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Did You Know? Phillis Wheatley Is The First African-American Author to Publish Poetry Book

We now have several notable poetry authors who are African-Americans, but before then was a trailblazer, Phillis Wheatley who was the first to release a poetry book in 1773.

She was born around 1753 in West Africa and brought to Boston in 1761. The slave ship Phillis came into Boston harbor in 1761 with a cargo of captured West Africans to sell.  The ship’s owner, Mr. Timothy Fitch of  Massachussetts, was an astute man of business who knew the sale value of young men aged between 14 and 20.  He was particular in his instructions to the captains of his ships:“You are not to take any Children, and Especially Girls, if you Can Avoid it by any means”.

Nevertheless, on board the Phillis was a sickly little girl of about seven or eight, quite likely from the region we know today as Senegal and Gambia, and possibly from the Wolof people.

She was educated by the Boston family, the Wheatleys, who enslaved her. She studied literature, including John Milton and Homer, and eventually began to write her own poetry.

Her first poem was likely published in December 1767. She gained national acclaim in 1770 for “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield” which was published in the US and also later published in London.

Her doctor suggested that a trip might improve her delicate health, so in 1771 she accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.”

In 1773, Wheatley was the first African-American poet to publish a book of her work. It was called “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” She went on to publish poems such as “On Being Brought from Africa to America” and “On Virtue.”

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