Phillis WheatleyPoet / Slave
Died: 5 December 1784
Best known as: The poet who was the first published black woman in America
Phillis Wheatley was an African slave in Boston, Massachusetts when she became the first published black poet in America in 1767. Phillis Wheatley came to the Boston slave market in 1761 (some have guessed from the African country of Senegal) and was purchased by John Wheatley for his wife, Susannah. Named Phillis and given her master's surname, she was probably between 7 and 8 years old. She quickly mastered English and the Wheatleys saw to it that she learned literature, mythology, Latin and Greek. By the time she was 13 she was writing her own poems, influenced especially by the poetry of Alexander Pope and John Milton. She published locally in 1767 and was considered a prodigy among the Boston literati, thanks to her "lively" personality as well as her sophisticated verse. While on a visit to England in 1773 she was dubbed "the sable muse," and her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, was published. Her mature handling of the neoclassical style, with its Biblical and Homeric touches, was such that the book came with sworn assurances that this teenage African girl had, in fact, written the poems. After Susannah Wheatley died, Phillis Wheatley was freed; she married John Peters in 1778 and spent the rest of her life in poverty and obscurity, dying at the age of 31. Two books of her writings were published posthumously: The Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1834) and The Letters of Phillis Wheatley (1864). Although her place as a historical figure is secure, the quality of her poetry is the topic of scholarly debate to this day, with her heritage and sex (so unusual for a poet in her day) adding spice to discussions of her artistic merits.
Phillis Wheatley corresponded with General George Washington in 1775… In November of 2005, a newly discovered letter written by Phillis Wheatley was acquired by a private collector for a reported $253,000… Her name is sometimes misspelled as Phyllis Wheatley, but “Phillis” is correct.
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