Dates: about 1753 or 1754 - December 5, 1784
Also known as: sometimes misspelled as Phyllis Wheatley
An Unusual Background
Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa (probably Senegal) about 1753 or 1754. When she was about eight years old, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston. There, in 1761, John Wheatley bought her for his wife, Susanna, as a personal servant. As was the custom of the time, she was given the Wheatley family's surname.
The Wheatley family taught Phillis English and Christianity, and, impressed by her quick learning, they also taught her some Latin, ancient history, mythology and classical literature.
Once Phillis Wheatley demonstrated her abilities, the Wheatleys, clearly a family of culture and education, allowed Phillis time to do study and write. Her situation allowed her time to learn and, as early as 1765, to write poetry. Phillis Wheatley had fewer restrictions than most slaves experienced -- but she was still a slave. Her situation was unusual. She was not quite part of the white Wheatley family, nor did she quite share the place and experiences of other slaves.
In 1767, the Newport Mercury published Phillis Wheatley's first poem, a tale of two men who nearly drowned at sea, and of their steady faith in God. Her elegy for the evangelist George Whitefield, brought more attention to Phillis Wheatley. This attention included visits by a number of Boston's notables, including political figures and poets. She published more poems each year 1771-1773, and a collection of her poems was published in London in 1773.
The introduction to this volume of poetry by Phillis Wheatley is unusual: as a preface is an "attestation" by seventeen men of Boston that she had, indeed, written the poems herself:
WE whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.
The collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley followed a trip that she took to England. She was sent to England for her health when the Wheatley's son, Nathaniel Wheatley, was traveling to England on business. She caused quite a sensation in Europe. She had to return unexpectedly to America when they received word that Mrs. Wheatley was ill. Sources disagree on whether Phillis Wheatley was freed before, during or just after this trip, or whether she was freed later. Mrs. Wheatley died the next spring.
The American Revolution
The American Revolution intervened in Phillis Wheatley's career, and the effect was not completely positive. The people of Boston -- and of America and England -- bought books on other topics rather than the volume of Phillis Wheatley poems. It also caused other disruptions in her life. First her master moved the household to Providence, Rhode Island, then back to Boston. When her master died in March of 1778, she was effectively if not legally freed. Mary Wheatley, the daughter of the family, died that same year. A month after the death of John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man of Boston.
Marriage and Children
History is not clear about John Peters' story. He was either a ne'er-do-well who tried many professions for which he was not qualified, or a bright man who had few options to succeed given his color and lack of formal education. The Revolutionary War continued its disruption, and John and Phillis moved briefly to Wilmington, Massachusetts. Having children, trying to support the family, losing two children to death, and dealing with the war's effects and a shaky marriage, Phillis Wheatley was able to publish few poems during this period. She and a publisher solicited subscriptions for an additional volume of her poetry which would include 39 of her poems, but with her changed circumstances and the war's effect on Boston, the project failed. A few poems were published as pamphlets.
In 1776, Phillis Wheatley had written a poem to George Washington, lauding his appointment as commander of the Continental Army. That was while her master and mistress were still alive, and while she was still quite the sensation. But after her marriage, she addressed several other poems to George Washington. She sent them to him, but he never responded again.
Eventually John deserted Phillis, and to support herself and surviving child she had to work as a scullery maid in a boardinghouse. In poverty and among strangers, on December 5, 1784, she died, and her third child died hours after she did. Her last known poem was written for George Washington. Her second volume of poetry was lost.
More About Phillis Wheatley
Suggested Reading on This Site
Phillis Wheatley - Bibliography
- Vincent Carretta, editor. Complete Writings - Penguin Classics. Reprint 2001.
- John C. Shields, editor. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Reprint 1989.
- Merle A. Richmond. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley. 1974.
- Mary McAleer Balkun. "Phillis Wheatley's construction of otherness and the rhetoric of performed ideology." African American Review, Spring 2002 v. 36 i. 1 p. 121.
- Ages 8-12:
- Kathryn Lasky. A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet. January 2003.
- Susan R. Gregson. Phillis Wheatley. January 2002.
- Maryann N. Weidt. Revolutionary Poet: A Story about Phillis Wheatley. October 1997.
- Young Adult:
- Ann Rinaldi. Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley. 1996.