Phenomenal Woman: Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was one of the most well known poets of the pre-19th century, yet she was also an African Slave.

Born in 1753, West Africa, Wheatley was taken from Senegal when she was only seven years old. She was sold to the Wheatley family in America, who later decided to teach her to read and write based on her aptitude.

Phillis Wheatley 

Phillis was taught to read the classics for the time, Ovid and Homer amongst other key texts but she still felt unfulfilled. She began to create her own poems, supported by the Wheatleys and by aged 18 she had written around 28 poems.

During this time no one was willing to support literature by an African woman so Phillis took her work to London, England. Her work was picked up by an abolitionist at the time, Selina Hastings who instructed a publisher she knew to begin preparations for Phillis’ first book.

Selina Hastings

Phillis travelled to London in 1771 and was welcomed by abolitionists and fellow scholars. She had become a celebrated name in England and in 1773 her first works were published, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral .

This was the first ever volume of poetry published by an African Slave out of America in the ‘modern era.’ Her first works contain a collection of elegies and showcased her love of the couplet, which can be seen throughout her work.

Wheatley commented on slavery in her works also, through religious symbolism. In her most famous work, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” we can see her make the connections between slavery and Christianity.

phillis poem

Phillis Wheatley was emancipated in March 3 1774 and went on to marry another “free Black” John Peters in 1778. The couple faced trials during this time but yet, Phillis still continued to write and maintained an international presence.

Although she never published another book before her death in 1784, she did a mass approximately 145 poems in her lifetime, each telling a story of her resilience and her drive to make something of herself despite the era she was living in.

Phillis Wheatley was truly ahead of her time and a pioneer for the abolishment of slaves, she used her creative genius to speak out on a matter close to her heart and today she is viewed as a pioneer for Black Female poets worldwide.

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