Short Profile of Phillis Wheatley (1753 -1784)

by Marsha Prescod

Phillis WheatleyPhillis Wheatley (1753 -1784), was born in Senegal, West Africa. Her lifestory is an example of how genius can arise even in the most dire circumstances. Captured and sold into slavery at the age of 7, Wheatley was brought to America where the Wheatleys of Boston, Massachusetts purchased her. The child’s brilliance meant that by the age of 13 she had not only mastered English, and studied Greek, Latin and the Bible, but published her first poem. It was hard enough for white female writers to have their work published and acknowleged at that time, let along black female slaves. The idea of African slaves - thought of as little better than animals - having intelligence and creativity, was dangerous to the social order in America and in the other nations that profited from the Atlantic slave trade . Wheatley had a number of her poems published in Boston newspapers. Despite famous Americans such as George Washington recognising her talents, she ended up having to prove in a court of law that she had written a collection of poems. A group of prominent people which included the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the state of Massachusetts examined her and confirmed her authorship. In the end, she had to be taken to London by the son of her owners, in order to get her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. Publishers in Boston refused to publish the book. Pressure from abolotionists and international recognition of her work led to Wheatley being granted her freedom. She married a free man, but was unable to get a second collection of poems published. She died in poverty in childbirth, but since the 19th century her accomplishments have again become recognised.


See for Poems by Phillis Wheatley


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