The Pardu

Jon Randal: Phillis Wheatley (Poet)

In Jon Randal: Phillis Wheatley (Poet) on May 9, 2015 at 10:40 AM

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She was born in Africa (probably Senegal) on May 8, 1753. When she was about eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston, arriving on a slave ship, the Phillis, which her new owners named her after. Her owner, John Wheatley, was a progressive Boston merchant, and saw something special in the young slave girl, giving her an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis Wheatley was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. By the age of 13, she was writing poetry.

Encouraged by the family, Phillis Wheatley eventually became the first African American woman to publish a book (in London, because publishers in America refused to publish it) and the first to make a living from her writing. Many white colonists, however, did not believe that a slave could write excellent poetry, so she had to prove in court that she was the author of her own poems.

In 1774, Phillis Wheatley wrote a letter to Reverend Samson Occom, commending him on his ideas and beliefs of how the slaves should be given their natural born rights in America.

Phillis Wheatley became one of the most celebrated poets in the world, honored by many of America’s founding fathers, including George Washington, who told her that “the style and manner [of your poetry] exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.”

Unfortunately, because of the color of her skin, she was unable to continue her success. Even after receiving her freedom, she was forced to work as a maid at a boarding house, often experiencing racism and sexism. She would die at the age of 31, alone, in a boarding house. Many of the poems she had written for a proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.

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