Phillis Wheatley: The slave who became the first black published female poet
The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom – Phillis Wheatley
At the age of seven, Phillis who would become the first black published female poet was sold into slavery from West Africa (Senegal/Gambia). In 1761, she arrived Boston, a slender, black, frail-looking child, enslaved, believed to be terminally ill and was purchased to serve as a personal servant by John Wheatley to his wife, Susanna who named her after the slave ship for fragile refugees – The Phillis– that had brought her to Boston.
It is here she would learn to read and write, under the tutorship of Mary Wheatley, her masters 18 year old daughter and her brother, Nathaniel, she would learn English, Latin and Greek. When the family noticed her unusual intelligence and her love for literature, she was relieved of her domestic chores which were handed to other slaves, and fostered in the path of writing.
Her first published poem written at 13, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was printed in Newport Mercury and gained considerable attention. 17th century Boston was one that frowned at any achievement from slaves, that believed slaves could be nothing besides being slaves and so Wheatley’s strides were not just unfamiliar, but also infuriating.
But it was not until her poem, On Messrs Hussey and Coffin centered on the miraculous escape of drowning men was published with Ebenezer Pemberton’s funeral sermon for Whitefield in London in 1771, that she gained worldwide recognition.
Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d away
Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;
Where wou’d they go? where wou’d be their Abode?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
This however did not stop the discrimination against her and her gift. At age eighteen when she had compiled a collection of poems, she would try endlessly and with the help of Susanna to find a publisher who believed in her and her work to no avail.
Because publication of her book depended on guaranteed subscriptions beforehand, and because she could not get any subscribers, she fueled by these rejections, decided to leave for London. She would whilst suffering from a chronic asthmatic condition for which she hoped to get better treatment, depart for London with Nathaniel.
In London, her first collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published and dedicated to the the Countess of Huntingdon, who had greatly supported Wheatley and her work, and it became the first volume of poetry by an American Negro published in modern times.
Her poems although styled as elegies to dead friends, strangers, where also highly political, questioned the slave trade, touched on religion to symbolize the wrongs of the trade and eventually became an instrumental tool to the movement of equality of races.
She would gain her freedom a few years later after the death of her master. And in what was to become her most famous poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America, she wrote;