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 - Maartje Kramer -


Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) was born in West Africa, abducted at a young age, shipped, and brought to America as a slave. Despite her unfortunate start in life, Wheatley received an unusual opportunity by getting an education from her owner, John Wheatley, and his wife Susanna. She quickly learned English and excelled at it. Particularly notable was Susanna's instruction in geography, astronomy, religion, literature, and history. Some slaves, if lucky, would learn some basic English to be able to read the Bible. 


Susanna was the person who ensured that Phillis's poems and stories were sent to the right publishers and newspapers. It was Susanna in particular who recognized Philis’s talent, who at the age of 12 had begun composing poems. It wasn't until 1767 that Phillis published her first poem. It was a success, and she continued writing. In 1770, she wrote an elegy for George Whitefield, an influential English preacher, which further increased her fame. She wrote enough poems to publish a book.  


To prove the authenticity of her work, a group of prominent citizens was enlisted to test her. John Wheatley gathered Boston's respected citizens, including the governor and John Hancock. The men agreed to write a preface for Phillis's book. With the preface, they assured the world that the poems were written by the young black girl Phillis. They wrote that only a few years ago, Phillis had been brought as a ‘barbarian’ from Africa and that she had indeed written the texts while working as a slave for the Wheatley family. 


Despite this endorsement, the Wheatleys could not find a publisher for the book in the colonies. Fortunately, the Countess of Huntingdon offered to finance publication in England. The Wheatleys' son accompanied Phillis to London to help with the publication, as slaves were not allowed to travel on their own.


The book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in September 1773. In its first year, the book was reprinted four times in London. Although her book became available in the colonies the following year, an American edition was not issued until 1786, after Phillis's death. In the remaining years of the eighteenth century, seven editions appeared. 


When she returned to Boston in 1774, John Wheatley gave Philis something she had wanted for years. She received her freedom. Yet her freedom did not mean an end to her difficulties. She stayed with the Wheatleys' daughter for a few years after being freed. In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a free black man. One thing is clear: like most black people in colonial Massachusetts, the couple found it difficult to financially sustain themselves. They lived in poverty. They had two children, both unfortunately died in childhood. Shortly after their third child was born, John left his wife. Phillis and her newborn child died on December 5, 1784. She was about 30 years old. 


It was only in the 20th century that Philis's work was rediscovered by black writers and critics, although some criticized her work for her apparent acceptance of her subordinate position as a slave. It is important to recognize that Phillis, when she wrote her famous poems, was still a slave. Despite setbacks, Wheatley continued to write and hoped for a second publication, but she never managed to find sufficient funding. Perhaps the people who could finance her were not interested in what she wrote after her release, which was about abolitionism and her advocating for freedom for all people. 


Wheatley's impact cannot be underestimated. She is the first black female author to publicize her work in what is now the United States. Although her life was short, she is a pioneer in literature. 


Image: Unidentified Artist (1773) Phylis Wheatly. National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., United States.


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