Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American female poet to be published. She was born in the mid-eighteenth century, most likely in or near Senegal. Captured at the age of seven, she was sold as a domestic slave to a prominent Boston family. As was customary at the time, the family renamed her Phillis after the slave ship from which she arrived, as well as giving her the surname Wheatley. In contrast to other slaveholders, they educated her and encouraged her to write poetry. She quickly became a member of the household, and the family took an active role in publishing her sole book, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,’ which resulted in her release shortly afterwards. Unfit for any hard work, she lived in poverty following the death of her benefactors. She continued to write while working as a charwoman, but was unable to publish her second collection of poems due to a lack of subscriptions. The poet, who had been invited by George Washington to read poetry, died alone and uncared for at the age of thirty-one in a boarding house surrounded by abject poverty.
Childhood & Adolescence
Although little information about Phillis Wheatley’s early years is available, scholars believe she was born in or around 1753 in West Africa, possibly in modern-day Senegal or Gambia. We only know that she was kidnapped as a child and sold to slave traders.
The small child, whose real name was never revealed, arrived in the United States aboard the slave ship ‘Phillis,’ which was owned by wealthy Boston merchant Timothy Fitch. It was a difficult journey that lasted 240 days. Twenty-one slaves had died by the time the ship docked in Boston harbor on 11 July 1761.
Her front teeth were missing at the time, leading to the assumption that she was around seven years old. She was sold at a throwaway price to John Whitney, a well-known Bostonian tailor looking for domestic help for his wife Susannah.
Scholars believe that they chose this frail girl over stronger slaves for two reasons. To begin, the little girl served as a status symbol, demonstrating their wealth. However, she most likely reminded them of their deceased daughter Sarah, who died at the exact same age.
They renamed her Phillis upon her return, after the slave ship that brought her to America. Although she was not entirely relieved of domestic duties, she was elevated above her station and instructed in religion. She was not, however, baptized until August 1771.
It is unknown when she began her education, but it was very soon under the tutelage of John Whitney’s daughter Mary and son Nathaniel. Phillis began studying Greek and Latin after mastering English, and soon surprised everyone by translating Ovid. She gradually began studying ancient history, geography, astronomy, and literature as well.
Phillis began writing poems around the age of twelve, encouraged by the Wheatleys. At the age of thirteen, she wrote ‘On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,’ a story about two men who came dangerously close to drowning in the sea. It was her first published work, appearing in the Mercury Newport on 21 December 1767.
As her talent became more apparent, the family absolved her of domestic responsibilities, allowing her to focus exclusively on her studies. She was also allowed to mingle with the distinguished guests who frequently paid the Wheatleys a visit, gradually assimilating into the family.
While Phillis was out one day, the weather took a turn for the worse. Mrs. Wheatley sent the chaise to retrieve her, fearful for her health. When Phillis noticed the coachman, another slave, sharing his seat with her, she became enraged and reprimanded him for disregarding the dignity accorded to ‘her Phillis’.
Poet in Transition
While ‘On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin’ was her first published work, scholars believe her first poem was ‘To the University of Cambridge in New England’, which she wrote at the age of twelve. The poem, which was published much later in 1773, addresses Harvard University students as’sons of science.’
According to the poem, she had become a devout Christian by that time. She expressed gratitude to God for bringing her safely to the United States of America and reminded the students of how Jesus shed his blood for them, pleading with them to avoid evil. Indeed, religion played a significant role in her writings.
She continued to write, her first work being published in 1765. She modeled her poems after famous poets of the day, particularly Alexander Pope. Despite her admiration for Pope, she never attempted to write satire, one of his primary literary characteristics.
Although many white Bostonians adored her, she was acutely aware that she was still a slave and not on an equal footing with them, and thus avoided writing anything that would offend them. She maintained a respectful distance in everyday behavior as well, never sharing a table, even if she was invited.
To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty’, composed in 1768, is another of her significant works from this era. She praised King George III of England for repealing the Stamp Act in this poem. Later in the American Revolution, as it gained momentum, she began writing from the colonist’s perspective.
She also wrote ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ in 1768. It is her only published poem, and it makes reference to her enslavement. She chastised white Americans in it, writing, “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain / May be refined and join th’ angelic train.”
Although her writings were highly regarded within her circle, it took until 1770 for her to achieve national recognition. That same year, she published an elegy, ‘On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield,’ that garnered national attention.
By 1772, she had compiled a collection of twenty-eight poems intended for publication as a book. In February, she advertised for subscribers in Boston newspapers with the assistance of Mrs. Wheatley, but received no response.
Recognizing that white Americans were not yet prepared to support an African slave’s literal aspiration, they turned to Great Britain, addressing the poem ‘Whitefield’ to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. Perhaps as a result of Whitefield’s chaplainship, she came forward to have Whitney’s collection published.
Additionally, in 1772, she was forced to defend her poems in court due to widespread doubt about their authenticity among white Americans. John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, and Andrew Oliver were among the Boston luminaries who examined her and later attested to her works. Additionally, she received support from Benjamin Rush.
In May 1773, she traveled to England with Nathaniel Wheatley on a business trip. There, with the assistance of the Countess of Huntingdon, she published her sole collection of poetry, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,’ on September 1, 1773.
The trip was also a social success, as it was greeted by a large number of prominent abolitionists. Despite this, she returned to Boston the following month due to her mistress’s illness, which ended six months later on 3 March 1774. But before that, on October 18, 1773, Phillis was set free.
A Woman Who Is Free
Although Phillis Wheatley had been a slave for almost her entire life, she had never encountered the drudgery associated with slavery. Rather than that, she had lived a sheltered life in the Wheatley household. However, shortly after she gained her freedom, the situation shifted.
Her life became increasingly precarious following the deaths of her mistress in 1774, Mr. Wheatley, and her daughter, Mary, in 1778. It got worse when she married a free black man, John Peters, against the advice of her close friends. Regardless, she continued to write.
In 1775, she addressed a poem to him, ‘To His Excellency, George Washington.’ He invited her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the following year. In March 1776, she met him, and the poem was republished in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April.
Wheatley attempted to publish a second collection of her poems in 1779. By that time, all of her benefactors had died except Nathaniel. He had married and relocated to England as well. Wheatley anticipated assistance from her evangelical friends, but nothing materialized due to the war situation and poor economic conditions.
Between 30 October and 18 December 1779, she published six advertisements soliciting subscriptions for a volume “Dedicated to the Right Hon. Benjamin Franklin, Esq.: One of the United States’ Ambassadors at the Court of France.” However, white Americans again refused to respond.
Thirty-three poems and thirteen letters would have been included in the book. However, because she was unable to secure a publisher, they remained with her. Many of the poems were eventually lost. However, two years after her death, several of her remaining poems were published in newspapers and pamphlets.
During the final years of her life, she was forced to live in abject poverty, subsisting on her earnings as a charwoman. Regardless, she continued to write. Her final poem, ‘Liberty and Peace’ (1784), congratulated America on its victory over England.
Significant Works of Phillis
Phillis Wheatley is most well-known for her 1768 poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America.’ A stirring poem about slavery, it expresses her concern about racial inequality through the lens of Christianity.
The poem was included in her only book, ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,’ which created a sensation in both England and America. Because the majority of whites refused to believe that blacks could write poetry, she was forced to include an attestation in the preface from prominent Bostonians.
The collection ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ was also significant for another reason. It was only the second book published by an African-American author and the first by a black woman. Thus, it paved the way for subsequent generations of African-American writers, inspiring them to write history.
Personal History and Legacies
Wheatley married John Peters, a handsome and well-mannered free black man whom she had known for five years, on April 1, 1778. He aspired to greatness, going by the name Dr. Peters, practicing law, and maintaining a grocery store on the court grounds. However, his business acumen fell short of his ambitions.
They relocated to Wilmington, Massachusetts, shortly after their marriage. They returned to Boston shortly afterwards and settled in a run-down section of the city. Despite his best efforts, Peter was unable to secure employment, and their financial situation deteriorated daily.
Peter left her frequently enough to evade creditors and also to find new jobs. Wheatley began working as a charwoman during this difficult time, while continuing to write poems and attempting to publish them.
Peter was imprisoned in 1784 for his debts, forcing Wheatley to work as a scullery maid in a boarding house in order to support herself and her surviving infant son. Although no record exists, it is possible that she had two additional children with Peter, both of whom died in infancy.
Whitney was unaccustomed to hard work due to her frail health. She fell ill quickly and died alone and uncared for in squalid poverty on December 5, 1784, at the age of thirty-one. Her infant son died concurrently.
Apart from her own works, her legacy lives on through ‘Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley’, published posthumously in 1834, and ‘Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro Slave-Poet of Boston’, published in 1864.
Over the years, her works have been frequently cited by reformers to refute the widespread belief among white Americans that Negroes were intellectually inferior and to advocate for their education. Additionally, she inspired a large number of African Americans to write.
In 2003, she was honored with a sculpture at the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue, which was later added to the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Wheatley Hall at UMass Boston, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C., and Houston’s Phyllis Wheatley High School have all been named in her honor.
Estimated Net Worth
Phillis is one of the wealthiest poets and is listed on the list of the most popular poets. Phillis Wheatley’s net worth is estimated to be between $1-5 million, based on our analysis of Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.