Phillis Wheatley

1753 –

Phillis Wheatley Peters was born in West Africa in 1753. At the age of eight, she was kidnapped, enslaved in New England, and sold to John Wheatley of Boston. The first African-American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies, Wheatley learned to read and write English by the age of nine, familiarizing herself with Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics at an early age. She began writing poetry at thirteen, modeling her work on the English poets of the time, particularly John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and garnered Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London. Over the next few years, she would print a number of broadsides elegizing prominent English and colonial leaders.

In 1771, Wheatley accompanied John Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.” In 1773, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which became the first book of poetry published by an enslaved African-American in the United States. The book includes many elegies as well as poems on Christian themes; it also includes poems dealing with race, such as the often-anthologized “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She returned to America in 1773.

After the elder Wheatleys died, Phillis was left to support herself as a seamstress and poet. It is unclear precisely when Wheatley was freed from slavery, although scholars suggest it occurred between 1774 and 1778. In 1776, Wheatley wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, who replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge, stating that he would be “happy to see a person so favored by the muses.” In 1778, she married John Peters, who kept a grocery store. They had three children together, all of whom died young. Wheatley experienced difficulty publishing her poems, soliciting subscribers for a new volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but unable to raise the funds. Phillis Wheatley, who had once been internationally celebrated, died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784. She was thirty-one years old. Many of the poems for her proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.