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The Most Notorious Poet in 18th Century America Was An Enslaved Teenager You’ve Never Heard Of

Phyllis Wheatley was a prodigy, but her ultimate fate reflects the gross racial disparities of 1700s America

The frontispiece of Wheatley's poetry collection describes her as a "Negro servant" rather than a slave, though she wasn't freed until after the book's publication. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Phyllis, or Phillis, Wheatley was the first black person and one of the first women to publish a book in America. Her work was read and admired by the likes of George Washington, but her talent posed an unresolvable ideological problem for national leaders. At the time she published her book, Wheatley was enslaved.

“Slaveowners and abolitionists both read her work, writes the National Women’s History Museum; “the former to convince their slaves to convert, the latter as proof of slaves’ intellectual abilities.”   

The life of Phyllis Wheatley is somewhat shrouded in mystery. According to historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., she was forcibly brought to Boston as a slave on a ship named the Phillis. “It’s a fair guess that she would have been a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast,” he wrote. The young girl, who was described in the cargo list as “a slender frail, female child,” was estimated to be about seven. Susanna Wheatley bought her for very little money, naming her after the ship she was brought to America on.

Susanna Wheatley and her husband John Wheatley had two children, twins named Nathaniel and Mary. “For reasons never explained, Mary, apparently with her mother’s enthusiastic encouragement, began teaching the child slave to read,” Gates write. Sixteen months after she’d arrived, she spoke and read English fluently and had started learning Latin. She published her first poem when she was 13 or 14 and continued writing.

“Wheatley’s poems reflected several influenced on her life, among them the well-known poets she studied, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray,” writes the museum. “Pride in her African heritage was also evident. Her writing style embraced the elegy, likely from her African roots, where it was the role of girls to sing and perform funeral dirges. Religion was also a key influence, and it led Protestants in America and England to enjoy her work.”

By the time she was about eighteen years old, Wheatley and her owner Susanna Wheatley looked for subscribers for a collection of twenty-eight of her poems. “When the colonists were apparently unwilling to support literature by an African, she and the Wheatleys turned in frustration to London for a publisher,” writes the Poetry Foundation. She traveled to London with Nathaniel Wheatley to meet dignitaries and have the book printed.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book on record published by an African-American, was read–and debated–on both sides of the Atlantic. The book included a portrait of Wheatley in the frontispiece, to underscore her race, as well as signatures from a number of colonial leaders verifying that she had, in fact, written the poems contained in the book. “With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley almost immediately, became the most famous African on the face of the earth, the Oprah Winfrey of her time,” writes Gates.

The Wheatleys freed Phyllis three months before Susanna Wheatley died in 1774. After the book was published, writes the Poetry Foundation, “many British editorials castigated the Wheatleys for keeping Wheatley in slavery while presenting her to London as the African genius.” But “the family had provided an ambiguous haven for the poet. Wheatley was kept in a servant’s place–a respectable arm’s length from the Wheatleys’ genteel circles–but she had experienced neither slavery’s treacherous demands nor the harsh economic exclusions pervasive in a free-black existence.”

This relationship was one of power–after all, the Wheatleys owning and teaching a talented poet brought them a kind of prestige–but it did also give Phyllis Wheatley the power to speak out. In her correspondence with Washington, as in her correspondence with others, she spoke out against slavery.

Wheatley was a talented poet who engaged with the poetic tastes of her time. But she was also a black woman at a time when black people had very little power in America: “she died in 1784 in abject poverty, preceded in death by her three children, surrounded by filth, and abandoned, apparently, by her husband, John Peters,” Gates writes. Like Benjamin Banneker, another well-known early African-American intellectual, she used her voice to advocate against slavery and for equality, but unfortunately, that voice only went so far.

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