By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
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 Savior; too
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye.
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join th’ angelic train.
by Phillis Wheatley
My interest in Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784) goes back many years. (The unusual spelling of her first name may arise from the fact that the name of the ship on which she arrived here was the “Phillis.”) Many years ago my interest was further piqued by a doll which was made for me by the mother of a student of mine.
This talented parent designed and made large, costumed character dolls from periods of American history for museums, libraries and various societies. The doll I received was 3 feet tall, dressed as Phillis Wheatley holding a quill pen and a scroll, signifying her role as a poet.
When I thought of February’s designation as Black History Month I thought of Phillis and her story, for she is not as much appreciated as she should be. Her story would be appropriate in March as well, as she was the first American woman to have her poetry published since Anne Bradstreet had done so in 1650.
She was also the first Afro-American to publish a book. As a poet she was unique because the poetry of African Americans was rarely published and did not appear in books until a generation of poets came to the fore in the 1880s.
Phillis was kidnapped in the area of the Senegal-Gambia region on the West coast of Africa when she was about 7 years old. Too young to be sold as a slave in the West Indies or the Southern colonies, she was eventually brought to Boston and sold to John Wheatley, a prominent and wealthy tailor, so she might serve as a companion to his wife, Susannah.
From the beginning, Phillis was remarkably interested and curious about the letters of the alphabet, attempting at every opportunity to copy them. English came to her easily and she learned to read and write very quickly under the tutelage of the Wheatleys’ daughter, Mary. Starting with the Bible, she progressed to learning Latin and reading the classics, and she moved on to astronomy, geography, history and English literature.
She began writing poetry at an early age and it was her favorite avenue of expression. She often used the works of the English poet Alexander Pope as a model. Phillis’ first poem that showed remarkable maturity was published in the Newport, R.I. “Mercury” on Dec. 21, 1767. She was then 14.
A number of her poems were published and well-received in Boston. Her poem “On the Death of the Reverend George Whitefeld, 1770” was published in at least 10 editions in and around New England and Philadelphia. Her reputation grew, and when the poem appeared in London it was a precursor to her international renown as a poet.
By 1773 her tendency to suffer from asthma during the cold New England weather worsened. The Wheatleys gave her her freedom and arranged for her to go to London. There she recuperated and was able to promote her first and only published volume of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” In London Phillis met Benjamin Franklin and received a great deal of attention from a variety of 18th century English notables.
When her benefactor, Susanna Wheatley, became ill in 1773, Phillis returned to Boston. It was a time when the colonies’ feelings against Britain were running high and she began to write poems supporting the American Revolution, including one about George Washington, who invited her to visit him at his headquarters. Her patriotic poems were reprinted many times.
After both the Wheatleys passed away Phillis came upon hard times, supporting herself as a seamstress and writing her poems. In 1778 she married John Peters, an Afro-American man who ended up in debtors prison and later had difficulties holding down jobs.
The marriage was fraught with problems and Phillis and her family lived in poverty. Two of her three children died. Nonetheless, Phillis continued to write poetry. She advertised in the Boston Evening Post, hoping to find a publisher for 33 poems and 13 letters, but she received no response.
Before she died on Dec. 5, 1784, several of her poems celebrating the end of the Revolution were published under the name of Phillis Peters. When she died she was buried with one of her children in an unmarked grave.
After her death, John Peters went to the home of a woman who had sheltered Phillis and her children, and he demanded the manuscripts and letters of Phillis’ proposed second volume. Unfortunately, these remaining poems disappeared and have never been found.
Phillis Wheatley expressed in her poems her unusual upbringing, her religious spirit and a national pride. Her experience and her talents were unique.
It would take later African-American poets to express another point of view.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee.