My first love of the written word is poetry and I thought it would be great to share information on one of the earliest women history maker – the poetess, Phyllis Wheatley. Born in West Africa in 1753, sold into slavery at the age of 7 and transported to North America, Phyllis Wheatley became the second published African-American poet and the first published African-American woman before her death at the early age of 31.
Phyllis was named after the slave ship that brought her to Boston and took the last name of her progressive master and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley. These believers in education for their slaves started educating Phyllis and soon recognized her genius. Giving Phyllis’ work to other slaves, they fostered her education and by the time she was twelve years old, she was reading the Greek and Latin classics. Eventually, she started to write poetry on religious, classical themes and about famous people. However, she seldom wrote about her life or slavery which is still a mystery.
Phyllis traveled to England with the son of her master and her work was held in high esteem in British society. Here at home, she wrote a poem about George Washington, sent it to him and later met him. Of course, she experienced racism and sexism as these evils were prevalent in that time. Phyllis had to defend her authorship of her poetry and was examined by Boston dignitaries including John Hancock, the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Her genius prevailed and these same dignitaries signed an attestation to the authenticity of her work and her brilliance. John Paul Jones called her the “African favorite of the Muses and Apollo”. Phyllis was emancipated via her master’s will upon his death.
Eventually, Phyllis fell on difficult times. She married after being emancipated and lost two infant children. With the Revolutionary War waging, Phyllis also lost her financial backers and her husband was imprisoned for debts. Phyllis was reduced to working as a domestic and caring for a sickly infant child. She became ill and died. Her last child died on the same day.
Here is one of her rare poems on slavery, written when she was sixteen years old.
“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 die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.