Phillis Wheatley was the first published African American poet and first African-American woman whose writings helped create the genre of African American literature. Born in Gambia, she was made a slave at age seven. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and helped encourage her poetry.
The 1773 publication of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral brought her fame, with figures such as George Washington praising her work. Wheatley also toured England and was praised in a poem by fellow African American poet Jupiter Hammon. Wheatley was emancipated by her owners after her poetic success, but stayed with the Wheatley family until the death of her former master and the breakup of his family.
Wheatley’s popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately gained her freedom on October 18, 1773. She appeared before General George Washington at a poetry reading in March, 1776. She was a strong supporter of American independence, reflected in both poems and plays she wrote during the Revolutionary War.
She married a free black grocer named John Peters; they had two children who died as infants. Wheatley's husband abandoned her in 1784, when she was pregnant again. She struggled to support herself and had completed a second volume of poetry, but no publisher seemed interested in it.
Phillis Wheatley died from complications of childbirth at the age of 31. Her newborn infant died several hours later. By then she was living in a boarding house in poverty.
In 1768, Wheatley wrote "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty" in which she praised George III for repealing the Stamp Act. However, as the American Revolution gained strength, Wheatley's writing turned to themes from the point of view of the colonists.
John Wheatley's grave in Granary Burying Ground. Phillis Wheatley's grave is unmarkedIn 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim. Wheatley's poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. One of the few which refers to slavery is "On being brought from Africa to America":
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.´
Many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that an African woman could write poetry, and Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.
Through her poetry, Wheatley is credited with helping found African American literature.
In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. Hammon never mentions himself in the poem, but it appears that in choosing Wheatley as a subject, he was acknowledging their common bond.