Phillis Wheatley’s Voice: From Slavery to First Female Black Published Poet

Phillis Wheatley: First Black Woman to Publish Poems

Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa in the year 1753, was enslaved and brought to America and died a free woman and author in 1784.  From the “Gateway to Africa” known today as Senegal, to slavery in the United States, to becoming the first black woman to become a published poet, Phillis Wheatley had much to express.   Let’s raise up her life and her voice today.

Few of us can imagine the horror of being stolen from your place of birth and shipped across the ocean to a strange faraway land.  In 1761 Phillis was kidnapped and bought by Boston businessman, John Wheatley, to become a personal slave for his wife. Not to diminish the fact that she was a slave taken against her will, Phillis was treated well by the Wheatley family, whose name she took. Her first name, Phillis, was taken from the name of the ship that carried her away from the only home she knew and loved. At that time it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write in the new American colonies, but her new “family” recognized her early talents and encouraged her education.   In less than two years after her arrival to Boston, she learned English and mastered Greek and Latin as well. She also studied astronomy and geography.

Phillis became a slave but she did not allow her circumstances to enslave her mind.  Her poems gave her a voice. It is not surprising that Phillis’ early theme for her poems were largely about freedom and morality.  Her first published poem was “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin”.

She became widely known and a celebrated poet after “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of George Whitefield  was published in 1770, This poem was a tribute to a popular minister of the day. In 1768, she published “On Being Brought from Africa to America”.

Her other works include: “To the University of Cambridge”, “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” and “On the Death of Rev. Dr. Sewall”.  She accompanied the Wheatley to London where many of her poems were published in a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).  The forward in her book was written and signed by none other than John Hancock, himself!  A portrait of Phillis was also included in her book. Bostonian notables wanted everyone to see that these works were indeed from a black woman.

Phillis Wheatley’s voice lives on.  We should consider her voice as one of the first voices black women that helped to lead the way for the black voices of today.  Abolitionists used her works as proof of the innate intellectual abilities of people of color.

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