Phillis Wheatley

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects.
Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects.

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first African American writer to published a book in America. Her book Poems on Various Subjects was published in 1773, two years before the American Revolutionary War began, and is seen as one of the first examples of African American literature.


  • 1 Early years
  • 2 Poetry
  • 3 Later years
  • 4 Poems by Phillis Wheatley
  • 5 Writings
  • 6 See also
  • 7 References

Early years

Born in what is the modern day Senegal, then Gambia, Africa, Wheatley was captured by Africans, named for the slave ship the Phillis, and sold into slavery at the age of 7. She was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, where John Wheatley purchased her and made her a Christian. John Wheatley was a prominent Boston merchant with a wholesale business, real estate, warehouses, wharfage, and the schooner London Packet. Susannah Wheatley was an ardent Christian and admirer of George Whitefield. Between seven and eight years of age, Wheatley was frail and was chosen to be a domestic servant and companion to Mrs. Wheatley in her later years.

Her owners, the Wheatleys, made certain that she was educated. She published her first poem in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. She became the first African American woman to have a book published when her "Poems on Various Subjects" was published in 1773. At the age of fourteen, Wheatley drew much acclaim in the Boston area with the writing of her first poem titled “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770.” This piece established her trademark of “morality” as well as her “giftedness” and her habit of honoring God through verse.


Wheatley's poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on the religious, classical and abstract themes she had likely learned about through the classical education the Wheatleys provided.[1]. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems, a concession to the sensitivities of her primarily white audience. One of the few poems in which Wheatley refers to slavery is "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 Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.´

The poem reflects one of the main justifications for the slave trade common at the time, i.e. that Africans were thereby rescued from Paganism and into Christianity, with the corollary that once having become Christian they deserved to be treated as equals.

Because many white people of the time found it hard to believe that a black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry, in 1772 Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court. She was examined by a group of 17 Boston luminaries including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley became ill and was prescribed “fresh sea air” as a remedy for her respiratory distress. With her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.

In 1778, the African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley.

Later years

Wheatley’s popularity both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She read her poetry before General George Washington in March, 1776 and strongly supported independence during the Revolutionary War. However, the death of the Wheatley Family effectively deprived Phillis Wheatley of her access to white intellectual society.

Her marriage to a free black grocer, John Peters, proved a failure. Two of her three children died soon after birth, and Peters left her to support herself and their one surviving child as a scullery maid. In December 1784 she died in poverty at the age of 31. Her remaining child died only a few hours after her death.

At the time of her death, a second volume of her poetry reportedly existed in manuscript, but neither it nor any other late works of hers have ever been found.

Poems by Phillis Wheatley

  • Poems by Phillis Wheatley, "An Address to the Atheist" and "An Address to the Deist," 1767
  • Poem by Phillis Wheatley, "Athiesim," July 1769
  • "An Elegaic Poem On the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield," 1771
  • Poem by Phillis Wheatley, "A Poem of the Death of Charles Eliot.," 1 September 1772
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and frontispiece of 1773 edition)
  • Poem by Phillis Wheatley, "To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor on the death of his Lady," 24 March 1773
  • An Elegy, To Miss Mary Moorhead, On the Death of her Father, The Rev. Mr. John Moorhead, 1773
  • An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and the Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, 1784
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and front matter of 1802 edition)
  • "To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth." from Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1802 edition)


  • An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, Who Departed This Life December 29, 1783
  • Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave (Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834), also by Margaretta Matilda Odell
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral Published in 1773
  • To His Excellency George Washington written for Washington in 1776

See also

  • Slave narrative
  • African American literature
  • Jupiter Hammon
  • Works by Phillis Wheatley at Project Gutenberg
  • Phillis Wheatley at the Open Directory Project
  • JMU site with her poems
  • Jupiter Hammon's Poem to Phillis Wheatley
  • Power Writers
  • A Geo-Biography of Phillis Wheatley on Google Earth
  • [2] Phillis Wheatley
  • [3] History in Woman - Phillis Wheatley]
  • Phillis Wheatley: Precursor of American Abolitionism
  • Phyllis Wheatley
  • The African American Registry
  • Abcarian, Richard and Marvin Klotz. "Phyllis Wheatley." In Literature: The Human Experience, 9th edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006: 1606.
  • Cashmore, E. "Review of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature" New Statesman, April 25, 1997.
  • Gates, H. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers Basic Civitas Books, 2003
  • Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2
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