Phillis Wheatley is the first published African-American female poet. Originally born in West Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery at the age of seven before being transported to North America and sold to John Wheatley as a personal servant to his wife. By the age of 12, Wheatley published her first poem. Here is a look at some of the most interesting facts about Phillis Wheatley.
1. Phillis Wheatley was an African American poet born on May 8, 1753 in Gambia, West Africa.
2. She was the first African American poet and was recognized for her poems in Boston during the revolutionary era at an early age of 16.
3. Phillis was a slave who was taken from Africa when she was around seven or eight and bought by an American family, John and Susana Wheatley of Boston, who were in search of a domestic help.
4. The name given to her was in fact the name of the ship she was brought in from Africa, The Phillis.
5. She was frail and almost dying when she came to America and was only covered with a dirty carpet.
6. Her physical condition and her age spared her from belonging to the slaves brought to either Western or Southern colonies, which was the normal practice that time.
7. Although she was a slave and had to attend to domestic chores, Phyllis was taught to read and write with the permission of the Wheatleys. It was the couple’s daughter, Mary, then 18 when the young girl arrived, who was the one who taught her to read and write.
8. Phyllis read about history, astronomy, geography, John Milton, Virgil, Homer and Alexander Pope, among others.
9. With the intellect and determination, she was able to read Greek and Latin classic as well as bible passages while still a child and a domestic slave, balancing her time between studying and doing her chores.
10. At the young age of 12, she wrote her first poem, On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin, which was published at Newport Mercury.
11. Her other poems, On the Death of that Celebrated Divine, An Elegiac Poem and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ were published in Newport, Philadelphia and Boston in 1770.
12. At the age of 16, her literary works made her famous.
13. In 1773, her poem collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and individual poems, Atheism and On Imagination added to her recognition as a writer.
14. The colonists were not convinced Phillis Wheatley was the one who wrote the writings which led her to defend herself in court. This was when she and Susana Wheatley tried to sell her collection which included 28 poems.
15. Her work, Poems on Various Subjects, became significant in the history of American Literature because when it was published, that was the time the country had its first African-American and slave published writer. Only two American women were able to publish their works prior to this, making Wheatley, the third.
16. With the help of her master, Susana Wheatley and the Countess of Huntington, Selna Hastings, Phyllis was able to travel to England and was given an audience by British dignitaries. During her trip, she was able to meet Benjamin Franklin.
17. She became a free woman in 1778 when she was emancipated by the Wheatleys and in the same year, married another free slave, John Peters. They had three children but all did not live long and died in infancy.
18. Despite her fame, she still worked as a maid and had to live in poverty. She also did not escape the maltreatment and racism of the people she worked for.
19. No one wanted to support her in the publication of her second poem collection and her husband was also incarcerated due to debt, which added to her agony.
20. She is considered as one of the most influential poets in American history but she died in poverty.