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Did You Know? Phillis Wheatley Was First African American To Publish A Book Of Poetry

Phillis Wheatley is considered the first African-American woman poet in America and the first African-American woman whose writings were published, gaining her fame from the publication of a collection of verses called “Poems on Various Subject, Religious and Moral” on September 1, 1773.

Phillis Wheatley was born in the year 1753 and raised in West Africa until a slave ship brought her to Boston in 1761.

There have been debates in the field of literature about Phillis Wheatley being the first African-American female poet. This implies that there might have been other African Americans writing poetry during that time. Yet in her era, she emerged and made a name for herself. She is also the second woman to publish a book of poems.

Quite early in her life, Phillis was sold as a slave to a visiting trader. She was later taken to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, in a ship called The Phillis. She was resold at Boston as a servant for the wife of a rich merchant. The merchant who bought her was by the name of John Wheatley.

His wife, Susanna Wheatley named the girl according to the name of the ship in which she came: Phillis. Unusually for the time, the Wheatley family did something unexpected and determined to educate their female African-American slave and support her talent. Phillis was emancipated by the Wheatley Family in 1773, shortly after the publishing of her book.

Mary, the Wheatley’s daughter, was the first person who helped Phillis with reading and writing. The progressive and open-minded nature of the family was well known throughout New England. Even the son of the Wheatley family helped Phillis with her education.

This effort by the Wheatley family brought out the talents of the prolific poet lurking within Phillis. Phillis Wheatley was able to learn miscellaneous writings in the Bible by the age of 12. She had also begun reading Latin and Greek classics.

Slavery will always be a stain on American history. So many authors and poets expressed their protests against slavery through literature. Phillis Wheatley also believed that slavery was a devastating practice. She supported the patriotism of Americans but also held anti-slavery position. 

Her opinions littered her works of poetry along with the letters she wrote. Phillis received reciprocation for her thoughts and work from other authors and philanthropists.

She used poetry as a medium for instigating change. She praised King George III in one of her poems from 1768 called “To the King’s most excellent majesty.” She wrote this poem in support of repealing the Stamp Act.

Phillis Wheatley is one of the most iconic examples of growth over achievement and empowerment. Despite going through devastating situations and falling prey to the cruelties of her historical era, she had the opportunity to get an informal education, and go down as one of the West’s earliest female writers.

Phillis penned down her thoughts and expressed herself so beautifully, that some today still read her poetry after 250 years because of her growth story. She was a genius born in the 18th century who proudly rose above utter despair from bondage.

Phillis’s writings are world renowned today. They have become precious literary and historical sources. Scholar Molefi Kete Asante made a list of 100 greatest African Americans in 2002 in which Phillis Wheatley made the list. The Boston Women’s Memorial made a sculpture of Phillis in 2003.

There are also buildings and halls named after her. The Robert Morris University named one the new buildings of their School of Communications and Information Sciences after Phillis Wheatley in 2012. The well-known Wheatley Hall at UMass Boston is also named after her.  Phillis has been honoured at several occasions by America’s founding fathers and eminent people.

Phillis Wheatley has contributed an immeasurable amount to literature and history. She is a symbol of empowerment, which she gained through poetry. Critics consider the work done by Phyllis as essential fundamental work of African-American Literature.  Gates, in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, says “she became the most famous African on the face of the earth.” She is certainly famous.

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