This Day In Literary History
On October 18th, 1773, the legendary African-American poet Phillis Wheatley was emancipated from slavery. She was born in Gambia, Senegal sometime in 1753. At the young age of seven, she was captured by slave traders.
Phillis was shipped to Boston, Massachusetts. Not long after she arrived in America, (which was still under British rule at the time) she was sold on the auction block to John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant and tailor.
He bought the little girl so his wife, Susanna, could have her own personal servant. Since she had come on a slave ship called The Phillis, she was given the name Phillis Wheatley.
The Wheatley family was known for their liberalism and progressive ideas, one of which was that slaves should be taught how to read and write. That was a very controversial idea, especially in the Southern states.
In the South, it was actually illegal to teach a slave to read and write. And the idea of any female receiving an education was highly unusual and considered radical in 18th century America.
Nevertheless, little Phillis began her education, tutored by the Wheatleys' teenage daughter, Mary. As the lessons continued, Mary was amazed by the little slave girl's intellectual gifts and hunger for learning.
John Wheatley was so impressed he decided that Phillis' education should take precedence over her work as a slave. Most of her household chores were done by other slaves.
By the time she was twelve, Phillis Wheatley had become fluent in Greek and Latin, translating difficult Biblical passages from those languages into English.
She began studying the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Virgil, Homer, and Horace, which would kindle her passion for poetry and influence her own writing.
In 1773, the Wheatleys sent an ailing Phillis, accompanied by their son Nathaniel, to London to recover her health. There, she would meet the Lord Mayor of London and other prominent members of British society. She dazzled them with her poetry.
Phillis' admirers couldn't believe that a Boston publisher had refused to publish her work simply because she was a black slave. She made some powerful new friends, including the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth.
With their help, her classic poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was finally published - not in Boston, but in London. It became a huge hit in England.
Later that year, in October of 1773, Phillis Wheatley was emancipated from slavery - freed by the family that owned her. Unfortunately, under Massachusetts law, she would not gain her full rights as a free woman until her former master died.
Phillis' poetry went practically unnoticed in America until 1775, when her poem To His Excellency George Washington was published. Washington read the poem and was moved by her words.
Washington was so moved, in fact, that he invited Phillis to his home so he could thank her personally. The legendary writer and philosopher Thomas Paine republished her poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette.
Another of her admirers was the legendary Scottish-American naval hero John Paul Jones, who had an officer deliver some of his own writings to "Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [muses] and Apollo."
Phillis supported the American Revolution. Unfortunately, during the revolution, Americans lost interest in poetry, devoting most of their reading time to newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and other publications related to the war.
In 1778, John Wheatley died, and Phillis became a legally free woman with full rights guaranteed and protected by Massachusetts state law. Sadly, for her, freedom wasn't much of a blessing.
She married John Peters, a free man and grocer, but the marriage was rocky as John's financial mismanagement plunged them into poverty. After John was sent to debtor's prison, Phillis took a job as a scullery maid to support herself and their sickly infant son.
The backbreaking work took a toll on her already frail health. Phillis Wheatley died of illness on December 5th, 1784, at the age of 31. Her infant son died a few hours later.
Phillis is rightfully considered the founding mother of African-American literature. As a black writer and intellectual, she disproved the racist theories used to justify slavery.
She summed up her views on slavery and race in these lines from her classic poem, 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 dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
Quote of the Day
"The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom." - Phillis Wheatley
Today's video features a complete reading of Phillis Wheatley's classic poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Enjoy!