The sound of liberty

The Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley celebrates the life and work of the first Black American poet to be published.

Although she was an enslaved person, Phillis Wheatley Peters was one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America. Educated and enslaved in the household of prominent Boston commercialist John Wheatley, lionized in New England and England, with presses in both places publishing her poems, and paraded before the new republic’s political leadership and the old empire’s aristocracy, Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual. Her name was a household word among literate colonists and her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.

Wheatley was seized from Senegal/Gambia, West Africa, when she was about seven years old. She was transported to the Boston docks with a shipment of “refugee” slaves, who because of age or physical frailty were unsuited for rigorous labor in the West Indian and Southern colonies, the first ports of call after the Atlantic crossing. In the month of August 1761, “in want of a domestic,” Susanna Wheatley, wife of prominent Boston tailor John Wheatley, purchased “a slender, frail female child … for a trifle” because the captain of the slave ship believed that the waif was terminally ill, and he wanted to gain at least a small profit before she died. A Wheatley relative later reported that the family surmised the girl—who was “of slender frame and evidently suffering from a change of climate,” nearly naked, with “no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her”—to be “about seven years old … from the circumstances of shedding her front teeth.”

After discovering the girl’s precociousness, the Wheatleys, including their son Nathaniel and their daughter Mary, did not entirely excuse Wheatley from her domestic duties but taught her to read and write. Soon she was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (particularly John Milton and Alexander Pope), and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

Although scholars had generally believed that An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield … (1770) was Wheatley’s first published poem, Carl Bridenbaugh revealed in 1969 that 13-year-old Wheatley—after hearing a miraculous saga of survival at sea—wrote “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” a poem which was published on 21 December 1767 in the Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury. But it was the Whitefield elegy that brought Wheatley national renown. Published as a broadside and a pamphlet in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia, the poem was published with Ebenezer Pemberton’s funeral sermon for Whitefield in London in 1771, bringing her international acclaim.

 

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