Phillis Wheatley: African-American and Bostonian Icon

“Portrait of Phillis Wheatley,” by Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved artist. This portrait was featured as the frontispiece to Wheatley’s book, “Poems on Various Subjects.” Library of Congress.

By Mia Macaluso

Boston University News Service

If you’ve ever taken an American history class, you’ve probably heard the name Phillis Wheatley. However, most classes don’t go into detail about just how incredible and harrowing her life– and work– really was.

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753 and was captured and brought to America at age seven. She was bought by the Wheatley family, who named her “Phillis” after the ship that brought her from Africa. The Wheatley family was well-known in the Boston area, and they and Phillis were notable congregants of Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party was planned.

Wheatley most likely worked as a house slave during her younger years; the Wheatleys took note of her frail health and sheltered her. She was taught to read and write in English and the Wheatley children, Mary and Nathaniel, tutored her.

In a time when even white women were rarely educated, as well as their male counterparts, Wheatley was an inconceivable exception. Her owners recognized her unparalleled talent– besides English, she could read in Greek and Latin, and could comprehend even the most difficult passages of the Bible– and they nurtured it.

In 1773, Phillis went to London, where her first book,  “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” was picked up for publication and distributed in the American colonies.

She exploded into what could be considered “stardom” almost instantly: her poems were read across the British Empire and throughout the colonies, enjoyed by both abolitionists and those who were pro-slavery. She received praise from people such as Voltaire and George Washington, the latter of whom she later met in 1776 after writing a poem about him. 

Wheatley, although sometimes bringing up the concept of abolition in her poems, rarely conveyed her own experiences of being an enslaved woman. Instead, she wrote of Christian values while echoing poets of old, calling upon Greek gods and the Muses in her works. She often wrote elegies filled with heavy religious imagery, evidence of being brought up in the Christian household of the Wheatleys.

The Wheatley family freed Phillis in November 1773, only three months after her first book was published. She tried several times afterwards to publish another collection of poems, but without patronage from the Wheatley family and with the ongoing Revolutionary War, she was unsuccessful. She worked as a maid in a boarding house in Boston for several years and died in childbirth in 1784. Only a few of her other poems had been published in newspapers.

Wheatley is the second African-American and first African-American woman author of a published book. She is only the third woman in America to have a book published in her name. 

She proved that women could write poetry just as well as men, but more than that, she defied the concept that enslaved Africans were incapable of being just as well-read and intellectual as whites.

Wheatley was, at best, an idealist. She believed that a newly independent America would have the opportunity– and the Christian duty– to recognize the equality of all peoples under God.

Scholars have argued over Wheatley’s true contributions to abolition for decades. In her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she implies that she was ‘saved’ from Africa, and that even while enslaved she was saved because of Christianity. Because of this, many scholars argue that her poetry does not reflect the truth of enslaved people of the time.

However, her other writings show a more nuanced side. Several letters to notable abolitionists showed that while she believed in the conversion of Africans to Christianity, she wholeheartedly believed in equality between races and that freed slaves should be given rights in America.

Massachusetts was the first state to have zero enslaved people named on the federal census in 1790, six years after Wheatley died. Although she lived to see her own freedom, the freedom that she wanted for the enslaved people around her was not realized until after her death.

Wheatley and enslaved people in Boston still have an effect on people today. Faneuil Hall has constantly been in the news recently, after it was decided that the name would be changed from its namesake of Peter Faneuil, a slave trader. 

Phillis Wheatley is still about as much of a household name as someone from colonial New England can be without being a founding father. Although her poetry might not be read– she is often mentioned simply for the phenomenon of her intellect– many argue that there should be a greater push for it to be taught; if not for her beautiful poetry than simply to give American youth a glimpse into the thoughts of such an incredible poet.

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