Prodigies: Phillis Wheatley

Episode Summary

Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.

Episode Notes

Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.

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Episode Transcription

Today, we’re talking about the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. 

Please welcome Phillis Wheatley.

In 1761, a girl about seven years old was captured by slave traders in the Gambia River region of west Africa. She arrived in Boston wrapped only in a dirty carpet, and was sold to a wealthy couple, Susanna and John Wheatley. The girl’s name was lost during her abduction. The couple gave her a new one: Phillis, after the boat she’d arrived on.

By her second year in America, Phillis was reading British literature, as well as the Bible and Greek and Latin classics. She also studied astronomy and geography. At this point in history, most Americans, regardless of race, could not read or write. But at 12, Phillis had discovered a talent for poetry.  

When she was around 15, Phillis wrote arguably her most famous poem: “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” 

Phillis had arrived in America a couple decades after the Great Awakening, an era of religious revival. She’d been introduced to the church by her enslavers, and Christianity was a major theme throughout her work.

In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Phillis implies that being brought to the U.S. brought her salvation. But she also challenges the justifications for slavery that white Christians often used. Everyone, she argues, can be saved. 

In 1773, Phillis traveled to London, to publish a book of her own poems. She brought along a letter signed by a group of prominent Bostonians, verifying that she was, indeed, the author. 

Phillis was only 20 years old when she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poems written by an African-American woman. She spoke on religion, politics, and her enslavement, accusing slave holders of “tyrannic sway.” 

Phillis’ collection was celebrated throughout the British empire, and read by some of the era’s most prominent figures, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.  It fought against the widely-held belief that Black people were mentally inferior. 

But throughout England, her fans regarded her situation with unease. Because Phillis, one of the era’s most famous women writers, still was not free.  

A year before Phillis’ visit, a British judge had declared that no enslaved person brought to England could be forced to return to the colonies as a slave. Some historians speculate that Phillis chose to publish her book in England for this reason. Yet she cut her trip short when her enslaver, Susanna, fell ill. 

A month later, Phillis wrote in a letter that she had been freed.

When the American Revolution arrived, Phillis supported the Continental Army, even publishing a poem supporting George Washington. She hoped that freedom for the colonies would lead to freedom for enslaved Africans. 

In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a free Black man who owned a grocery store in Boston. Records indicate she took his last name, shedding her enslavers’. The couple had three children, though they all died as infants.

Despite Phillis’ literary fame, she and her husband faced financial hardship. Phillis worked as a scrubwoman in a boarding house, and her husband was jailed for debt at least once. Phillis continued to write poetry, but never published another collection. 

She died in December 1784, due to complications from childbirth. 

All month, we’re highlighting prodigies. For more information find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Talk to you tomorrow!