Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784?) was the first professional African American poet and the first African-American woman whose writings were published. Born in Gambia, Senegal, she was enslaved at age eight. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and helped encourage her poetry.Born about 1753 in West Africa, she was kidnapped in 1763 and taken to America on a slave ship called The Phillis (this is where she got her name). She was purchased in Boston by John Wheatley. Wheatley and his wife Mary instructed the young girl and encouraged her education including study of Latin and history. Mrs.Wheatley arranged for Phillis to work around the house and allowed Mary Wheatley to tutor Phillis. Mary Wheatley taught Phillis science, geography, and history. Phillis was also taught English and studied the American Bible extensively. Within 2 ½ years of joining the Wheatley family, Phillis was fully literate. At the age of 12 she was reading the Greek and Latin classics, and passages from the Bible. This amazed the Wheatleys. Phillis was encouraged to continue to learn and was allowed to express herself, so much so she was also provided pen and paper on her nightstand in case she was inspired to write during the night.In 1773, Phillis Wheatley was sent to London with Nathaniel Wheatley. However Wheatley’s visit did not go unnoticed. She held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London, she was also scheduled to have a session where she recited a poem to George III was arranged, but Phillis returned home before expected. A collection of her poetry was also published in London during this visit. Wheatley was free of slavery, but not given the full rights of a free woman. On October 18, 1773 she was given this "freedom" as a result of her popularity and influence as a poet.In 1775, she published a poem celebrating George Washington entitled, “To his Excellency General Washington.” In 1776, Washington invited Wheatley to his home as thanks for the poem. Wheatley was a supporter of the American Revolution, but the war hurt the publication of her poetry because readers were swept up in the war and seemingly uninterested in poetry.In 1778, Phillis was legally freed when her master John Wheatley died. Three months later, Phillis married John Peters, a free black grocer. Wheatley was unable to publish another volume of her poetry. Wheatley’s husband, John Peters, was imprisoned for debt in 1784, leaving an impoverished Wheatley behind with a sickly infant daughter, Eliza. Wheatley became a scullery maid at a boarding house, forced into domestic labor that she had avoided earlier in life while enslaved. Wheatley died alone on December 5, 1784, at age 31.Phillis Wheatley, like most authors, wrote about what she knew or experienced. She believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable.

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