14 Fascinating Facts About Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784) was one of the best-known poets in colonial America, no small feat for any woman of the time—but one that was made even more remarkable because she was enslaved. She was also the colonies’ first Black poet and second woman to publish a book of poems. Here are 14 facts about her.
1. Phillis Wheatley was named for the slave ship on which she was taken to America.
Sadly, Phillis Wheatley’s birth name is lost to history. She was kidnapped in West Africa in approximately 1760, at about the age of 7, and named for the slave ship, the Phillis, that took her to the American colonies. (Her first name has often been misspelled as “Phyllis”—several schools named in her honor have had to correct it.)
She wound up in Boston, where she was enslaved by the family of a merchant tailor named John Wheatley. She worked as a domestic servant for John’s wife, Susanna, who soon discovered Phillis’s talents for academics and language.
2. The Wheatleys’ daughter Mary taught Phillis to read and write.
Of course, Phillis didn’t speak English when she arrived in Boston, but was translating the Roman poet Ovid into English by her early teen years. A short time later, Phillis was also studying classic Greek and Latin literature, astronomy, geography, and the Bible. John Wheatley said Phillis had mastered English, and its most difficult literature, within 16 months of learning the language.
3. Wheatley started writing poetry at about age 12 and published her first poem at 14.
On December 21, 1767, Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper published Wheatley’s poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” The poem tells the story of two men who narrowly escaped drowning when a storm kicked up during their voyage from Nantucket to Boston. Phillis had heard the men tell the story while waiting on them in the Wheatley house. Susanna Wheatley submitted the poem to the paper with the following note:
“Please to insert the following Lines, composed by a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston) on the following Occasion, viz. Messrs Hussey and Coffin, as undermentioned, belonging to Nantucket, being bound from thence to Boston, narrowly escaped being cast away on Cape-Cod, in one of the late Storms; upon their Arrival, being at Mr. Wheatley’s, and, while at Dinner, told of their narrow Escape, this Negro Girl at the same Time ‘tending Table, heard the Relation, from which she composed the following verses.”
4. She became famous for her poetic tribute to a charismatic preacher.
Wheatley’s 1770 elegy to Reverend George Whitefield, a leading evangelical preacher and supporter of slavery, garnered widespread praise among his thousands of followers. The poem is considered indicative of her usual style, which often used couplets in the manner of Alexander Pope. Wheatley’s work appealed to the colonists with its themes of morality and piety as well as its neoclassical influences, though she at times worked in subtle criticism of racism and slavery as well. About a third of her published poetry consisted of elegies to recently deceased notables.
5. Some of Wheatley’s white contemporaries didn’t believe a Black woman wrote the poems.
As Phillis Wheatley became better known, she endured skepticism that her white counterparts didn’t. Critics questioned the authenticity of Wheatley’s work because they couldn’t believe a Black woman (or man) had written it.
In 1772, Wheatley appeared before a panel of 18 prominent and influential Bostonians to prove she had penned her poetry [PDF]. She and the Wheatley family hoped that a verification from this group—which included John Hancock, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver, and others—would help her land a publishing deal.
The details of the meeting are lost, but Phillis Wheatley convinced the panel that she was the author of the poems and received a letter of support that assured the public that “she has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.”
6. A British countess paid for her first book’s publication.
Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wheatley enroll subscribers for her collection of poems. (In the 18th century, it was common for lesser-known authors to have readers subscribe a certain amount toward the cost of a book’s publication.) She traveled to England, accompanied by the Wheatleys’ son, Nathanial, to seek better options. They appealed to a family friend, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, who was deeply involved in the religious movement started by George Whitefield (she had even inherited his properties in the American colonies, which included enslaved people). Hastings, who knew of Phillis through her elegy for Whitefield, agreed to fund the publication of Wheatley’s first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773.
7. Poems on Various Subjects became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic.
The London publisher included an engraving of Phillis in the front of the book—an unusual move that suggested it hoped to pique interest by showing an enslaved girl as the author. Before its publication, Nathaniel Wheatley and Phillis even went on a tour around the city, drumming up publicity. Though Phillis returned to Boston to tend to an ailing Susanna Wheatley just before the book was released, at least eight publications in London reviewed the work, all commenting on what Wheatley’s poems showed about the immorality of slavery. It made a splash in America as well, with the colonies’ leading citizens expressing their amazement at her refined, literary style in the manner of the Greek and Roman poets.
8. She was freed after her visit to England.
The Wheatleys had been criticized in England for their enslavement of Phillis. This judgment, coupled with her literary celebrity, may have convinced the family to manumit her a few months after her return.
9. Wheatley’s admirers included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
During her visit in London, Wheatley was introduced to Benjamin Franklin; he wrote to a nephew that he “went to see the black Poetess and offer’d her any Services I could do her.”
Two years later, she wrote an ode to George Washington, “To his Excellency General Washington,” which elicited an invitation from the then-commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to pay him a visit. They met in the spring of 1776 at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Washington then sent to the poem to his colleague Joseph Reed, who arranged to have it printed in the Pennsylvania Magazine (which was edited by the patriot Thomas Paine).
10. Thomas Jefferson criticized Wheatley in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.
A few years later, Thomas Jefferson shared his opinion in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia. In a chapter full of racist assumptions, Jefferson suggested that Black people’s intellect was inferior to that of whites and mentioned Wheatley by name: “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.” (Jefferson is referring to Alexander Pope’s poem “The Dunciad,” which satirized Britain’s intellectual decline—implying that Wheatley’s elegies were naively praising the wrong people.)
Poet Amanda Gorman tweeted a rebuttal to another line of Jefferson’s criticism of Wheatley in 2021: “Whenever I feel unable to write, I remember that Thomas Jefferson singled out young black poetess Phillis Wheatley with shallow disdain: ‘Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.’ Then I crack my knuckles and get to work.”
11. Her most famous poem has a complicated legacy.
Wheatley did not directly address slavery much in her poetry, though most of her writings were unpublished and are now lost. But one of her most famous poems is a short one titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
It may be startling to today’s readers to hear Wheatley sound grateful for her kidnapping and conversion, and seem to agree with the concept of “refinement,” even as she chides white Christians for their attitudes toward Africans. Many scholars remind readers that Wheatley wrote for a white audience and spent her life in upper-class Boston; she was bound by her personal experience as well as the caste system she landed in.
However, in another poem, Wheatley was more direct about the tyranny of slavery and wondered about her parents’ pain:
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?
12. Abolitionists and supporters of slavery both cited her work.
Wheatley’s poetry was drenched in religious themes and allusions, which had different meanings to different people. Abolitionists pointed to Wheatley as a model for the God-given dignity of Black men and women, while pro-slavery advocates used her example as justification for forcing enslaved people to convert to Christianity.
13. Her husband was imprisoned for debt.
Phillis continued to live with the Wheatley family after being freed. By 1778, the Wheatleys and their two children had died, and that year Phillis married a free man named John Peters. Many historical accounts list him as a grocer and then a bookstore owner who went broke and was imprisoned for failing to pay his debts. The couple struggled to make ends meet. The Revolutionary War was in its third year and Phillis was unable to find backers for her second book of poems, a 300-page manuscript that is now lost. The couple had three children, but none survived past infancy.
14. Wheatley’s place of burial is unknown.
Wheatley was living in a boarding house in Boston where she apparently worked when she died at the age of 31. Her third child died just hours after Phillis; some reports say Phillis died of complications from childbirth and from pneumonia. She and her child were buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which remains unknown.