Phillis Wheatley, believed to have been born in Senegal, Africa in approximately 1753, was brought to America as a slave at the age of seven or eight. There, in 1761, she was sold to John Wheatley of Boston, Mass. There is some disagreement among scholars as to who purchased Phillis. Some say that it was John Wheatley’s wife, Susannah, who personally chose the little girl there on the Boston docks. An observation from Phillis Wheatley’s biographer, Margaretta Matilda Odell, states that when Mrs. Wheatley saw the child, Phillis was “of slender frame, and evidently suffering from a change of climate..she had no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her.”(1) Phillis’ own memory of her African birthplace was lost. Her only memory of her home was one image of a sunrise ritual. The vision that stayed with her was “of her mother, prostrating herself before the first golden beam that glanced across her native plains.”(2) It is generally believed that she came from Senegal and that the identity of her people was the Fula. The Fula were Moslems and her early memory of her mother’s sunrise ceremony is in keeping with the Moslem ritual to welcome the new day with prayer. Also with the Mohammedan religion the Fula had the knowledge of Arabic script. This knowledge may have helped Phillis learn to read and write English so quickly, although in any case she was definitely considered a child prodigy.
The child was given the Christian name Phillis and, as was the custom of slavery, the last name of her master. Mrs. Wheatley took an interest in this frail child. She had purchased the child as a domestic and companion to herself and her daughter, Mary, but she quickly perceived that Phillis was very intelligent. Phillis learned the English language rapidly and also began to make the letters of the alphabet on the walls with chalk or charcoal. All this she learned within sixteen months of arriving in this alien country. She was given special treatment in the Wheatley household. Instead of doing the usual menial domestic labors that were required of a slave child, Phillis was given lessons by Mary, who was 18 at the time Phillis was brought into the household. After learning to read and write, she then began the studies of astronomy, ancient and modern geography, and ancient history. She read English and Latin literature and the Bible. Pencil and paper were at her bedside, so that if she had inspiration during the night, she could write her verse. At fourteen she was a poet, as accomplished in the art as any other poet of her time.
In 1770 she wrote a poem that was an elegy to Reverend George Whitefield, and it was this verse that elevated her reputation from a local celebrity to a poet known throughout the colonies and in England. The poem was published with this notation “By Phillis, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston:- And has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa.”(3) The poem soon appeared in several editions in Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, and New York, and in at least two editions in London. This elegy for the preacher was a natural vehicle for Phillis’ religious sentiments and at seventeen shows her poetic line to be firm and vigorous. The following is an excerpt from the poem.
Take him, ye Wretched, for your only Good;
Take him, ye hungry Souls, to be your Food;
Take him ye Thirsty,for your cooling Stream;
Ye Preachers, take him for your joyful Theme;
Take him, my dear Americans, he said,
Be your complaints on his kind Bosom laid;
Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial Saviour is his Title due.
If you will walk in Grace’s heavenly Road,
He’ll make you free, and Kings, and Priests to God.(4)
The above is the London version of the poem, the only one that includes the deliberate use of the word “free”. This elegy served as her passport to England and to the publication of a volume of her verse. The year of Whitefield’s death, 1770, was the year of the Boston Massacre. The first fatal shots by English troops against American colonists were fired on King Street, not far from the Wheatley residence. Phillis Wheatley must have known that among the five colonists killed was a fugitive slave who had changed his slave name from Michael Johnson to Crispus Attucks. One wonders if she had him in mind when she penned the word “free”?
In the spring of her twentieth year she made a trip to England. She was always in frail health and the sea air was believed to have healing value. The legacy of the poet’s trip to London was a volume of her verse. This was the first book by a black woman ever published. Its title was Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This volume appeared more than a century and a half after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It was among the first volumes of verse by a colonist to ever be published. For Phillis Wheatley, a woman and a slave, barely twenty, it was indeed an extraordinary accomplishment.
William H. Robinson in his book Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings states:
When properly read, in the context of her times, the available data—poems, letters, a memoir, accounts of the times—go far toward documenting the engaging story of how she encountered and dealt with various obstacles to her finding and asserting her Black and poetic worth. There is indeed evidence enough to sustain the belief that Phillis Wheatley did survive those raw Black American beginnings to endure as Christian, as woman, and as Black American poet. Phillis Wheatley not only belongs squarely in the Black American literary tradition; she, almost single handedly, succeeded in creating that tradition. (5)
When she returned to America, she found that her mistress, Mrs. Wheatley, had died on March 3, 1773. On March 12, 1778, her master, John Wheatley died, and then in September, Mary Wheatley died. Phillis was free, but she was no longer sheltered and she had to fend for herself in a time of revolutionary fervor. She struggled as a poet and seamstress to make a living. It is recorded that on April 1, 1778 Phillis Wheatley and John Peters, both free negroes, married. Little is known of her husband or her life after her marriage, although she did as Mrs. John Peters still write and publish poems. She lived in dire poverty and was separated from her husband for some time. A relative of Mrs. Wheatley discovered that Phillis was ill and found her.
She was also visited by several other members of that family. They found her in a situation of extreme misery. Two of her children were dead, and the third was sick unto death. She was herself suffering for want of attention, for many comforts, and that greatest of all comforts in sickness—cleanliness. She was reduced to a condition too loathsome to describe. In a filthy apartment, in an obscure part of the metropolis, lay dying the mother, and the wasting child. The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good of that country which was hers by adoption, or rather compulsion, who had graced the ancient hall of Old England, and rolled about in the splendid equippages of the proud nobles of Britain, was numbering the last hours of life in a state of abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of poverty! . . . (6)
At the age of thirty-one, on December 5, 1784, Phillis Wheatley Peters died in Boston. Many newspapers published her obituary. To this day no one knows exactly where Phillis and her children are buried.