The second half of eighteenth-century America, witnessed the miraculous rise of Phillis Wheatley: An African-born slave-woman, who used the power of poetry along with her respectable connections to challenge and reverse many of the prejudices that plagued her sex and race, and, later, her genius helped inspire the abolitionist long campaign to abolish slavery.
Wheatley, at only seven years old, found herself chained aboard a slave-trading vessel headed to Boston. When she arrived, she was sold to John and Susanna Wheatley, “The Wheatley’s were prosperous people with a wide circle of friends and active members of the New South Congregational Church” (Belasco and Johnson 599). However, her childhood was quite different than the plight of other slaves: she was taught to read and write, and was raised firmly entrenched in Boston’s Puritan religion, “she lived mostly as a member of the family and had considerable freedom to study… and received a good education, especially for a young girl of the time” (Belasco and Johnson 599). As a teenager, she discovered a passion for what would soon become the miraculous vehicle for her rise: she began to write poetry.
Wheatley wrote in the style of the eighteenth-century English poets all her life, but like any poetic-genius, she left her own mark on literature, “while she closely followed the poetic conventions of the period, Wheatley was also an innovator…she was the founder not only of African American literary tradition but also of the tradition of black women’s writing in the United States” (Belasco and Johnson 600). Wheatley’s poetry concerned itself with the major issues that surrounded her life: politics, religion, and slavery.
However, wonderful her poetry was, Boston proved difficult to find the funding needed to get her book published. Colonists were unwilling to support an African’s written work. This prompted the Wheatley’s to look across the Atlantic and travel to London, “…Wheatley traveled to London with the Wheatley’s son [Nathaniel] to publish her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book written by a black woman in America” (par III). In London, Wheatley was an adored sensation—England showed little racial bias. This was in contrast with, at the time, the American colonies. Yet, even after she returned to America, her talents were undeniably exceptional, and her circle of influencers and connections soon extended beyond New England and into the admirations of the most famous and powerful man in the colonies: his excellency, General of the Continental Army, and later first President of the new United States of America, George Washington.
“This book is a must-read for those curious about writing poetry…”
Wheatley’s beginnings were humble: she came to Boston a small girl forced from her homeland, enslaved, restricted by the disadvantages of her sex, and the plight of racial prejudices concerning her race all stood in her way. However, despite her obstacles, she achieved remarkable, miraculous heights. Her poem, To His Excellency General Washington is a prime example of her poetic talents, her admiration for General Washington, and her patriotic sensibilities, “Proceed great chief, with virtue on thy side. They ev’ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine. With gold unfading Washington! be thine” (Wheatley 609). Wheatley’s rise from a small slave girl to being in correspondence with Mr. Washington was certainly no small feat. Such an accomplishment was certain to stick out in history.
Of course, Wheatley’s poetry, like all great works of art, challenged the norms of her times both religiously and civilly. The country being built around her, that she so loved, was fast losing its religious zeal (of which she was devout), and the institution of slavery, was, naturally, an idea she would never advocate, “Wheatley recognized the contradiction between the institution of slavery in the American colonies and their struggle for “liberty,” a struggle she implicitly sought to align with the cause of freedom for the slaves” (Belasco and Johnson 601). Wheatley, certainly, showed a society built on control by the patriarchy, and a contradictory perception of superiority between the races (racial bias) that a woman, a black-woman, an African-born woman could rise to soaring heights in this new world the colonists were building. Her poetry was used by abolitionists as proof for the equality between the races. Wheatley’s legacy and popularity, especially, in New England continues to dazzle and inspire all those who learn of her miraculous rise.
Eighteenth-century America, witnessed Phillis Wheatley overcome her humble beginnings and the challenges, at-the-time, that prejudiced her sex and race; her star ascended out of Boston and would eventually emanate its light throughout American literary history. Her poetry revealed a deep trust in God, yet it also revealed a break with political conventions— opposition to slavery, and her love for her new country. George Washington received her letters and poetry with adoration and gave testimony to her genius. Dunford 4
Wheatley achieved the miraculous, the impossible, the unthought of: she a black-African-born-woman did not peel at the edges of prejudice, she slashed it, and all were forced to recognize her gift and confront their misplaced assumptions on the place of women and slavery.
Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson, editors. “Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1.,2nd ed., Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 599- 601. E-Textbook Liberty University English 201.
Michals, Debra. “Phillis Wheatley.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2015. Accessed: 20 February 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/phillis-wheatley
Wheatley, Phillis. “To His Excellency General Washington.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, edited by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson, 2nd., vol.1., Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 608-609. E- Textbook Liberty University English 201.