Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal. Only eight years old Phillis was kidnapped by the British and brought to America, aboard a slave ship called The Phillis. Once the slave ship arrived in America, Phillis was sold to an wealthy merchant and tailor from Boston, Massachusetts named John Wheatley. John brought Phillis as a gift for his wife Susanna Wheatley. John and Susanna Wheatley named Phillis after the ship that had brought her to America. Phillis was given their last name, which was common that slaveholders normally would give their servants their last name.
Susanna recognized Phillis intellect and facility with language, she began to teach Phillis how to read and write, not only in English but some Latin. By the age twelve Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, Phillis wrote her first poem, “To the university of Cambridge, in New England.”
John and Susanna often showed off Phillis’s abilities to friends and family. While still in her teens Phillis became the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry, and the third woman in the American Colonies to do so. Her book of poems was on Various Subjects like Religious and Moral.
Phillis books of poems became under controversial twice. The first controversy was in 1772, when Phillis was summoned before an august group of white Bostonians to prove that she had actually composed her poetry, since common thought of the day denied the possibility of intellectual or aesthetic gifts in Africans. The second Phillis and her poetry became controversial was during the 1960s, when her blithe and sometimes glorified treatment of slavery was identified as a hindrance to historical truth and to the Civil Rights Movement.
One particular poem that brought Phillis into recognition was “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” In the poem , she speaks of the “pagan land” of her birth and her “benighted soul” which she claimed was saved when she was enslaved.
Phillis poem was echoing common folklore, which whites claimed that Africans were the seed of Cain, Phillis poem says. “Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”
In 1778, after the publication of her first book of poetry, Phillis was legally freed from slavery in her master’s will, after he died. Three months later she married John Peters, a free black grocer. Phillis and John struggled living in poor conditions and the death of two babies. They had an third child that was very ill, and in 1784 John was imprisoned for debt, leaving Phillis with no income and a sickly infant son.
Phillis had completed and tried to publish a second book of poetry by the time she died, but was unable to because of her financial circumstances and lack of subscribers.
Phillis Wheatley died on December 5, 1784, at the age 31. her infant son died three and a half hours after her death.
“On being brought from Africa to America”:
Twas 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 refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.