Phillis Wheatley wrote her way into the history books
Running from the fire which blazed out of control, the little seven-year-old girl feverishly attempted to cling to her mother’s protective hand and traveled as fast as her child-sized legs would carry her. As she heard her mother yell her name, she would fall back for a moment, then be pulled on ahead in an effort to keep up. Her inability to continue caused her to lose her grasp for a bit, then a hand returned to lift her and continue on.
Unfortunately, the hand she grasped this time was not that of her mother, but a stranger – a stranger who pulled her away from her mother, her family, her home and eventually her homeland. Before she knew it, the child was shackled and forced to board an enormous schooner.
This is the earliest known history regarding the life of Phillis Wheatley, America’s first black poet. She was born in Gambia, Africa sometime between 1753 and 1755; then brought to the United States around the age of seven. While she journeyed on the massive ship to her new homeland, a welcoming party of sorts was already preparing itself for her arrival.
In 1761 Boston, a couple by the name of Susannah and John Wheatley lived an aristocratic lifestyle. John was listed among Boston’s wealthiest merchants and their King Street home was an impressively imposing mansion, situated within the heart of Boston’s intellectual elite. Here lived the most educated and wealthiest of Boston’s citizens.
The Wheatleys were parents of a son and a daughter who would soon be leaving home. Susannah decided she wanted to purchase a slave girl who would help care for her in her old age. She wanted to find a young girl she could raise in a manner of her liking and would be full-grown and ready to care for her when the time came. Seeing an advertisement in the Boston Evening Post entitled “Slaves to be Sold,’ Susannah and John arrived at the dock just as the slave ship Phyllis was being unloaded.
In the sweltering July heat, Susannah looked over the various individuals who had been brought off the ship. Before long, she spotted the shy little waif standing behind girls who were taller and older. A thin, frail skeleton of an individual, the child held a dirty piece of carpet around her waist with her little hands. Susannah’s heart went out to the timid little soul and she immediately sought out someone to inquire about the child. When she questioned the auctioneer what the child’s name was, he pointed to the name on the ship and said her name was ‘Phillis’.
Susannah attempted to ask the child a question, but no words came from her mouth. The only information she was able to get was an educated guess as to the child’s age, due to the fact her front two baby teeth were missing. Shocked over the fact Phillis actually survived the trip at such a young age, John questioned the auctioneer as to the price for the child. The auctioneer said, “One shilling.” John replied ‘Sold,’ paid the man and Phillis was taken to her new home.
Within the household, Phillis received kindness from John and Susannah, as well as their children. Susannah had announced prior to Phillis’ arrival that she was going to the dock in search of a small child, and if indeed she returned with one, this child would be considered hers only and raised according to her particular standards. As she regained her strength, Phillis was given simple chores to do as she attended to Susannah.
Sometime later, Susannah and John were preparing to go out for the evening. As Susannah descended the stairs and approached the drawing-room in search of her husband, she found Phillis in a corner of the room, coated in a layer of chalk dust. The newly-painted lime-green wall was covered in white marks. Thinking Phillis was in the process of destroying her home, Susannah took a closer look and noticed the marks on the wall were not just any marks, but letters from the English alphabet.
Terror suddenly filled Phillis’s eyes because she had not been aware of Susannah’s presence prior to this. Phillis apologized for writing on the wall and Susannah informed her of her excitement regarding Phillis’s skill. She took Phillis by the hand and left the room with her to clean the chalk from her face.
The day Susannah found the letters on the wall, Phillis’s life changed again. Sensing the child had a degree of genius about her, she ceased requiring Phillis to do regular domestic chores and began her education. Susannah hired a tutor and the child astonished everyone by mastering reading and writing in only six months’ time.
Phillis was now promoted to family status, with her own room and writing supplies. Though Phillis still did some dusting and other light work around the house, whenever the poetry bug bit her, she was permitted to set her duster down, grab her quill and paper and transcribe her thoughts. Her education continued and in time, she developed a proficiency in English and Latin literature, ancient history and modern geography. She had a love for the Bible and easily read the most difficult passages. Around 1769, Phillis translated Ovid’s Odes in such a way, when it was published in Boston, scholars of that time commended it highly.
Phillis published her first poem in the Newport Mercury on December 21, 1767. She was 14 at the time. The poem was entitled On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin. She had overheard some dinner guests discussing the story one night at the Wheatleys’ home. It was the first poem to ever be published by a Negro slave, and a woman at that. This achievement piqued the curiosity of Boston’s elite who sought to see with their own eyes a black girl who could write.
Her skills and association with the Wheatleys began to open doors for Phillis throughout Boston society in a manner previously unknown to any Negro. She was even invited to sit at the same dining table as her hosts and hostesses. Phillis, however, never saw herself as the equal to these individuals and dined modestly away from them after requesting a side table be set for her. Though a member of the Wheatley family, Phillis also continued to sit in one of the Negro pews at church.
The warm encouragement she received about her poetry caused her to press on with her skill. In 1770, her poem, On the Death of Reverend George Whitefield, was released and became the most crucial piece in her career. George Whitefield was an English-born evangelist, known on both sides of the Atlantic as the Great Awakener who preached throughout the Colonies and was known to befriend and convert the blacks. London’s Countess Selina of Huntingdon, a personal friend of the Wheatleys, considered him her personal chaplain.
On October 25, 1770, Susannah sent the Countess a note and added a copy of Phillis’s poem. It was later released in a variety of publications in Philadelphia, Newport and Boston following the evangelist’s death. Phillis’s pious treatment of his memory created an enthusiastic reception for her work.
In October 1772, Phillis accompanied her tutor, Mary, to the office of His Excellency, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson. While Phillis remained nervously out in the hall for about two hours, Mary met behind closed doors with the governor. When she heard the doorknob turning behind her, Phillis’s attention was immediately directed to the large door. As it opened, the governor walked out into the hall, with his lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, a few steps behind him.
The men called to Phillis to come into the office. She picked up the manuscript which lay on the bench seat beside her and followed them into a room where eighteen of Boston’s top male citizens were gathered. Their sole purpose for being there that day was to depose Phillis regarding her “slender sheaf of poems.’ Within this anointed collection of individuals were John Hancock and John Wheatley; in addition to seven ministers, five judges and three lawyers.
Though the Wheatleys proclaimed the authenticity of Phillis’ work, bigoted opinions still carried a lot of weight in Boston. The idea that a Negro girl, who just a few years prior had been unable to read or write, would now be able to create such fine poetry seemed to have a stench to it which caused many to cry foul.
Historians do not know for sure what transpired during this meeting, but speculation is strong regarding the fact she underwent a meticulous grilling. Phillis removed all doubt regarding the work being hers and when her first volume of poetry was released, it was prefaced with a two-paragraph attestation to document the authenticity of her work; thought to have been written sometime in mid-November, 1772.
In the winter of 1773, Phillis’s health deteriorated to such a degree, she became severely ill and almost died. Her doctor recommended a sea voyage, believing the different climate would serve to help her. Traveling with Nathaniel, the Wheatleys’ son, she went to London in the spring. Hopes were when she arrived in London she would gain an audience with the Countess.
The voyage was scheduled to last five weeks. As she prepared to leave for the trip, she stood on the brink of freedom. In 1772, Lord Mansfield, a British judge, passed the Somerset Decision which effectively freed all of Great Britain’s slaves. The terms of the decision read, As soon as a slave set his foot on the soil of the British islands, he becomes free. When Phillis arrived in London, June 17, 1773, for the first time in her adult life, she was now a free woman.
Phillis’s reputation preceded her to London. Unknown to her as she boarded the ship in Boston Harbor, London’s privileged elite would welcome her as a star, opening the doors of their prestigious homes to her. The amount of time she had planned to spend in London was quickly gobbled up with social invitations to literary gatherings, teas and parties.
While in London, Phillis’s current volume of poetry went to print. During the process, she continued to write and was given the freedom to interrupt the printing process to add new work and revisions to the collection. The short amount of time she was in London, Phillis lived a Negro’s dream of stepping into the world of privilege enjoyed by London’s white aristocrats. This was the pinnacle of what would be a short life.
On September 10, 1773, Phillis returned to King Street by herself. She had to leave England prior to the release of her publication, due to Susannah’s failing health. The Countess’s state of health at that time also ended any hope Phillis held to meet with her chief patron due to the Countess being forced to travel to Wales to recuperate and not being able to return before Phillis left London.
Though Phillis’s work garnered a great deal of attention on both sides of the Atlantic, there were also those individuals who had no interest in it. Thomas Jefferson was one of these people. His opinion towards blacks was rather vague and severe. He was known to make a number of racial comments in his Notes on Virginia in 1784. While he maintained this attitude toward Negroes, he also continued an extended affair with one of his slave girls for a number of years and fathered a child with her.
After Susannah died, Phillis’s life began to lose a good bit of its luster. Now a free woman, she was forced to find a way to support herself and was basically overlooked by the Wheatley family. John Wheatley died in March 1778 with no mention of Phillis in his will. Nathaniel returned to Boston a month after Phillis, then returned to England a few months later. He died in 1783. His widow received one-third of his estate and the remainder was divided between his three English-born children. No provision was made for Phillis.
On April 1, 1778, Phillis married John Peters. Considered a respectable Negro by many in Boston, John operated a grocery store on Court Street. Quite handsome in appearance, wearing a wig and carrying a cane while exhibiting good manners, he was also an intelligent man and a fluent writer. Some have reported he also practiced law in Boston’s courts.
Though their marriage started off well, it went downhill financially due to having to flee the British. When they moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts, gnawing poverty became their way of life. Mounting debts put John in prison. Now destitute, Phillis returned to Boston with their three children where she stayed with a niece of Susannah’s. Six weeks later, John arrived in Boston.
Though she continued to write, Phillis spent the last few months of her life cleaning houses in Boston’s slums. By now, two of her three children had died. Phillis died on December 5, 1784. She was 31 at the time. Shortly afterward, her third child died.
John’s financial misfortune continued after the deaths of his wife and children. In an effort to pay debts, John sold his wife’s treasured copy of Paradise Lost. On the flyleaf of the book it reads: This book was given by Brook Watson, formerly Lord manor of London, to Phillis Wheatley – and after her death was sold in payment of her husband’s debts. It is now presented to the Library of Harvard University at Cambridge, by Dudley L. Pickman of Salem. March 1824.
Referred to years later as ‘the mother of black American literature, Phillis Wheatley Peters is known to have written at least 145 poems, Her work has undergone twenty reprints, serving as a testimony to its popularity.
Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the crystal shower,
Or mark the tender falling tear,
At sad departures hour.
Nor unregarding can I see
Her soul with grief opprest;
But let no sighs, no groans for me,
Steal from her pensive breast.
Excerpt from A Farewell to America, 1773