We don’t know her given name. As a child, the future Phillis Wheatley was forced onto a
ship headed from her home in West Africa to the English Colonies in North America. That ship was called “The Phillis” and “Wheatley” was the surname of the white family who enslaved her.
For Phillis, life in the Wheatley household in Boston revolved around education,
particularly in English literature. This was by no means a typical experience for an enslaved person in Colonial America, and Phillis embraced the unforeseen opportunity with all her heart.
Brought to the colonies under what must have been horrific circumstances, Phillis’s pursuit of happiness centered on poetry and her identity as a writer. Her revolution was to be deeply personal and intellectual in nature, but for a period in the 1770s, it also brought her both fame and proximity to leading political figures of the time.
In 1768, Phillis expressed her sympathy with the patriot cause by commemorating the
repeal of the Stamp Act. Two years later, she wrote an elegy for a prominent English Evangelical named George Whitefield, who had served as chaplain for the Countess of Huntingdon. The countess would later become Phillis’s artistic patron and sponsor, a necessary figure in the life of an eighteenth-century writer.
As Phillis’s work circulated, her talents were openly lauded. America being America,
however, her authorship was brought into question. It is likely the Wheatleys believed
authentication necessary in order to attract subscribers willing to “pre-order” Phillis’s collection of poetry, and by extension secure a publisher. To that end, signatures were gathered from a group of elite white men in Boston for an attestation eventually included in Phillis’s work, declaring their satisfaction that she had written her own poems. While the perceived necessity of such an “attestation” is disturbing, some evidence suggests Phillis may have helped arrange this formal declaration herself to further her career. (If this was the case, go Phillis!)
Ultimately, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was
published in London in September 1773. The summer prior, actively seeking publication, Phillis traveled to England with the Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, where she met with prominent social and political figures, including abolitionists.
Once in England, by law, Phillis was a free woman. Yet rather than remain in London,
she traveled back to Boston with Nathaniel when they received word Susanna was ill. Shortly after Phillis returned to America, John granted her manumission. Given the circumstances, Phillis may have agreed to leave England only in exchange for legal freedom in the colonies.
Phillis’s worldview appears to have been heavily influenced by her faith, which in turn
informed her politics. A woman of deep, if compulsory, Christian religious conviction, her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is sometimes viewed as an apologia for slavery, as Phillis seemingly expresses gratitude for her forced conversion. However, in this poem, Phillis also embraces a vision of racial equality among Christians. Furthermore, in other poems and correspondence–read and circulated publicly–she articulates abolitionist opinions. For example, in “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” after exploring the deep pain her parents experienced after her abduction, she writes overtly political lines: Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway. And in a 1774 letter to Reverend Samson Occom, she writes of the hypocrisy inherent in the patriot cause in relation to the practice of slavery: “How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree—I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine.”
Though subtle in her tactics, Phillis challenged the existing social order when she directly presented the future first President with “To his Excellency, George Washington” (1775). In this poem, Phillis paints a flattering portrait, a tone reciprocated in his chivalrous response: “I would have published the poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity…If you ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person So favored by the Muses and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her Dispensations.” The poem and reply were published in The Virginia Gazette and later by Thomas Paine in The Pennsylvania Chronicle.
Tragically, despite her early writing successes, Phillis’s life story does not have a happy
ending. She couldn’t acquire enough subscribers to publish her proposed second collection of poems. Though she married in 1778, her husband’s financial situation declined in the precarious post-war economy, and this led to debt and his imprisonment. The couple had three children who passed away in infancy and Phillis herself died at the age of 31. But her legacy endures as an inspiring example of artistic challenge to race-based hierarchies.