Forgotten Writers – Phillis Wheatley
Do you know who Phillis Wheatley is? If you said no, you’re far from being alone. Even a bookseller I worked with who prided himself on his black heritage didn’t know. He’s a talented artist who was making church panels of famous African Americans. I asked him if he was going to do one on Phillis Wheatley and he asked me who that was.
That’s bad because Phillis Wheatley was the first black writer to be published in America. Ever. I first came across her during last year’s writer’s block when I crafted hundreds of bookish items in my quest to keep myself busy and I was looking for old world black authors, having a hard time finding any.
Ms. Wheatley has the most unusual slavery story I’ve ever heard. She was bought by her master, John Wheatley, when she was a child and raised among his own children in Boston, Massachusetts during the mid 1700’s. Phillis was given a home and education and was taken to church by the Wheatleys who treated her like a daughter. She was fluent in Greek and Latin and read all of the ancient poets in their native languages.
Church was very influential on her and she began to write poems, all about Christianity and God. Mr. Wheatley was so impressed and moved by her work that he helped her get it published. She had an almost celebrity following and the bookstores couldn’t keep her poetry book in stock, it sold out so quickly.
Here is where her story continues to be abnormal: her life fell apart after she was freed. She had a home and comfort as part of the Wheatley family, but after her master died and she was released, tragedy followed. She married a penniless, former slave and she became pregnant as they lived on the streets of Boston, a mostly homeless existence. She was forced to work as a cleaning women, facing the sort of racism and abuse she never saw in her old home. Nothing is really known about the end of her life. Only that her children died shortly after being born and Phillis died shortly after that, on December 5, 1784. She was only 31 years old. There is no record of her burial but it was likely a mass pauper’s grave.
In the many years working at bookstores, I had heard nothing about her. Then, in 2015, there was a sudden interest in this poet. Two biographies about Phillis were published by big name publishers and a new statue was unveiled in Boston, a kind act considering there is no grave to visit. Now, I’m not saying Phillis Wheatley’s poems are my cup of tea. The ones about how grateful she was to be taken from Africa, make me cringe a little. Most of them are extremely religious (some could be regarded as sermons) but I find in them, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an unusual woman with an unusual life. She was certainly a talented, classical poet.