Phillis Wheatley is considered America’s first Black poet. She lived from around 1753 to 1784. In her short life she accomplished a great deal! The matter of her poetry getting published is a story that shows just how backwards many of the Founding Fathers of the US were at this time. Like many other Black people who wrote (Douglass for example, although he was born later) Wheatley had to prove that she was the one who wrote her poetry, and she had to have white men back the publication with their testimony that her poetry was authentic. White people had a hard time believing that anyone who wasn’t white could read and write apparently!
So back to her trial. She had to appear in Boston, probably at the Boston Town Hall (1), and she would have been faced with a table full of white men who were there to judge not only her, but everyone else who was Black who would follow in her footsteps. It was the Fall of 1772. Remember that the signing of the Declaration of Independence didn’t happen until 1776. According to Gates, “the details of the meeting have been lost to history,” but historians still have a pretty good idea what happened and who was there (2). The men gathered to judge Wheatley were learned and esteemed in their community, and most of them were also slaveholders (3)! They were actually brought there by Wheatley’s slave master, John Wheatley, in order to authenticate her poetry.
Long story short, at the time, most white folks believed that African/Black people may not have even been human, but some kind of sub-species of human! It makes me gag even to write this, frankly. But, here we had the “great” thinkers of the time, Hume, Jefferson, Kant, and others questioning whether or not Africans were human, I kid you not (4). I seriously question how truly “great” they could have been at thinking if they were thinking these things, but that is another story. So, there was all of the conjecture about whether or not Africans were even human, and part of the criteria set forth by these (ahem, cough, cough) learned people was that in order to be human you had to know how to read and write. I’m not sure how they accounted for all of the white people who couldn’t actually read and write, but who were still considered human though.
Phillis, who was named after the slave ship that she came over on, was purchased by the Wheatley’s when she was around seven years old. At this point she spoke and read zero English of course. It is most likely she spoke Wolof (5). The Wheatley’s had twins, and for unknown reasons one of the twins, Mary, who was a teenager, decided to teach Phillis to read. Phillis was brilliant and learned quickly to read and write English. She wrote her first poem in 1765 and was first published in 1767 (6). Susanna Wheatley, the mother of Mary and wife to John, was very enthusiastic about Phillis’s poetry, and by 1772, they gathered her work together for a book publication, but they had to get white people to buy into the idea that the work was actually done by Phillis (no small feat at this time) (7).
Phillis actually survived the intense inspection/interview that she had with the (mostly) slaveholders, and they agreed to back her book, but still no American publisher would touch it, so the Wheatleys contacted a British friend and the book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London (8). The book “became the first book of poetry published by a person of African descent in the English language” (9). Phillis and her book became a hit, but she couldn’t win over people like Jefferson who were so entrenched in their racism that they couldn’t see past the ends of their noses. For whatever reason, Jefferson was convinced that African people and their descendants were inferior in mind and substance (10).
Wheatley was eventually freed from slavery. She married a Black man named John Peters, and they tried to have children. Wheatley lost two children in infancy, and the third died with her in 1784.
Not only did Wheatley face criticism in her time from white people, but she has been criticized since in many cases by Black people. Some of her poetry is noticeably uncritical of the white slave holders even to the point where people have claimed she was “too white” (11).
But in the end, let us hear from the tips of Wheatley’s own pen.
AN HYMN TO THE EVENING.
“SOON as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.”
(1) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. 2003. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Basic Civitas Books. Kindle. (pg. 5)
(2) Gates, (pg. 5).
(3) Gates, (pg. 14).
(4) Gates, (pg. 21-25).
(5) Gates, (pg. 16).
(6) Gates, (pg. 20).
(7) Gates, (pg. 21).
(8) Gates, (pg. 29-31).
(9) Gates, (pg. 31).
(10) Gates, (pg. 44-50).
(11) Gates, (pg. 76).
Wheatly Feature Image Credit: By Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1629684