[Originally published on Facebook April 9, 2021]
Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poems, is our woman philosopher of April.
She was born in the Republic of Gambia, in the western part of Africa, it is thought in 1753. At the age of 8, Phillis was brought to America as a slave, when she was bought by the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. Hence, her last name. Her first name is due to the ship that brought her, the Phillis.
The Wheatley family taught her Astronomy, Geography, Literature, English, Ancient Greek and Latin. After 16 months, Phillis could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics (in Greek and in Latin), and British Literature. In 1767, Phillis published her first poem, “On Messieurs Hussey and Coffin”. In 1770, she published “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield”, which brought her notoriety. In 1773, she went to London to publish her collection of poems called “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”. There, Phillis met people such as Baron George Lyttleton, Sir Brook Watson, John Thorton, and Benjamin Franklin. The travel was sponsored by the English Countess of Huntington, Selina Hastings. Her book is considered a landmark achievement in the US history. Due to the unusual fact that the book was written by a slave, her book included a preface with 17 Boston notable men attesting that it was indeed written by Phillis, a slave. John Hancock, who signed the United States Declaration of Independence, was among those men. Phillis was emancipated after the book’s publication.
Defender of freedom and liberty, Phillis wrote poems supporting America’s fight for independence. Let me mention here the poem called “His Excellency General Washington”, which was sent by Phillis directly to Gen. George Washington in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1775. One year later, Washington invited Phillis to visit him. She accepted. Other themes in her poems include: religious rites, death, and slavery.
She died on December 5, 1784, due to complications from childbirth. It is believed that she wrote 145 poems. Her work contributed to American literature, and her literary and artistic talents helped to demonstrate that African Americans were equally capable, creative, intelligent human beings who benefited from an education, helping the cause of the abolition movement.
If you want to know more about her, take a look at these websites:
National Women's History Museum (US): https://www.womenshistory.org/.../biogra.../phillis-wheatley
Olivia Branscum is a PhD student in Philosophy at Columbia University. She is co-producer of the New Voices podcast