Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753-1754, most likely in either what is now Senegal or Gambia; her native language is presumed to be Wolof. She was kidnapped and forced into slavery as a child, arriving in Boston in 1761, advertised in the following bulletin: A parcel of likely Negroes, imported from Africa, cheap for cash, or shot Credit; enquire of John Avery, at his house next door to the White –horse, or at adjoining store……………………………if any Persons have any Negro Men, strong and hearty, tho’ not of the best moral character, which are proper Subjects for Transportation, may have an Exchange for small Negroes.
John Wheatley bought seven-year-old girl Phillis, and named her after the name of the boat that took her from Africa. In the decade leading up to the Revolutionary War, Boston boasted a total population of about 15,000 of which 1,000 comprised of African slaves and slaves of African descent and about twenty-one free blacks. The tasks assigned to northern slaves tended to be different than those of the south, more domestic and less agrarian. Many slave owners romanticized the situation by considering the slaves members of the family, as if they were willing participants in their situation. Phillis was assigned to be a companion for John’s wife, Susannah, as her health declined.
John and Susannah Wheatley were a wealthy Boston couple that took the time to educate Phillis. It was supremely unusual for slave owners to see any value on educating slaves, and the Wheatleys’ decision to promote Phillis’ love of learning would drastically change her life.
The Wheatleys were devout Christians who advocated for the conversion of African slaves and Native Americans, a position that had a marked influence on Phillis, who not only adopted her owners’ faith, but took to it with a heady fervor that would inform her writings from the very beginning. When the Wheatleys realized how dedicated Phillis was to both her faith and conveying it through writing, they decided to intensify her education by having their daughter, Mary, tutor Phillis in a variety of subjects. It seems that the Wheatleys were proponents of female education, as 18-year-old Mary Wheatley was able to instruct Phillis in English, Latin, ancient history, and geography, as well as provide readings ranging from the Bible to Alexander Pope. Reading the Bible provided Phillis with the story of the Israelites being saved through their faith in God, which she applied as an allegory for how slaves in America would ultimately gain freedom through their belief in a just God.
While the precise age at which Phillis began writing poetry is not known, she was either thirteen or fourteen when she first published her work in the Newport Mercury, a poem entitled On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin, about drowning sailors who pray to God:
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.
That same year, she wrote An Address to the Atheist and An Address to the Deist:
[An Address to the Atheist]
Thou who dost daily feel his hand, and rod
Darest thou deny the Essence of a God! –
If there’s no heav’n, ah! whither wilt thou go,
Make thy Ilysium in the shades below?
If there’s no God from whom did all things Spring
He made the greatest and minutest Thing
[An Address to the Deist]
I ask O unbeliever, Satan’s child
Hath not thy saviour been too much revil’d
Th’ auspicious rays that round his temples shine
Do still declare him to be Christ divine
Doth not the great Eternal call him Son
Is he not pleas’d with his beloved One — ?
When his Americans were burden’d fore,
When Streets were crimson’d with their guiltless Gore,
Unrivall’d Friendship in his Breast now strove;
The Fruit thereof was Charity and Love
Towards America — Couldst thou do more
Than leave thy native Home, the British Shore,
To cross the great Atlantic’s wat’ry Road,
To see America’s distress’d Abode?
Thy Prayers, great Saint, and thy incessant Cries,
Have pierc’d the Bosom of thy native Skies!
The writing that first brought her fame was a memorial poem honoring the Evangelist George Whitefield, who presided over the Wheatleys’ congregation, aptly titled On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield:
HAIL happy Saint on thy immortal Throne!
To thee Complaints of Grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the Music of thy Tongue;
Thy wonted Auditories cease to throng.
Thy Lessons in unequall’d Accents flow’d;
While emulation in each Bosom glow’d.
Thou didst, in Strains of Eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the Soul and captivate the Mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore,
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more.
He leaves this Earth for Heaven’s unmeasur’d Height;
And Worlds unknown receive Him from our Sight:
There WHITEFIELD wings with rapid Course his Way,
and sails to Zion thro’ vast Seas of Day.
The poem was originally published as a broadside in Boston, but its admirers distributed it throughout the northeast, and it was reprinted in newspapers in Philadelphia and New York City. There were some who doubted her authorship, leading to a group of prominent white Bostonians signing their name to a statement reading: WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them. While there were several other slaves who had published writings, such as Jupiter Hammon, Wheatley was the first African-American woman to be published. That was enough to gain her a measure of celebrity, one that exploded when On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield was published in England in 1771. Realizing that it would be advantageous to have an independent patron, Wheatley wrote a letter to the wealthy Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, enclosing her famous poem on Whitefield, who had been the Countess’ chaplain. Hastings was so moved by the writings of Wheatley–who was only seventeen or eighteen at that point–that she became her greatest advocate. In letters to Susannah Wheatley, Hastings referred to Phillis as “Your little Poetess” and implored, “may the Lord keep her & hope comfort her heart alive with the fire of that alter [sic] that
never goes out.”
It was in England that Wheatley found her greatest fame during her lifetime. Under the auspices of Hastings’ financial backing, a volume of her work was published in London in 1773, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book was greatly celebrated in England, but could not find a publisher in the American colonies, as the politics of slavery made it so that no publisher was willing to print a work that would admit that a slave was an intellectual equal to a white person.
Colonial politics were such that, in the 1768, Wheatley wrote To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, honoring King George III, who remained popular in Boston into the early 1770s. The poem declared May George, beloved by all the nations round, Live with heav’ns choicest constant blessings crown’d! By 1776, however, the winds had shifted and she wrote a poem celebrating General George Washington as America fought for its independence:
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.
Washington wrote a letter to Wheatley in return, in which he thanked her “most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” Washington then arranged for the poem to be published in The Virginia Gazette. It was one of the ironies of the moral relativism that surrounded American slavery that allowed Washington to praise Wheatley and grant her an audience while he owned his own slaves. Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones also praised her, requesting that his own writings be given to “Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo.”
The one poem of Wheatley’s that generated the most controversy was On Being Brought From Africa to America, which demonstrated just how much she had adopted Christianity and the doctrine of divine providence, viewing her kidnapping from Africa as part of a larger plan that brought her happiness in her faith:
‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.’
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.
This poem, which was written when she was fifteen at the oldest, has earned condemnation in subsequent centuries. But all of her poetry at that time was published through the Wheatleys while she was still a slave, and it would have been impossible for her to publish any works that criticized the slave system. It is worth contrasting this poem with one of Wheatley’s later works, a 1774 letter written after her manumission that condemned slavery and applied the similarities between ancient Israelites and black slaves in America: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means; for in every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call ~ it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance; and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same principle lives in us. God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and get him honour upon all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the calamities of their fellow creatures.
In 1778, Wheatley married a grocer named John Peters, a free black man who was plagued by financial problems. Peters eventually abandoned Wheatley and their three children. As the Revolutionary War made it impossible for Wheatley to reach out to her British supporters, she was unable to find anyone who would publish her new works. John and Susanna Wheatley both died, and neither of their children extended any financial assistance to Phillis. Wheatley’s two older children died of starvation, and Wheatley herself died in childbirth while in labor with her third child, who subsequently died mere hours later. She was approximately 31 years old and reduced to living in a boardinghouse for the indigent, a once-celebrated poetic prodigy whose death went all-but-unnoticed by the public.