In late 1775, the newly appointed General George Washington received a poem from one of colonial America’s most famous writers. Its verses praised the burgeoning revolution, invoking the goddess of their new nation to aid the general’s righteous cause.
But this ode to liberty wasn’t written by some aloof, aristocratic admirer. Its author was a young Black woman who’d been enslaved for over a decade. The young girl, who’d been renamed Phillis Wheatley, had arrived in the colonies on a slave ship in 1761.
The ship landed in Boston, where Susanna and John Wheatley purchased Phillis to work in their house. However, for reasons that remain unclear, they also taught her to read and write. Over the following decade, Wheatley became well versed in poetry and religious texts, eventually beginning to produce her own poems.
The family published her work in a local newspaper, and in 1771, her elegy for renowned reverend George Whitefield captured the public’s imagination. The poem’s repetitive rhythms, dramatic religious references, and soaring spiritual language depicted how Whitefield’s sermons “inflame the soul and captivate the mind.”
Wheatley ends with an arresting image of life after death, trusting that divine forces “will re-animate his dust.” This moving tribute found an audience in both the US and England. And since the piece was published with a note identifying the author as an enslaved woman, many readers were as fascinated with the poet as they were with the poem.
In 1773, Phillis traveled to London, where her collection of “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” became the first book of poetry published by an African-American woman. It was filled with profound meditations on life, death, and religion, as well as Biblical and classical references.
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In “A Hymn to Humanity,” Wheatley linked these themes to her own creative growth, portraying herself as a muse smiled upon by heavenly bodies. Unsurprisingly, Wheatley had her critics. Many white Americans believed Black people were incapable of producing intellectual and creative work.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that her writing didn’t even deserve to be called poetry, and others dismissed her as a poor imitation of another well-known poet. But many readers of the time were enamored with Wheatley’s work, including prominent European writers and politicians. Many modern readers, however, might expect her work to cover a different topic: slavery.
Wheatley rarely wrote directly about her experiences as an enslaved person. And her poem addressing the topic has been criticized for suggesting she was grateful that enslavement led her to Christianity. But it’s incredibly unlikely Wheatley would have been able to publicly condemn slavery without serious consequences.
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And many readers have found a more nuanced critique hidden within her work. For example, Wheatley was a vocal supporter of American independence, writing that her “love of freedom” came from early experiences of being kidnapped into slavery and separated from her parents.
When disparaging England’s imperial control, she evokes imagery of an “iron chain.” And by comparing her lack of freedom to America’s lack of independence, Wheatley subtly laments her own circumstances. Thankfully, Wheatley secured her freedom after returning from London.
The reasons for her emancipation aren’t entirely clear, as there’s no evidence of the Wheatleys freeing other enslaved people. However, since Phillis could have remained free in London, some believe she bargained to make emancipation a condition of her return.
It’s difficult to know exactly what happened, both here and throughout the rest of Wheatley’s life. Her proposal for a second book was never published. In 1778, she married a free Black man named John Peters.
The two are believed to have had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Their last child is thought to have died around the same time as Wheatley, and the two were buried together in an unmarked grave.
While some of Wheatley’s letters survived, she never released an account of her life. So despite her tenure as perhaps the most famous African on the planet, Wheatley’s story has been lost to the ravages of history.