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Phillis Wheatley free Phillis Wheatley free
by The Ovi Team
2020-10-18 10:08:54
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October 18th 1775; African-American poet Phillis Wheatley freed from slavery. Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784), enslaved at the age of eight, is widely known as the first African-American woman in United States' history to have her poetry published. Constant themes in Wheatley's poems are death, religion, and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. Wheatley also composed many poems that are a type of tribute to admirable figures or influential persons in her life. Wheatley traveled to London and back, with flexibility rare to other enslaved persons, and held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London as well as other delegates. Wheatley's works, at the time, were respected in the realm of literature and impressed all who didn't believe a young girl could produce such works.

Although the date and location of her birthplace is not perfectly documented, it is believed that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753, somewhere in West Africa, most likely between present-day Gambia and Ghana. Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis, which was owned by Timothy Finch and captained by Peter Gwinn. At the age of eight, she was sold to wealthy Bostonian merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife, Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. Phillis began her education being tutored by the Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary. John Wheatley, known as a progressive throughout New England, and the rest of the Wheatley family’s open-mindedness allowed Phillis to receive an unprecedented education for not only an enslaved person, but for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was already reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Amazed by her literary ability, the Wheatley family made Phillis’ education an important concern, and left the household labor to the other enslaved persons that the family owned. Influenced heavily by the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley’s studies began to gravitate toward the realm of poetry.

Phillis Wheatley’s first published work was a poem entitled “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” which appeared on December 21, 1767, in a newspaper called the Newport Mercury:
“Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?"

Phillis was most likely able to get this work published thanks to the connections of Susanna and John Wheatley. The poem is a microcosm of her works, combining Christian piety and Classical allusion. This poem also exemplifies a common structure in Phillis Wheatley’s poems, where she talks to those who had died, or the family members she left behind. When addressing the family members of the dead, she usually incorporates religion and tells them not to mourn but to be happy, for their loved one(s) are now in heaven with God. In the following years, Phillis published a number of poems in various publications.

Wheatley’s big break, however, came in the form of her 1770 funeral elegy addressed to the Countess of Huntingdon, on the death of her chaplain, Rev. George Whitefield. This elegy was published in London and Boston and brought Phillis Wheatley considerable fame.

Although influential figures in Boston received Phillis’ work well, it would not be possible for her to have her book of poems published in America. Publication in America was difficult because of widespread doubts that an African slave could have the intellectual capacities to compose poems on her own. Typically, eighteenth-century white Europeans believed that Africans were mentally inferior, as stated by David Hume in 1753 for example, “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion other than white”. As a result of this obtuse racism in this era, no American publisher was willing to print her book. So Susanna Wheatley turned to her friends in England, where black authors were more welcomed and accepted. On May 8, 1773, accompanied by Mary Wheatley’s twin brother Nathaniel, Phillis sailed to England. Phillis began this pilgrimage because fresh sea air had been prescribed for her respiratory problems, but she also utilized this trip to pursue publication of her poetry. The trip was a success, as Phillis was able to get her book, entitled, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, published in London. Phillis’ first book came with an attestation at the beginning of it, stating that the work in the following book had been done by a young, enslaved woman. This waiver had been signed by her owner, John Wheatley, and many other prominent New England figures such as the Governor at the time, multiple judges in the court of law and famous American patriot John Hancock. Although Phillis was treated very well while in England, she did not stay long due to the news of Mrs. Wheatley’s declining health.

After her collection of poems was published, Phillis received both praise and criticism from respected figures. Thomas Jefferson famously stated, “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry … Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below dignity of criticism”. Clearly Jefferson was not a fan of Phillis’s work. Others, however defended her against Jefferson’s words, like Gilbert Inlay who wrote, “I should be glad to be informed what white person upon this continent has written more beautiful lines”.
In 1775, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem dedicated to George Washington entitled, “To his Excellency General Washington.”
"Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. 

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, 

With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

This poem shows Wheatley’s uncanny mastery of verse and the English language. It also shows that Phillis was well-educated not only in literary terms but also in political terms. This poem was sent to Washington in 1775, before the declaration of American Independence. It can even be said that Wheatley was one of the first to declare that George Washington was a forefather of our young nation. Even in this poem, Phillis includes religious undertones, such as in lines 7-12, when she speaks of heaven being affected by the struggle in a sorrowful way, and goddesses coming down from the heavens to become involved in the war. When this work was brought to George Washington’s attention, he was so pleased with the poem (although he humbly denied its implications) that he was inclined to meet Phillis and invited her to his home in March of 1776 in order to thank her personally.

Three years later, in 1778, her owner, John Wheatley died. In John Wheatley’s will it stated that Phillis Wheatley was now to be free. About three months after John Wheatley’s death, Phillis married a free black man named John Peters. History does not present us with a consistent account of just who John Peters really was. It is not clear whether Peters was a well-educated, self-righteous man who did not do well simply because of the circumstances of being an African-American in colonial times, or if Peters was a ne’er-do-well who could not support Phillis and their three children. Regardless, after six years of marriage, by 1784, two of Wheatley’s three children had already perished due to illness, while Phillis and her last daughter’s health were in decline. Wheatley, unable to get further volumes of her poetry published, was relegated to becoming a scullery maid at a boarding house. For the first time in her life, at age thirty one, Phillis was reduced to performing the domestic labor that she had been able to avoid her whole life thanks to her literary prowess. On December 5, 1784, Phillis Wheatley died, alone in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Abigail George2014-10-20 01:50:34
We need the historical accounts of women who were bright lights, whose thinking was celestial, otherworldly and angelic but who also were enslaved. We need to understand the psychology of history, the phenomenon of racism just as much as we need scholars of trivia, mothers, daughters, poets, writers and bold women who I fear won't be able to stand what life has given unto them. It is so noble to write, to have a passion to revisit the past and understand that this is no longer the lot of life for so many women of colour. So many women don't have peace and they don't have humility and they live at the hands of grace and mercy which is no way to live. I know who you are Phillis Wheatley and I honour your memory by saying these words. Perhaps you were the first feminist in the history of Black America. You make me want to shine.

Al DeFilippo Author2015-10-19 19:49:11
Thank you for the post. For more on George Whitefield. I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of John Wesley and George Whitefield in England and Ireland. The book richly brings to life the life-changing effects on a Great Britain steeped in addiction to gin and illiteracy. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Again, thank you, for the post.

Ed Darrell2018-02-19 11:29:46
That looks to be a photograph of Phillis Wheatley.

But she is said to have died in 1784. Photography was not invented until 1837.

What's up with the photo?

Steve Richmond2018-02-28 02:41:33
The photo is of Sarah Forbes Bonetta and was taken in 1862 more tan a century after Phillis Wheatley's death.

mama_like_thvt2018-02-28 16:31:57
Romeo says he miss her.

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