At the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, we aim to foster diverse perspectives and celebrate underrepresented voices. These values were shared by our founder, Bunny Mellon, whose lifelong passions are reflected in the collections of her Oak Spring Garden Library. Today, as we move from Black History Month to Women's History Month, we celebrate something special that is represented in the Library: the life and works of Phillis Wheatley.
Born in West Africa before being captured and brought to slavery in the American colonies, Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American woman poet in history. She emerged onto the colonial literary scene with an elegy to George Whitefield, a famous preacher of the time, and from that beginning went on to write some of the most important American poetry of the 18th century. Her work and life are a landmark not only in the development of an American poetic voice but also as a manifestation of the hardships of colonial life for African-Americans. For all her poetic brilliance and international renown, Wheatley died destitute at the age of 31. Triumphant and tragic, eloquent and owned, Wheatley’s writing and life are integral to our understanding of fledgling America.
Phillis Wheatley’s first and last names are markers of her enslavement. In August of 1761, at the age of seven, the kidnapped girl arrived in Boston with a group of “refugee” slaves – people deemed unfit for the hard, physical labor of colonies farther south – and in severely ill health. The slave ship that carried her across the Atlantic was named The Phillis, and the young girl was bought and named by the Wheatley family to be a domestic servant. Thus the newly-christened Phillis Wheatley began her life in Boston.
Although the Wheatleys would not free Phillis until 1774, shortly before Susanna Wheatley (wife to John Wheatley and to whom Phillis most often reported as a house servant) died, they did provide her a certain amount of education. As Phillis’s intelligence became apparent, the Wheatley family taught her to read and write. She subsequently became versed in texts ranging from the more recent work of Alexander Pope and John Milton to the classical works of authors such as Ovid and Homer. Although she never received a formal education, Wheatley was an astute reader and readily picked up the style and format of 18th century poetry. Pope especially would influence her writing.
Christian themes resonate throughout Wheatley’s work. One of her first published poems – titled “An Elegaic Poem, On the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield” – was written about an iconic preacher whose travels and sermons were well-known throughout the colonies. The poem describes Whitefield as bringing the voice and knowledge of God and Jesus to the Americas, all framed within the heroic couplets characteristic of 18th century poetry:
"We hear no more the music of thy tongue;
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng."
A heroic couplet consists of two rhyming lines written in iambic pentameter, a rhetorical device Wheatley demonstrates with mastery throughout the poem. As the elegy progresses, Wheatley discusses not only Americans in general but also refers to “ye Africans” as having the potential to be “sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.” Even in one of her earliest recorded poems, written and published around the age of 17, Wheatley’s spiritual language incorporates themes of inclusion and equality.
In 1770, the Whitefield elegy was released as a pamphlet in Boston, Newport and Philadelphia, three of the most major urban centers in the colonies at the time. The following year Wheatley’s poem appeared alongside the funeral sermon for Whitefield in London. With that publication, Wheatley became known internationally. Her poetic career had launched.
Although her work had become well-known throughout the colonies, Phillis and the Wheatleys were unable to find an American printer who would publish the writing of an African-American. Luckily, she began correspondence with a former supporter of Whitefield’s, Countess Selina Hastings of Huntingdon. This correspondence led ultimately to book publication in England. In 1772, Phillis Wheatley went to London, where she met with a variety of high-profile figures – including Benjamin Franklin, who was visiting Europe at the time. She would maintain these international connections, to a greater or lesser degree, for the remainder of her life. Her writing and literary knowledge made Wheatley not only one of the best-known poets in England and the Americas at the time, but also heralded by the budding abolitionist movement as an example of the sophistication and intelligence of slaves and free African-Americans.
For all of Wheatley’s importance as an early American voice, it was England rather than the colonies that embraced her work. Wheatley’s visit to Europe and meeting with Hastings and other prominent figures culminated in publication of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Following her stay in England and the success of her book of poetry, Wheatley returned to the Americas to care for the declining Susanna Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley was then still enslaved.
Wheatley’s writing was often undercut by those who doubted that an African-American woman could write poetry, particularly poetry that involved such a sophisticated understanding of literary history and style. In the preface to her book there is a list of 18 respected Massachusetts men who had met with Phillis Wheatley and interviewed her to determine the veracity of her authorship. The list includes Governor Thomas Hutchison, Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, and future Declaration of Independence signers John Hancock and Benjamin Rush, among others. This long list of “judges” helped bring some readers around to the idea that an African-American woman was capable of the same literary allusions and writing ability as her white male contemporaries.
Wheatley continued writing poems and ongoing correspondence with a variety of famous figures before and after the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was aware of her poetry (although he derided both her and her writing) and she exchanged letters with George Washington, who she eventually met. Although inescapably of lower social status than the people with whom she communicated, Wheatley was a major figure in early American literature and was recognized as such to a certain degree during her lifetime.
Unfortunately, Wheatley’s fortune did not hold. Following her freedom from slavery in 1774, she married a free black man named John Peters. Although both intelligent and able to work, like most free African-Americans they had difficulty competing with white workers in the harsh economic conditions of the time. Although the revolutionary war founded a new nation, it also placed the former colonies in financial straits. As a result of more general economic circumstances and because of their status as free black people, Wheatley and her husband sank into poverty. Phillis Wheatley died impoverished while her husband was jailed for debt; her last surviving child likely died not long after she did.
In a time when both American national identity and a body of American literature were merely nascent, Phillis Wheatley’s writing stands out for its strength of voice and mastery of the literary forms of the Enlightenment. Writing about her poetry over one hundred years later, the African-American critic, advocate and writer James Weldon Johnson would describe her as, “one of the important characters in the making of American literature, without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents.” Wheatley’s writing acts as a critical foundation for future American writing and identity.