Phillis Wheatley - The First Black Published Author
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753- 1784) was the first African American woman to publish a book of poems. And the second woman to publish a book. Born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa, Wheatley was captured by slave traders at the age of 7 and brought to America in 1761. The merchant who bought her was by the name of John Wheatley. His wife, Susanna Wheatley named the girl according to the name of the ship in which she came: Phillis. Unusually for the time, the Wheatley family did something unexpected and determined to educate their female African-American slave. After she learned to read and write, they encouraged her poetry when they saw how talented she was.
The Wheatleys' 18-year-old daughter, Mary, was Phillis' first tutor in reading and writing. Their son, Nathaniel, also tutored her. John Wheatley was known as a progressive throughout New England; his family afforded Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and one unusual for a woman of any race at the time. By the age of 12, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages, as well as difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, "To the University of Cambridge [Harvard], in New England.
Recognising her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis's education and left household labor to their other domestic enslaved workers. The Wheatleys often exhibited Phillis's abilities to friends and family. Phillis was emancipated by the Wheatley Family in 1773, shortly after the publishing of her book.
Phillis Wheatley is one of the most iconic examples of growth over achievement and empowerment. Despite going through devastating situations and falling prey to the cruelties of her historical era, she had the opportunity to get an informal education, and go down as one of the West’s earliest female writers. Wheatley has contributed an immeasurable amount to literature and history. She is a symbol of empowerment, which she gained through poetry. Critics consider the work done by Phillis as essential fundamental work of African-American Literature.
Although Phillis was an accomplished woman, she remains a controversial figure in the black community due to the lack of race consciousness in her poems. However, during the past few decades, scholars have argued that this silence was both ingrained from her masters and necessary for survival. It was argued that Wheatley’s assimilation into white society was a requirement and not a wish. By treating her somewhat better than other slaves and by allowing her to come into their personal lives, the Wheatleys were preparing Phillis to be completely controlled by them. Like Get Out‘s Chris Washington, Wheatley was often used as a showpiece at white events. Always on the arm of her mistress, she performed readings of her poems and told stories to wealthy guests. While Susanna was harsh with her other slaves, she loved the ornamentation provided her by Phillis. In fact, she did not allow Phillis and the other slaves to communicate with one another.
After the death of both John and Susanna, Wheatley was set free. Despite her status as a prodigy, she was relegated to an impoverished life and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her poetry has survived, and scholars now believe that within her poems lay double meanings that allowed her to speak directly within the black community. In the poem “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth…” she writes:
“No more America in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt though dread the iron chain,
Which wonton tyranny with lawless hand
Has made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.”
Here are 10 poems written by Phillis Wheatley:
On Being Brought from Africa to America
A Farewell to America
To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works
To the University of Cambridge, in New England
On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age
To a LADY and her Children, on the Death of her Son and their Brother
An Hymn to the Morning
An Hymn to the Evening
In comparison to Phillis, Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797), who resided across the world from Phillis, in the UK was an enslaved man who bought his freedom and wrote compellingly about his experiences. He was an extraordinary man who became a prominent figure associated with the campaign to abolish the slave trade. His book The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first books in Europe written by a black African writer. Alongside his book, Equiano was involved in other anti-slavery campaigns. He was a founding member of the Sons of Africa, an abolitionist group formed by Africans in Britain. The ability of this cultured and intelligent man to relate first-hand the horrors of slavery helped sway public opinion, and by 1807 Britain had formally abolished the trade. Equiano did not live to see it; he died in 1797, leaving his wife and two daughters.