From Women In History:
NAME: Phillis Wheatley
DATE OF BIRTH: c. 1753-5
PLACE OF BIRTH: Gambia, Africa
DATE OF DEATH: December, 1784
PLACE OF DEATH: Boston, Massachusetts as a result of childbirth
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Phillis Wheatley was a slave child of seven or eight and sold to John and Susanna Wheatley in Boston on July 11, 1761. Her first name was apparently derived from the ship that carried her to America, The Phillis.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: During her life, while it was not common for American women to be published, it was especially uncommon for children of slaves to be educated at all. Her gift of writing poetry was encouraged by her owners and their daughter, Mary; they taught Phillis to read and write, with her first poem being published at the age of twelve, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” The countess of Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, was a friend of the Wheatley’s who greatly encouraged and financed the publication of her book of poetry, Poems. Obour Tanner, a former slave who made the journey through the middle passage with Phillis also was one of the chief influences and supporters of Phillis’ craft.
She was especially fond of writing in the elegiac poetry style, perhaps mirroring the genre of oration taught to her through the women in her African American tribal group. Her elegy on a popular evangelical Methodist minister, George Whitefield, brought her instant success upon his death. She also was well versed in Latin which allowed her to write in the epyllion (short epic) style with the publication of “Niobe in Distress.”
Phillis’ popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She even appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 for her poetry and was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War. She felt slavery to be the issue which separated whites from true heroism: whites can not “hope to find/Deivine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind” when “they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race.”
Phyllis is remembered for many first time accomplishments from a woman of her day:
First African American to publish a book
An accomplished African American woman of letters
First African American woman to earn a living from her writing
First woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatly, and Selina Hastings)
An Hymn to Humanity
Lo! for this dark terrestrial ball
Forsakes his azure-paved hall
A prince of heav’nly birth!
Divine Humanity behold,
What wonders rise, what charms unfold
At his descent to earth!
The bosoms of the great and good
With wonder and delight he view’d,
And fix’d his empire there:
Him, close compressing to his breast,
The sire of gods and men address’d,
“My son, my heav’nly fair!
“Descend to earth, there place thy throne;
“To succour man’s afflicted son
“Each human heart inspire:
“To act in bounties unconfin’d
“Enlarge the close contracted mind,
“And fill it with thy fire.”
Quick as the word, with swift career
He wings his course from star to star,
And leaves the bright abode.
The Virtue did his charms impart;
Their G—–! then thy raptur’d heart
Perceiv’d the rushing God:
For when thy pitying eye did see
The languid muse in low degree,
Then, then at thy desire
Descended the celestial nine;
O’er me methought they deign’d to shine,
And deign’d to string my lyre.
Can Afric’s muse forgetful prove?
Or can such friendship fail to move
A tender human heart?
Immortal Friendship laurel-crown’d
The smiling Graces all surround
With ev’ry heav’nly Art.