The most notorious poet in 18th century America was an enslaved teenager you've never heard of
Phyllis, or Phillis, Wheatley was the first black person to publish a book in America. She was also and one of the first women to publish a book in America.
Her work was read and liked. People such as George Washington liked her work. But her talent posed a problem for national leaders at the time. Why? Wheatley was enslaved when she published her book.
“Slaveowners and abolitionists both read her work, “the former to convince their slaves to convert, the latter as proof of slaves’ intellectual abilities.” That's according to the National Women’s History Museum.
The life of Phyllis Wheatley is full of mystery. She was forcibly brought to Boston as a slave. She came on a ship. It was named the Phillis. That's according to according to Henry Louis Gates Jr. He is a historian.
“It’s a fair guess that she would have been a native Wolof speaker from the Senegambian coast,” he wrote.
She was described in the cargo list as “a slender frail, female child.” The young girl was thought to be about seven. Susanna Wheatley bought her. She paid very little money. She named her after the ship she was brought to America on.
Susanna Wheatley and her husband John Wheatley had two children. They were twins. Their names were Nathaniel and Mary.
Mary began teaching the child slave to read,” Gates writes. The reasons were never told. But she had her mother’s avid support. She spoke and read English fluently. It only took her sixteen months after she’d arrived.
She also started learning Latin. Then she published her first poem. She was 13 or 14. And she continued writing.
“Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life. Among them were the well-known poets she studied. These included Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray.” That's according to the museum.
“Pride in her African heritage was also evident. Her writing style embraced the elegy. It was likely from her African roots. From there, it was the role of girls to sing and perform funeral dirges. Religion was also a key influence. It led Protestants in America and England to enjoy her work.”
Wheatley and her owner Susanna Wheatley looked for subscribers. She was about eighteen years old. It was for a collection of twenty-eight of her poems.
“The colonists were apparently unwilling to support literature by an African. So she and the Wheatleys turned in frustration to London for a publisher.” That's according to the Poetry Foundation. She traveled to London. She went with Nathaniel Wheatley. They met dignitaries. And they had the book printed.
“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” were read–and debated. This was true on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the first book on record published by an African-American.
The book included a portrait of Wheatley. It was in the front of the book. This was to underscore her race. It also included signatures. They were from a number of colonial leaders. They verified that she had written the poems in the book.
“With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley almost immediately, became the most famous African on the face of the earth. She was the Oprah Winfrey of her time,” writes Gates.
The Wheatleys freed Phyllis. They did so three months before Susanna Wheatley died. This was in 1774. “Many British editorials castigated the Wheatleys for keeping Wheatley in slavery while presenting her to London as the African genius.” This was after the book was published. That's according to the Poetry Foundation.
But “the family had provided an ambiguous haven for the poet. Wheatley was kept in a servant’s place. It was a respectable arm’s length from the Wheatleys’ genteel circles. But she had experienced neither slavery’s treacherous demands nor the harsh economic exclusions pervasive in a free-black existence.”
This relationship was one of power. The Wheatleys owning and teaching a talented poet brought them a kind of prestige. But it did also give Phyllis Wheatley the power to speak out. In her letters with Washington she spoke out against slavery. This was also true of her letters to others.
Wheatley was a talented poet. She met with the poetic tastes of her time. But she was also a black woman at a time when black people had very little power in America. “She died in 1784 in abject poverty. Preceded in death by her three children. Surrounded by filth. And abandoned, apparently, by her husband, John Peters,” Gates writes. She was like Benjamin Banneker. He was another well-known early African-American scholar. She used her voice to fight against slavery. And she fought for equality. But sadly, that voice only went so far.