Phillis Wheately: America’s First Afro-American Poet

History is rather unclear about the exact date, but a baby girl was born in Africa in the years somewhere around 1753. Her exact birthplace is unclear as well. Some records say it was Senegal, while sources say it was Gambia instead. Whatever the actual dates and place are,
her birth might not have been a landmark event at the time. But this baby would grow up to make her mark on the world.

The baby was raised up in her Afro-American family, and she soon grew into a rather thin, young girl. At the tender age of seven years old, the girl was kidnapped and placed on a ship that was sailing to America. Once she arrived in the new land, she was immediately put up for sale at a slave auction.

Fortunately Lady Luck now smiled on the child who found herself far from home and an ocean apart from her Afro-American family. Because, also present at the auction that day, were a married couple named John and Susannah Wheatley. Wheatley was a successful tailor. And his wife was in need of a young slave girl. They purchased the young Afro-American and took her to their home in Boston, Massachusetts.

Upon their arrival back home, Mrs.Wheatley started to train the girl to be an attentive servant. It was soon apparent that the girl had an unusual amount of intelligence. Upon noticing this, one of the Wheatley’s daughters began to tutor the girl, and she quickly learned to read and write. She not only studied English, but also Greek and Latin as well.

The girl’s studious work and amiable personality soon won Mrs. Wheatley’s affections. It was then that the girl, who was then known as “Phillis Wheatley”, became a part of the family. Even though she was still a slave, Phillis was raised up with the blood children of the family. She was so much an actual part of the family, that she was not allowed to associate with the other Afro-American slaves. And, even though she was actually a “lackey” like the rest of the staff, she was not allowed to perform menial tasks around the home.

Although Phillis was being raised in her master’s home, she never forgot her roots. She later penned this poem about being transplanted from Africa to America:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God – that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye –
‘Their color is a diabolic dye.’
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.”

For the next decade, Phillis continued her studies. She also began to write poetry. In the year of 1770, her first poem was published. It was about the death of an evangelical minister named George Whitefield. This poem brought her much notoriety in her hometown of Boston. It was to be just one of many that she would pen in her lifetime.

Finally, Phillis became officially free from slavery. She left her New England home when she was eighteen years of age. She traveled to London where the Countess of Huntingdon assisted her in publishing not just one, but instead, an entire collection, of her poems. The collection was titled, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” It would make its mark on history as being the first book ever published by an Afro-American woman.

As time passed, Phillis continued to write her poetry. Her work brought her a small salary, but it didn’t afford her the luxuries she was used to. After John and Susannah Wheatley passed away, she married an Afro-American man named John Peters. Peters was a grocer in Boston. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a successful businessman, so Phillis was forced to find work as a servant once again.

History shows that Phillis Wheatley Peters died during childbirth in the year of 1784; she was
just 31 years of age. Though she ended her life as it began in poverty, Phillis will long be remembered for her accomplishments. Her works, especially “To the University of Cambridge in New England,” and “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” among others, will long live in the annuls of American history.

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