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African American Poets
The first poem written by Phillis Wheatley was published in the Newport Mercury, a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, in 1767. This groundbreaking poem, published when its author was only 13, is the first published by an African American.
This earliest of African American poets was born in 1753 in Gambia, now known as Senegal. She was captured by fellow Africans and sold into slavery at the age of 7. She was given the name Phillis after the slave ship that transported her to Boston.
Phillis acquired the Wheatley surname when John Wheatley purchased her. In addition to being a devout Christian, Wheatley was a prominent Boston businessman. Phillis was chosen to become the companion and domestic servant of Mrs. Wheatley.
As with so many of the first African American poets, Wheatley’s poetry was often of a highly spiritual nature, pertaining to moral and religious doctrine and honoring God. Her strong Christian beliefs were established in her poetic works even though she was still a teenager. Most of her poetry was written in tribute to someone else or it described the classical and religious themes gleaned from the education she received from the Wheatleys.
Only one of her poems known today shows any signs of self reflection. In On being brought from Africa to America, Wheatley describes her journey as a rescue from the land of Pagans followed by Christian redemption in a land where everyone deserved to be treated as equals. This Christian rescue was often cited as justification for the slave trade.
In spite of rescue to the land of equals, people of African descent were considered morally and intellectually inferior to whites. Wheatley’s poetry exhibited such a depth of moral character and undeniable intelligence that doubt as to her authorship was raised.
When she was only 17, she was called to defend herself and her poetry in front of a panel of Boston leaders, including the governor and lieutenant governor of the state. Once satisfied that Wheatley did, in fact, pen these thought-provoking poems, they attested to their findings in a document that was published as the preface to her first book of poetry.
Wheatley’s first book, a collection of poems entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773, in Aldgate, London, because Boston publishing houses refused to publish it themselves.
Highly popular in both England and the United States, Wheatley won freedom from slavery in 1773, when she was 20 years old. Unfortunately, the American Revolutionary War brought the death of the Wheatley family, upon which she had relied for access to intellectual circles and the circumstances of her own life changed dramatically.
A brief and unpleasant marriage to a free black grocer ended when he left her to support herself and her only surviving child. Two other children had died soon after they were born. Wheatley supported herself and her child as a scullery maid until she died in poverty in 1784 at the age of only 31. The child died, too, just a few hours after Wheatley’s death.