Phillis Wheatley

Picture courtesy of:
UNC University Library -Documenting the American South

O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.

by Phillis Wheatley -- from "On Virtue"


Phillis Wheatley, the first African American, first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems, was born in Africia in 1753. In 1761 she was kidnapped from Africa and brought to Boston aboard a slave ship when she was approximately seven years old.

She was purchased by John Wheatley, a wealthy businessman, to work for his family. Her gift for learning, ( which she showed an early and profound proficiency) was reconized by the Wheatleys and was encouraged to pursue her studies, which was not typical for the times. She had no formal education. She was taught by the Wheatleys. She learned to speak English and to read quickly and new the bible well.

² She was encouraged by the Wheatleys to study theology and the English, Latin and Greek classics.

At an early age Phyllis wrote a poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher who frequently toured New England, she became a sensation in Boston ( the begining of her fame).

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¹Her first book of poems, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral", was published in England in 1773.

² Wheatley achieved international renown, traveling to London to promote her book and being called upon as well as received by noted social and political figures of the day -- including George Washington, to whom she wrote a poem of praise at the beginning of the war, and Voltaire, who referred to her "very good English verse." The poem published in 1776, dedicated to George Washington, brought her further acclaim.

**The following is a Copy of a LETTER sent
by the Author's Master to the Publisher.

PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between seven and eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.

As to her WRITING, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a Time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a Letter to the Rev. Mr. OCCOM, the Indian Minister, while in England.

She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin Tongue, and has made some Progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.

                                                JOHN WHEATLEY.

Boston, Nov. 14, 1772.                                                

To the P U B L I C K.


The Wheatleys then emancipated her. When both Mr. and Mrs Wheatley passed away, Phillis struggled to support herself as a poet and seamstress and lived the rest of her life in poverty. In 1778, she married a free black man from Boston, John Peters, who apparently, due to the time and his situation, could not support his family.
***Early in their marriage the couple had two children, both of whom were dead by 1784. At that point, Phillis Wheatley Peters, around age thirty-one, was doing domestic work at a low rate boarding house, and was pregnant again. The delivery was difficult; Phillis Wheatley died in the process and her baby died a few hours later. All that was left of this young genius's presence on this planet was her verse: her famous book, and poems she had once hoped to include in a second book of verse.
¹She tried unsuccessfully to sell a second manuscript, which has never been recovered. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was not printed in the United States until 1786.

³Her literary gifts, intelligence, and piety were a striking example to her English and American audience of the triumph of human capacities over the circumstances of birth. The only hint of injustice found in any of her poems is in the line "Some view our sable race with scornful eye" - it would be almost a hundred years before another black writer would drop the mask of convention and write openly about the African-American experience.

³Another theme, which runs like a scarlet thread throughout her poetry, is the salvation message of Christianity - that all men and women, regardless of race or class, are in need of salvation.

*In 1784, several poems celebrating the end of the Revolution and "To Mr. and Mrs.----, on the Death of Their Infant Son," a poem from the proposed volume, were published under the name Phillis Peters.

On December 5, 1784, Phillis Wheatley Peters died in Boston at the age of 31.


¹Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and
a Slave. Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans, originally
published in 1834, includes a biographical sketch of Wheatley
in addition to a collection of her most well-known verses. A
more extensive biography, Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a Native
African and a Slave by Benjamin B. Thatcher, was also published
in 1834. Both works are part of
DocSouth's North American Slave Narratives digital collection, which collects books and articles that document the individual and
collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and
human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

On Virtue
To the KING's Most Excellent Majesty
To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.
On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.


To view more of Phyllis Wheatley's poems:
Phyllis Wheatley Poems
Renascence Editions


Some more of her poems includes:

To the university of CAMBRIDGE, -- in NEW-ENGLAND
To the KING's Most Excellent Majesty. -- 1768
On the Death of the Rev. Dr. SEWELL. -- 1769.
On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years -- of Age.
On the Death of a young Gentleman.
To a Lady on the Death of her Husband.
Thoughts on the Works of Providence
To a Lady on the Death of Three Relations. To a Clergyman on the death of his lady>. An HYMN to the EVENING.
ISAIAH lxiii.I--8.
A Funeral POEM on the Death of C. E. -- an Infant of Twelve Months.
To Captain H--D, of the 65th Regiment.,
To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of Dartmouth , His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c.
ODE to NEPTUNE. -- On Mrs. W--'s Voyage to England.
To a Lady on her remarkable Preservation -- in an Hurricane in North-Carolina.
To a Lady and her Children, on the Death of her Son and their Brother.
To a Gentleman and Lady on the Death of -- the Lady's Brother and Sister, and a Child -- of the Name Avis , aged one Year.
On the Death of Dr. SAMUEL MARSHALL. -- 1771.
To a Gentleman on his Voyage to Great-Britain -- for the Recovery of his Health.
To the Rev. DR. THOMAS AMORY -- on reading his Sermons on Daily Devotion , -- in which that Duty is recommended and assisted.
On the Death of J. C. an Infant. ,
An H Y M N to Humanity . -- To S. P. G. Esq;


[Poet's Corner Index]


Reference, Research and Source Information

¹ UNC University Library
"Documenting the American South."
Retrieved June 26, 2006, from UNC University Library -Documenting the American South © 2004.

² PBS Online.
"Resource Bank."
Retrieved June 26, 2006, Revolution -PBS Online.

³ The Forerunner.
"Phillis Wheatley:
Precursor of American Abolitionism ."
Retrieved June 26, 2006, from © 2006.

*Voices from the Gap .
"Phllis Wheatley."
Retrieved June 26, 2006, from Regents of the University of Minnesota. © 2006.

** Renascence Editions

*** Digital Schomburg Center for African American Women's Writing
Voices from the Gaps
UNC University Library -Documenting the American South
The Forerunner

¹"Used with permission of The University Library,
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill."
²"Used with permission of PBS Online"

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