Philis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784).
Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave.
Boston: George W. Light, 1834. (BRA0582)

Born in West Africa, the author of these poems was brought to America aboard the slave ship Phillis at the age of seven or eight. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a Boston merchant, as a personal servant for his wife Susanna. Renamed Phillis Wheatley, she was taught the rudiments of English by the Wheatley children, and quickly showed a superior intellect. With further encouragement from the Wheatley family, she began to compose poetry. In 1773 she accompanied John Wheatley’s son Nathaniel to London, where she was introduced to Lady Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. An edition of her poems was printed in London that year, dedicated to the Countess. The first publication of any kind by an African-American woman, it included a preface signed by eighteen of the “most respectable characters in Boston” attesting that the poems were in fact written by a young female slave. When John Wheatley died in 1778, the poet was emancipated by order of his will. She married John Peters, a former slave, with whom she suffered extreme financial and personal hardship; their three children did not survive infancy. Shortly after her husband was imprisoned for debt, Phillis Wheatley died at the age of thirty-one.

One of Phillis Wheatley’s rare autobiographical references appears in the poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

’T was 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 refined, and join the angelic train.

Listen as curator Dr. Eric White talks about Phillis Wheatley during a tour.

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