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Phillis Wheatley: the first published African-American female poet

Marija Georgievska

Phillis Wheatley was the first published African-American female poet. She was one of the best-known poets of the 19 century in America.

In 1761, Phillis was kidnapped from home and taken to Boston on a slave ship. Purchased by John Wheatley, she worked as his wife’s personal servant, Susanna. Susanna taught Phillis how to read and write and encouraged her writings.

 

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley

 

 

Title page of her published book

Title page of her published book

 

When she published her poems Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, Phillis became famous in England and America and even George Washington praised her work. Wheatley became the most famous African in the world. The African-American poet Jupiter Hammon also praised Phillis’s work in his poem after he had visited the Wheatley’s in England.

Her inspiration came from various poets particularly Thomas Gray, Alexander Pope, and John Milton. When Phillis was only nine years old, she started to study Greek, Latin, and the Bible. When she was a teenager, her writing was exceptionally mature with themes of piety, morality, and freedom.

When Phillis was 20, she went to London with Nathaniel Wheatley because Susanna believed that she would have a better chance to publish her poetry there. Many important members of the British society were introduced with her poems, including Selina Hastings who supported Phillis’s work and published a volume of her poems in 1773 in London.

 

Phillis Wheatley, illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects

Phillis Wheatley, illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects

 

After John Wheatley death, Phillis was legally released from slavery, and a few months later she married John Peters. She lost three children during her life, and after becoming married, she struggled with poor living conditions. Her second volume of poetry was not published because of Wheatley’s financial circumstances. However, few of her poems from that volume were published later in newspapers and pamphlets.

After her husband had got arrested for an unpaid financial debt, Phillis had to work as a scullery maid to support him and her infant son. In 1768, Wheatley wrote To the king’s Most Excellent Majesty where she is praising King George III because he repealed the Stamp Act and during the American revolution her writing turned to themes concerning the ideas of the rebellious colonists.

 

Phillis Wheatley’s church, Old South Meeting House

Phillis Wheatley’s church, Old South Meeting House

She died at the age od 31, on December 5th, 1784. In 2002, Wheatley was listed as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans, a chronology by Molefi Kete Asante and was commemorated on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Read another story from us: Bessie Coleman: The first woman of African-American and Native American descent to become a pilot

Phillis Wheatley’s work is considered fundamental concerning the genre of the African-American literature.