Phillis Wheatley: a pioneering poet of the 18th century

Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, but learned to read and write: her poems made her an emblematic figure of African-American literature

Phillis Wheatley, believed to have been born around 1753 in Senegal or Gambia, stands out as one of the most extraordinary figures of the 18th century. Kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, she arrived in Boston in 1761 aboard the slave ship “Phillis,” from which she took her name. Purchased by the Wheatley family, she soon demonstrated exceptional intelligence.

Despite being enslaved, Wheatley received an unusual education for someone in her condition. She learned to read and write in English, Latin, and Greek, thanks to access to the family’s library. Her literary career began early, and by the age of thirteen, she was writing poetry that caught the attention of Boston’s academic community.

Initially, her works were met with skepticism due to the widespread racism of the era. In 1772, Wheatley had to defend the authorship of her poems before a court of eighteen Boston gentlemen. After passing their examination, she published her first collection, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” in 1773, becoming the first African American to publish a book.

Freed from slavery, but died at 31

Her most famous poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” reflects on her experience of slavery and conversion to Christianity. Although some interpreters criticized her for an apparent acceptance of slavery, more recent readings highlight how Wheatley used Christian symbolism to assert spiritual and human equality, implicitly opposing the dehumanization of slavery.

In 1773, Wheatley traveled to London to promote her book, where she was warmly received. The trip also provided a temporary escape from the oppressive reality of slavery.

Shortly after her return to Boston, the Wheatley family freed her. She married John Peters, a free black merchant, but her life did not significantly improve. The couple had three children, all of whom died young, and Wheatley died in poverty in 1784 at the age of just 31.

A symbol of resistance and creativity

Despite the adversities, Phillis Wheatley remains an emblematic figure in African American literature. Her poems, often characterized by iambic couplets and elegies, addressed themes of freedom, religion, and morality. She became a symbol of resistance and creativity, rising above the most inhumane circumstances.

Her work has influenced generations of African American poets, from Nikki Giovanni to Amanda Gorman, and continues to be a source of inspiration and pride for the black community. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recently acquired a significant collection of her works, underscoring the enduring importance of her contributions to American literature and culture.

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