In celebration of Black History Month, this week’s Feminist Icon blog spotlights on Phillis Wheatley, the first African American, and one of the first women, to publish a collection of poetry in the colonies. Her achievements as a published poet served as a catalyst for the growing antislavery movement across pre-19th century America.
Around the age of seven, Phillis was stolen from West Africa and transported to Boston as a ‘refugee’ slave, considered too young or physically frail for harsh labour in the West Indian colonies. Purchased by the Wheatley family in 1761, Phillis worked under domestic duties, alongside being taught to read and write, with her talents allowing her to further her education in astronomy, geography, history, the likes of Milton and Pope, the Bible, and the classics of Virgil, Ovid and Homer.
During this time, Phillis began to write her poems, many of which focused on her dreams of education, and by the time she was 18, she had a collection of 28 poems which were posted in Boston Newspapers.
However, as local colonists grew frustrated and unwilling to support literature by an African slave, the Wheatley family turned to London, seeking publishing of her talent there, and it was through this she became renowned across the continents. In London, Phillis secured funding from a countess to publish her first volume of verse in 1773: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This book remains an achievement in American history, as Phillis became the first African American and first enslaved person to publish a poetry collection. This book included a forward signed by Bostonian men, to increase its repute and value in society, as well as a portrait of Phillis herself, to prove the poet to be an African American woman. However, despite this, she could not succeed in gaining sufficient support to publish her second poetry collection.
Only a few months before the death of Mrs. Wheatley, Phillis was set free from slavery, yet exposed to the harsh, racial realities faced by African-Americans, that she had been sheltered from during her servitude to the Wheatleys.
Phillis strongly opposed slavery and petitioned for freedom through her poems, as well as through letters directed to ministers and those in positions of power. In her peak poetic years, she published a famous poem praising George Washington, however she strongly voiced her opinion that slavery prevented the colonists from achieving heroism.
In 1778, Phillis married a free black man, John Peters, who was known to have practiced law, maintained a grocery store, and offered trade as a baker and a barber. His ambition and entrepreneurial spirit heightened their activism together. However, due to societal factors in post-civil war America, opportunities for free black people were low, and the couple drifted into poverty, yet, throughout these years Phillis continued to publish poems.
Today, we remember Phillis for her success as a poet, for breaking the bounds so many slaves were held within, as her talent and determination challenged stereotypes regarding Black inferiority at the time. She promoted educational opportunities for African Americans, and defeated the misogyny and racism targeted towards her work through her published poems and international success.
Written by Meghna Amin