African-American poet Phillis Wheatley’s origins are primarily approximated. Biographers estimate she was born in 1753 in the West African country of Senegal. At the age of seven, Phillis was kidnapped and shipped to New England to await auction. She was bought as a personal slave by Susannah Wheatley, wife of Boston tailor John Wheatley.
Phillis’ intellectual aptitude was made known early during her time in Massachusetts. Educated by the Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter Mary, Phillis learned English, Greek, and Latin by the age of twelve. These accomplishments were remarkable for any young girl in the eighteenth century, slave or otherwise. The Wheatley family prized Phillis’ talent so much, they frequently displayed her reading and writing skills to their friends and neighbors. She rapidly became a town celebrity. Unfortunately, Phillis’ intelligence wasn’t enough to change her social standing. Due to the color of her skin, Phillis was condemned to be nothing more than a second-class citizen.
Despite racial and gender barriers, Phillis Wheatley did accomplish an amazing feat: becoming the first African-American published writer with the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She was also the first female writer encouraged and financed by a group of women.
In 1775, Wheatley published a poem praising George Washington entitled To His Excellency, General Washington. The following year, she was invited to Washington’s home as thanks for the poem. Wheatley’s support for the American Revolution was obvious, but her poem’s publication wasn’t very big news; readers were too enthralled in the impending war.
The death of John Wheatley in 1778 emancipated Phillis; she was officially a free woman. Three months later, she married John Peters, a free black grocer. Their happiness was short-lived: the death of two of their children and financial misfortune prevented Phillis from publishing more of her work. Tragedy struck again...