by Kirstin Anderson Birkhaug
Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month we are publishing this introduction to the life and work of one of the most remarkable figures of the founding era: Phillis Wheatley.]
No gravestone marks the place of Phillis Wheatley’s rest. Of course, this is not unusual. Phillis Wheatley was a Black woman who died in Massachusetts in 1784, and few efforts were made to preserve Black cemeteries in those days, causing many to be lost to time. What makes the anonymity of Wheatley’s repose so strange is its dissonance with her stature in life. Wheatley was perhaps the most famous Black person of her day, an astonishing self-taught poet who captured the attention of elites on both sides of the Atlantic. In life, she personally knew the most important people in the Boston political and literary scenes. She met Benjamin Franklin, who offered her whatever services she might require, and personally corresponded with George Washington. European nobility gifted her books and treasures. Today, she considered by many the mother of Black literature in the United States. And she did all of this while enslaved. Wheatley was born in West Africa and sold into slavery at around seven years old (although no official records confirm her exact age). Susanna Wheatley, wife to prominent Boston merchant John Wheatley, purchased the child for a trifle, and brought her home. Phillis did not speak or write a single word of English. Her last memory of Africa was that of being torn from her father’s arms by slavers. Her two front teeth hadn’t come in yet. To call Wheatley “lucky” in her fate as a person enslaved to the Wheatley family would be a profound reduction, but Susanna Wheatley proved to be sympathetic to her new charge. Phillis showed great intellectual promise, and Susanna Wheatley plucked her from among the other enslaved people of the household to receive special tutoring from her daughter, Mary. Phillis became quickly astute at English and Latin literature, astronomy, geography, and history. She breezed through the ancient classics and the Bible. And then she began to write. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it, “this seven-year-old slave spoke no English upon her arrival in 1761. By 1765, she had written her first poem.”
It was poetry that would spark Phillis Wheatley’s fame. Her verse, which favored a neoclassical style, showed her to possess natural poetic talent. As news of the Wheatley’s special charge began to spread, Phillis became something of a crown jewel for Boston society—a Black genius. Eventually, Phillis became the first Black American woman to publish a volume of poetry. The publication of this manuscript, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, led to a brief tour in England, wherein Wheatley mingled with the upper echelons of British society and nearly met the King and Queen before being called unexpectedly back to Boston to attend to an ailing Susanna Wheatley.
Wheatley’s poetry was special for her time. While borrowing stylistically from the neoclassical greats such as Alexander Pope and John Dryden, Wheatley brought to her writing her own, independent love for the classics. Additionally, her poems reflected pride in both her heritage as an African woman and a patriotic love for her adopted country, America. Consider, for example, her poem “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” which reads:
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she languish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot’s name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
In her poetry, Wheatley articulated her feelings on the great injustice of her life and the lives of so many others: the “peculiar institution” of American slavery. This poem in particular shows Wheatley struggling, during the moment in which cries for freedom and independence rang throughout the American colonies, with the persistent oppression of Black people. Her love of freedom, which leads her to lend her full support to American independence, was born from her complete lack of freedom from her earliest years. Her neoclassical predisposition and her careful study of the classics also led her to understand that the fight to be free was an ancient one, as old as political order itself. Her genius and literacy, unadulterated by privilege or whiteness, ensured that Wheatley could articulate in the clearest and most beautiful terms hypocritical injustice of American slavery.
Phillis Wheatley demands our attention, not only during Black History Month, but during our conversations on the Founding era broadly construed. She represents the genesis of a literary movement, and a Black woman who, from the outset of the American Founding, spoke for truth, righteousness, and the liberation of Black Americans. She was, as June Jordan wrote, “Phillis miracle,” a once-in-a-generation mind discarded by her contemporaries and forgotten by history, who deserves to be revived by a new generation of scholars and students who will finally hear her words and listen.
- How was Wheatley’s embrace of the classics related to her poetry? What lessons might we draw from that in our contemporary context?
- Does Wheatley’s experience add any complexity to our thinking about slavery or race?
- How might history be different if more minds and talents were given the best possible circumstances to flourish? How are they being suppressed today?
- What is the relationship between art and suffering?
 Gates Jr, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, 20.