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. [Wikipedia]
Born in Senegal, Africa in 1753, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston. Although originally brought into the Wheatley household as a servant and attendant to Wheatley’s wife, Phillis was soon accepted as a member of the family, and was raised with the Wheatley’s other two children. Her story is one of the tragedies of America history. Mrs. Wheatley taught Phillis Latin and English and allowed her to write religious poetry. At 17 she published her first poem, and friends published a collection of her works, Poems on Various Subjects. In one of the most barbaric displays in literary history, one Englishman bound a copy of the book in the skin of a black man.
When the Wheatleys died, she was set free, and married a freed man named John Peters. When he was imprisoned for debt, she found work as a servant, literally on starvation wages. She and her three children died of malnutrition in the boarding house where she worked.
- On Being Brought From Africa To America
‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.