Poetry Matters: Phillis Wheatley, The Slave Girl Who Became a Literary Sensation
Enslaved at age 8, America’s first black woman poet won her freedom with verse
The great writer Ralph Ellison, in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, gave a literary grandeur to what was a commonplace theme in American society and race relations: African Americans were invisible to white America and eventually, tortured by this predicament, would begin to doubt even their own existence. If blacks were not “seen,” neither were they heard. It took a long time, and the heroic efforts of people like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and countless others, for black voices to be heard in the public square; and tragically, it was as likely that those voices would be extinguished with their speaker’s passing. The strange case of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th-century poet, and her meteoric career, raises many questions, not just about literature, but about the cruel predicament of race in America.
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was an American literary sensation whose only analogue is possibly the young English poet, Thomas Chatterton, for the precocious brevity and novelty of her career. For Wheatley was a slave, captured in Gambia, brought to Boston in 1761 and sold to a wealthy merchant named John Wheatley. Her master John Wheatley provided a letter which was published with her poems, introducing Phillis and accounting for her sudden appearance:
“PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between
Seven and Eight years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education,
and by only what she was taught in the Family, in sixteen Months Time from
her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger
before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred
Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.”
Soon thereafter she started writing poetry as well, apparently on her own initiative, and by 1765 she was publishing serviceable, neo-classical elegies and other poems on subjects ranging from daily life to more elevated moral themes. Such was the oddity of an African-American slave girl writing verse that her first published book of poems was prefaced with a testimonial from prominent colonists, including the governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson as well as John Hancock, that the book was actually “written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa.”
Her poem “To Maecenas” was doubtless self-referential for Gaius Maecenas had been the cultural adviser to the emperor Octavian and the patron of Roman poets. The subject reflected colonial American sentiment. Soon to be revolutionaries, the Colonialists looked to ancient Rome and Greece for classical precedents and models for right behavior:
Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Wheatley was taken up into the world of Anglo-American Evangelical Protestantism, meeting the great preacher George Whitfield about whom she wrote a widely republished elegy:
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.
The poem contained a direct tribute of Whitfield’s patroness, the Countess of Huntingdon, who was friends with the Wheatleys. It was through this connection that Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773. A portrait by the Boston slave Scipio Moorhead (the only surviving example of his work) became its frontispiece.
Indeed, Wheatley traveled to London to meet the Countess and prepare the volume for publication. Having published the first book by an African American, she was lionized by society and later that year freed, “at the desire of my friends in England.” Thereafter, tragically, her life unraveled. She continued to write but never published a second book and she died in poverty, possibly in childbirth.
Wheatley’s is an extraordinary story about which we know too little. Once she was freed, her letters hint that she felt betrayed by her erstwhile patrons as well as by her former owners. Having found herself as a poet, she discovered that she and her voice became appropriated by a white elite that quickly tired of her novelty. She is now taken as a symbol of African American and feminist creativity and resistance. One suspects that her actual history is more interesting—and tragic—than her typecasting by both her contemporaries and posterity. In particular, one wants to know more about her masters, the Wheatleys. By what process of mind and calculation did they purchase a slave, permit her to become educated and published, and then, having capitalized on Phillis’s fame, discard her on the granting of her freedom? In a story that would recur again and again in America, the achievement of African Americans would be greeted first with incredulity and then with a silencing. She had written in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
Some view our race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain
May be refin’d and join th’angelic train.
Centuries later, African American poet, Langston Hughes, would write, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The question lingers—and haunts.