 prominent Bostonians, including John Hancock, said that she, indeed, had written the included poems.

When Phillis Wheatley published her book of poems, she became the first African-American and first American slave to publish poetry, and only the third American woman to do so.  She continued to write after her book was published.  She wrote several poems honoring George Washington, and sent one of them to him in 1775.  He invited her to visit him at his headquarters, she accepted, and visited him in 1776.  

Although Wheatley's poetry won her fame, she faced serious struggles in her later life.  She suffered from poor health all her life, and one of the reasons she traveled to London was to be treated for her health problems.  But she had to return from London in 1774 due to the death of Susannah Wheatley. Susannah's husband John died just four years later.  And when the Revolutionary War broke out, it took front and center stage in the United States, and because her patrons had British connections, that made it impossible for them to support and promote her poetry.  Wheatley, ultimately, was unable to publish another collection of her poems.  

Wheatley became a free woman upon the death of her masters.  She eventually married John Peters and had three children.  While she continued to write poetry, she lived in poverty, and all three of her children died in infancy.  She was around 31 when she died in Boston, on December 5, 1784.

Phillis Wheatley has been criticized for adopting a "white voice" and abandoning her own race.  But she had to walk the line between her feelings, her patrons, her readers, and the God in whom she strongly believed.  Alice Walker, among other African-American feminist poets, claims Phillis Wheatley as an inspiration.

Her slavery was tragic, and so was her life after slavery.  And her history as a slave was a unique one, one not experienced by the vast majority of slaves.  But she used her position to write and to publish, and thus secured for herself a special place in African-American history.

Sources used:

"Phillis Wheatley",
Virginia Commonwealth University, Ann Woodlief's Web Study Texts, "On Phillis Wheatley".

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