October 18 – Poet Phillis Wheatley Freed (?)

Posted on October 18, 2013

It's strange to think of a slave being a famous, published poet! But Phillis Wheatley managed to transcend her short, difficult life by writing poetry.

As is usual for slaves, we aren't sure exactly when and where Wheatley was born – but we do know that her name wasn't Phillis Wheatley then! She was probably born in Senegal or Gambia, in Western Africa, in 1753. She was sold into slavery when she was around seven years old, and she was sent to Boston, Massachusetts, then a British colony. 

The Wheatley family bought her (isn't THAT a dreadful sentence!); unlike many other slave owners, they taught her to read and write. She mastered Greek and Latin as well as English, and after she studied poetry, she began to write some of her own. When her masters saw some of her poetry, they encouraged her to write more.

Her collection of poems was published in 1773, and she was praised by people such as African American poet Jupiter Hammon. When she wrote a poem celebrating George Washington, he invited her to his house to thank her, and Thomas Paine published that poem in a newspaper for all to read and enjoy.

Apparently, Wheatley tended to write poems about famous people of the time as well as religious, classical, and abstract themes. She wrote little about her own life, and she wrote little about slavery as an idea or practice. As a matter of fact, some people consider some of Wheatley's rare mentions of slavery to be praise for the institution, because she seemed grateful that slavery brought her into contact with Christianity! However, at least one of Wheatley's poems refers to slavery as a cruel fate.

As we read Wheatley's words about slavery, we must remember that she had had a unique slave experience. Her family had been surprisingly kind to her to give her an education that wasn't just unusual for a slave, but unusual even for a white woman! The family not only promoted her poetry, and sought a publisher that would print it, they even sent her to England to receive treatment for a medical problem.

Many white colonists found it hard to believe that an African slave could write excellent poetry, and Phillis Wheatley went to court, to be examined by several learned white men, to prove that she wrote the poems. After discussing poetry and some pretty scholarly ideas, the learned men wrote and signed a note stating that she had, indeed, authored the volume.

I have read many different reports about the sad end to the Wheatley family and the emancipation (freeing) of Phillis. Various researchers have concluded that Phillis Wheatley was freed on this date, or that date, or maybe on this other date. I cannot be certain of the facts, but one account states that Mrs. Wheatley died on this date in 1773, and that Phillis was relieved of all household duties and encouraged to concentrate on studying and writing at that time. Some reports state that she was freed on 10/18/1773, but others report that it wasn't until Mr. Wheatley's death in 1778 that she was legally freed through the terms of his will. Shortly after his death, the Wheatley's daughter Mary died; she had been Phillis's original tutor. Saddened by her family's sudden rash of deaths, Phillis married a free black man named John Peters. The two struggled to earn enough money to purchase food, even, and all three of their children died as young babies. Phillis herself had become a scullery maid in an effort to survive, and she died at age 31.

Tragic! However, we can be very glad that Phillis Wheatley achieved a sort of immortality through her poems!

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