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Black History Spotlight: Phillis Wheatly-The First Black American To Publish A Book Of Poetry β€πŸ–€πŸ’š

By: Leon Kwasi Kuntuo-Asare

Early Life

Phillis Wheatley is believed to of been born in 1753, in West Africa, most likely in Senegal or Gambia. At around the age of 7 or 8, some historians say she was likely sold by a local African chief to a slave trader, who brought her to the British colony of Massachusetts. She was eventually resold to John Wheatley, who was a successful businessman, who bought her to be a servant girl for his wife, Sussana. The Wheatley family gave her their surname of Wheatley (which was common during the time-period if the slave was given a surname), and then the now-Wheatley was given the name Phillis by her new owners. For the very racist time-period, the Wheatley’s were very progressive for thar era, especially the family patriarch, John, who instructed his children Mary and Nathaniel to give her an education in reading and writing. At the age of 12, Phillis Wheatley was able to read the bible, classical Latin and Greek literature.

The Published Poet

At the age of 14-years-old, Phillis Wheatley was so gifted in her writings that her slave owner’s the Wheatley family decided that that she should focus on her writing, instead of domestic work, which they left to the other slaves. Her first poem was “To the University of Cambridge, in New England”. In 1773, she traveled to London, England with the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, because the Wheatleys believed she would have a far-better chance of getting her book of poetry published in the United Kingdom (than she would have in America). While in England, Phillis Wheatley met several members of Britain’s high society, which included the Lord Mayor of London. One of the people interested in the works of Phillis Wheatley, was Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. She used her influence to help Phillis Wheatley get her volume of poetry published, and she served as a patron of Phillis Wheatley’s written works.

Wheatley’s Poem on Slavery, and her relationship with her former masters who raised, educated and treated her relatively well:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Later In Life

In November of 1773, after her book of poetry was published, the Wheatley family gave Phillis her freedom. As a now free Black woman, she would go on to marry a free Black man named John Peters, who was a grocer. The new couple suffered through a lot of unfortunate heartache and misery, which included poverty and living in extremely harsh conditions, and most devastating, the death of two babies. In 1775, Wheatley sent a copy of one of her poems to the then-general George Washington. The poem was titled “To His Excellency, George Washington”. Washington was so impressed that he invited Wheatley to meet him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wheatley would take him up on his offer, and met him on March in 1776. Later in that year, the political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1779, Wheatley submitted her proposal for a second volume poetry, but because of her financial situation and the loss of her former supporters since emancipation, she was unable to get a full book of poetry published. However, she was able to get several of the poems that were intended for her second book, published in several pamphlets and newspapers. In 1784, financial struggles would cause her husband to be arrested and placed in debtors prison. To make ends meet, Wheatley worked as a scullery maid, so that she could take care of herself and her ill-infant son. On December 5, 1784, Wheatley died at the very young age of 31, her sickly son would die a little while afterwards.

Post Death Honors And Legacy

In 2002, Temple University professor and author Molefi Kete Asante placed Wheatley on his list of 100 greatest African-Americans. In 2003, Wheatley along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone were featured in a sculpture on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2012, a new building for the school of Communications and Information Sciences at Robert Morris University was named in her honor.

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