Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved African-American poet who lived during the 18th century. She is a significant part of American history because of her exceptional talent in writing poetry, despite the societal limitations and prejudices she faced.
Born in West Africa, Wheatley was kidnapped and brought to Boston when she was just seven years old. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant who recognized her intelligence and potential.
He and his wife, Susanna, provided Wheatley with an education that was uncommon for enslaved people at the time. She learned to read and write English, Latin, and Greek.
Wheatley’s talent for poetry emerged early on in her life. Her first published poem appeared in a Newport, Rhode Island newspaper when she was only 13 years old. Her work caught the attention of prominent figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Despite her success as a poet, Wheatley faced numerous obstacles due to her status as an enslaved person. Many white people did not believe that someone who had been enslaved could be capable of producing such sophisticated poetry. In fact, some doubted that Wheatley had actually written the poems attributed to her.
To prove that she was indeed the author of her work, Wheatley had to undergo an examination by a group of Boston leaders. They questioned her about her knowledge of Christianity and literature before concluding that she had indeed written the poems herself.
Wheatley went on to publish a book of poetry in 1773 called “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral.” It is considered to be the first book published by an African-American author.
Her work often dealt with themes such as religion, mortality, and freedom. In one poem titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she reflects on her experience being brought over from Africa:
‘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 die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Wheatley’s legacy continues to inspire writers today. Her work challenges the notion that enslaved people were not capable of intellectual pursuits and artistic expression. Her story also serves as a reminder of the incredible resilience and perseverance of African-American people in the face of oppression.
In conclusion, Phillis Wheatley was an exceptional poet whose work continues to be celebrated today. Despite facing significant obstacles due to her status as an enslaved person, she was able to create poetry that reflected her deep understanding of religion and morality. Her legacy serves as a testament to the incredible strength and creativity of African-American people throughout history.