Born in Senegal/Gambia in 1753 Phillis was taken from her home at the age of 7 or 8 and brought to Boston on a slave ship. Although she was in fragile health, John Wheatley purchased her as a servant for his wife Susanna.
After noticing her fragile state and her high intelligence, Susanna and her two children taught Wheatley to read. She received lessons in theology, English, Latin and Greek. She also, learned ancient history, mythology and literature. At a time when African Americans were discouraged and intimidated from learning how to read and write, Wheatley’s life was an anomaly.
She began writing poetry at thirteen, her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia earning Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London, England.
Her first volume of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773, the same year John Wheatley emancipated her.
Poems on Various Subjects is a landmark achievement in U.S. history. In publishing it, Wheatley became the first African American and first U.S. slave to publish a book of poems, as well as the third American woman to do so.
A strong supporter of America’s fight for independence, Wheatley penned several poems in honor of the Continental Army’s commander, George Washington. Wheatley sent one of these poems, written in 1775, to the future president, eventually inspiring an invitation to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She accepted the offer and visited Washington in March of 1776.
Wheatley married a free African American from Boston, John Peters, with whom she had three children, all of whom died in infancy. The couple battled constant poverty forcing Wheatley to ultimately find work as a maid in a boarding house while living in squalid horrifying conditions.
Phillis was unsuccessful in finding support for her second volume of poetry. She died in her early 30’s in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784.
Her final manuscript was never found.
An Hymn to the Morning
ATTEND my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest number pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousands dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While they fair sister fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away –
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’s abortive song.