Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re celebrating Phyllis Wheatley, who was the first well-known black female poet in the western world and the first African-American to publish a book.
Phyllis’s life started out tragically. Then, she was not Phyllis Wheatley at all, but a young West African girl, wrenched from her family and sold to a slave trader. She was taken aboard the slave ship Phillis, which docked in the British colony of Boston, Massachusetts, on 11 July 1761. Though only seven years old, Phyllis was sold to the merchant John Wheatley, as his wife, Susanna, wanted a maid. It was Susanna who named her Phyllis, after the ship that had brought her to America, and as was the custom, she was given her owner’s surname.
Probably on account of her age, Phyllis was treated exceptionally well for a slave. The Wheatleys taught her to read, write and speak English, and it soon became clear that she was extraordinarily bright. She quickly mastered the language, then moved on to Greek and Latin. Her sheer brilliance meant she was allowed to continue her schooling. She studied Pope and Milton, Horace and Homer, and even ruffled Puritan feathers by effortlessly translating Ovid. She wrote her first known poem, On Messrs Hussey And Coffin (1767), aged 14. Most of her verses were on fashionable topics of the time such as Christian morality and piety. In 1770, An Elegiac Poem, On The Death Of The Celebrated Divine George Whitefield brought her global fame when it was published in Boston, Newport and Philadelphia.
Why was she a trailblazer?
In 1773, Phyllis went to London with the Wheatleys’ son, Nathaniel, and made her mark on the literary world. She wangled an audience with the Mayor of London and other curious aristocrats, key abolitionists and even the American founding father Benjamin Franklin. Phyllis went down a storm and Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon agreed to be her patron. Her anthology, Poems On Various Subjects, Religious And Moral, came out in the summer of 1773. It is thought to be the first published book written by an African-American. In it, the poem On Being Brought From Africa To America contained a powerful message: ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye/ Their colour is a diabolic dye/Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.’
On her return to Boston, Phyllis was finally emancipated by the Wheatleys. She was now a household name among abolitionists – a shining example of black intellect and artistic achievement.
In 1778, Phyllis married a free black man, John Peters. Her literary output slowed – the couple’s living conditions, as for all free black people of the time, were hard: their two children died and Peters was imprisoned for debt. After her marriage, Phyllis is known to have published only five more poems. She was eventually forced to return to domestic servitude to support her family. She died alone, in extreme poverty, at the age of 31.
Main illustration: Bijou Karman. Other image: Getty Images