Phillis Wheatley went on to become the first African American published poet. She is also considered the originator of the African American literary tradition. The odds of any of THAT happening were perhaps even greater.
When Phillis (named for the slave ship that carried her to Boston) first arrived in Massachusetts, she did not speak English. But there was something about her that won over her new mistress, Susanna Wheatley, and as Phillis Wheatley’s biographer, William Henry Robinson writes, Susanna “doted” on her. Susanna had her daughter, Mary, teach Phillis to read and write, which Phillis took to with extraordinary ability and talent.
Phillis began her writing career in 1765, at about the age of twelve, with poems and elegies that included several on the Rev. Joseph Sewall, the minister of Boston’s Old South Meeting House and the author of a famous anti-slavery tract. Many of Phillis’s poems and open letters were written to or about prominent people including a tribute to George Washington who, in turn, invited Phillis to visit his headquarters in Cambridge. Other poems displayed her knowledge of the scriptures, ancient history, and literature.
With the Wheatley family’s backing, Phillis’s book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, appeared in 1773. It was published in London, as no Boston printer would publish the book. In the book’s opening pages, readers found a letter signed by John Wheatley, Phillis’s “master,” and a dozen or so prominent men of Boston who testified that Phillis had, in fact, written the poems herself. Phillis went to London with the Wheatleys’ son during the book’s production, and met dozens of England’s most prominent citizens.
Susanna Wheatley died soon after the book’s publication, and Phillis was given her freedom. Soon after, Phillis published an open letter to her friend the Native American Christian minister Rev. Samuel Occom, in which she denounced the “pious” Christian ministers who supported slavery. She quoted scripture to prove her points, and her letter appeared in numerous newspapers.
Phillis Wheatley married a free African American named John Peters and they had three children, all of whom died young. Phillis’s health steadily declined, as did her marriage, although she was able to publish a few more poems. She attempted to arouse interest in a second book of poetry but, perhaps because of the failing post-war economy, she was unable to secure support. Phillis Wheatley died in Boston at the age of 30 or 31, and lies buried in an unmarked grave with her third child.
Despite this sad ending to an otherwise remarkable life story and literary career, Phillis Wheatley remains an enduring figure in American history. Here are three pieces of advice I think she would offer you, personally and professionally:
• Believe in yourself
It is unclear what Phillis’s religious life in Africa may have involved, but she embraced Christianity when she lived in Boston and even became a member of Old South Meeting House. Her choice of religion aside, what comes through loud and clear in her writing and her actions is a deep faith in God, in God’s love for her, and, by extension, faith in herself. Because of it, she acted in ways that were completely unexpected of her, especially as an African American woman in Boston at that time, and she was successful.
Phillis was also surrounded by people who believed in her, and that’s a good lesson for all of us. There will always be detractors; there will always be moments when we are filled with self-doubt. What or who can you add to your life to turn this around?
• Have courage
Phillis Wheatley used her art to help others. Each poem or open letter was an act of courage for a young “slave woman” in Boston. (I use quotes because human beings really can’t “own” another.) The act of publishing a book of poetry was an act of courage. Again, I am convinced that Phillis’s faith fueled her courage, as well as the sure knowledge that she was doing what she was supposed to – and that included trying to sway public opinion against slavery.
It’s easy to play it safe, but what’s the point? Do you really want to look back on your life and say, “Gee I wish I had done that.” No, you don’t! What’s the worst that will happen? You might fail. So what? Try again. Someone might criticize you. So what? It doesn’t matter what others think; it only matters what you think. It might cost you money. So what? There’s more to be had. NOT acting with courage and faith isn’t a good way to go through life!
• Seek and accept support to achieve your goal
Boston printers wouldn’t publish her book, so Phillis and the Wheatleys turned to a London publisher. People didn’t believe Phillis had written her book, so Phillis and the Wheatleys secured the testimony of Boston’s leading (male) citizens. As a young “slave woman” in Boston, Phillis needed the Wheatleys’ backing to publish her book. The point is, where there were obstacles, she found the support she needed to achieve her goal of publishing and having her voice be heard.
The same holds true today. What obstacles lie in the way between you and your goals? Money? Time? Access? There’s always another way and sometimes you need the support of others. The American ideal of "going it alone" is rubbish. We all have people in our lives who have helped us. It's more important to get things done that it is to tough it out and struggle alone. Good grief. Life is too short. Ask for and graciously receive help!
Wisdom from the ages – in this case, from Phillis Wheatley – resonates because she did it.
2011 © Bonnie Hurd Smith
Bonnie Hurd Smith, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women's history), author, and public speaker. Her companion website is called Women Make History.