Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved black woman who became one of the first published writers in North America, was a Christian who fought the horror of slavery.
Phillis was born in West Africa in 1753 but as a young girl was sold by a local chief to a slave trader and, in 1761, transported to North America, then still British colonies. Unfit for the agricultural labour in the South, the girl was taken to New England where slaves were mainly used as servants. There, the now nameless girl, speaking no English, in poor health and wrapped in nothing more than ‘dirty carpet’, was bought by Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant.
The Wheatleys treated their new servant with affection, naming her Phillis after the ship that had brought her. Phillis was to later write of Mrs Wheatley, ‘I was treated by her more like her child than her servant.’
The Wheatleys educated their servants and here Phillis showed she was very intelligent. Rapidly learning English, she was soon devouring books, not just the English classics but Greek and Latin ones too. Acquiring the Christian faith of the family, Phillis soon possessed a rich knowledge of the Bible.
At the age of fourteen Phillis began writing poetry. Her first poems, often prompted by deaths and political events, echoed the classical English poets of the time. Published in newspapers, Phillis’s poetry drew much attention in New England and, helped by her corresponding with people, she soon became well known. In 1770 she wrote a poem for the evangelist George Whitefield which was widely circulated on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the time she was eighteen Phillis Wheatley, as she was now known, had gathered a collection of twenty-eight poems. To allay any suspicion that she had help in their writing, she was examined by a group of Boston celebrities who declared that she was indeed the author. Seeking funding for a book of the poems, she found that the New England colonists were reluctant to support an African poet and so turned to Great Britain, where her poems had already made her well known.
In 1773 Phillis sailed to Great Britain with one of the Wheatleys in the hope of helping her publish. There she was welcomed into the highest social circles, where she was treated not as a servant but as a celebrity. Although she met – and impressed – many influential people, her trip was cut short and she was unable to have scheduled meetings with both King George and the Countess of Huntingdon.
Back in America Phillis was set free by her owners and her poetry book continued to bring her fame. Many people praised her, in some cases conceding that she had persuaded them that Africans ‘could indeed write poetry’.
Phillis kept writing poetry and engaging in correspondence with George Washington and John Newton, the great opponent of slavery. However, the Revolutionary War which began in 1775 and which brought uncertainty and widespread poverty to New England, proved hard times for poets. The possibility of a second poetry volume faded.
In 1778 Phillis married a free African-American man, who after failing in various careers found himself imprisoned for debt. Now impoverished, Phillis slipped into obscurity. She died in 1784, at the premature age of thirty-one.
Phillis Wheatley wrote 145 poems as well as numerous letters to national and international figures. With time, Phillis became honoured as one of the very first published ‘American’ writers, and in the last hundred years there has been much attention paid to her as a writer who was both a woman and a person of colour.
What marks Phillis Wheatley out as a hero is her sustained struggle against the slavery that had ravaged her life. Here her conviction comes over in a poem addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth:
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
In her worthy battle against slavery I see three things.
First, Phillis was subtle. This was the 18th century and Phillis was an enslaved black African woman. Yet given her limited power, she did what she could. As what we would today call ‘an influencer’ she worked effectively to change the opinions of those who did have power.
Second, Phillis was strategic. By writing poems that matched European writers, Phillis demonstrated that she and her people were in no way inferior. In doing so she undermined the racist basis of slavery.
Finally, Phillis was spiritual. Her Christian faith both encouraged and defined her battle against slavery. The result was that she was able to choose restraint over revolt and persuasion over protest.
With skill, wisdom and grace Phillis Wheatley tackled the bitter injustice of slavery that she herself had endured, and, in doing so, made a lasting and powerful impact. She’s a good role model for us all.