You've probably heard of Phillis Wheatley, but chances are you’re not quite sure who she is, or why she’s famous. If you’re nodding your head, keep reading…
Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American to publish a book of poetry, was probably born in 1753 or 1754, somewhere in western Africa. At roughly 7 years old, captured by slave-traders.
Considered too sickly for hard labor plantations in the Caribbean or Southern U.S. colonies, she became a domestic servant for the Wheatley family in Boston. Though they kept slaves, the Wheatley’s were relatively progressive; after witnessing Phillis copying the alphabet in chalk, instead of punishing her, they decided to cultivate her academic interests. During a period when some states outlawed teaching slaves to read, Phillis was studying Alexander Pope and John Milton. Actually, the education she received from the Wheatley’s was superior even to most Caucasian males’.
At roughly 12 or 13 years old, her first poem appeared in Newport Rhode Island’s Mercury newspaper; later, her poetry was printed in throughout New England. Still, Phillis couldn't locate funding for a complete volume of poetry in the U.S., and had to seek patrons across the pond. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was distributed in 1773 by a London published. Subsequently, Phillis became the 1st African-American, male or female, enslaved or free, to publish a book of poetry. Shortly thereafter, she gained her freedom, but, like many free African-American, she encountered severe economic hardship. Phillis never found a sponsor for a second book, and passed-away, destitute, at roughly 31 years old.
To learn more about Phillis’ remarkable early life, rise to literary prominence, and tragic descent into poverty, check-out these resources:
Entry for Phillis Wheatley at Poetry Foundation, article written by Sondra A. O'Neale, Emory University
The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet, news story from NPR
The Phillis Wheatley Monument, article from Black Art Depot Today
The History Bitch
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