Phillis Wheatley holds the distinction of being the first published female African poet in the American colonies. Her story is a dizzying tale of enslavement, achievement and the unpredictable nature of life and talent.
It’s nearly impossible to do her justice in poetic form. While her life seems a lesson in the righteous power of the human spirit, her story is rife with irony, which makes it exceedingly difficult to honor.
Though born in West Africa, (either Senegal or Gambia) she was kidnapped, transported to the colonies and sold into slavery at 8 years old. By all accounts she was treated *kind* and given an education well beyond what most men and women (white or otherwise) received at the time. While developing her talents she embraced Christian dogma and the societal conditioning of colonial life, going so far as to decry the “pagan” nature of her homeland.
Her major work, Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), was published prior to both the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the commencement of the Revolutionary War, putting her at the vanguard of a movement of independence that would offer no immediate relief to those in her position. She corresponded with George Washington at the start of the Revolution (he rather obnoxiously referred to himself as her ‘obedient humble servant’) and was remarked upon by Voltaire in European literary circles.
Wheatley eventually tasted freedom upon the death of her master after which she married a free black northerner. The couple had three children in all, two of which predeceased her, the third died only a few short hours after Wheatley herself, in 1784. Unfortunately, her husband had not the ability nor financial wherewithal to grieve her properly. At the time of her death at age 31, he was serving out a sentence in debtor’s prison.
I wrote the piece below in an effort to explore Wheatley’s life with its many tragedies and triumphs. I don’t pretend the piece is fully reflective of the woman — no one poem can ever do justice do someone whose life was so complex and so curious. I do hope, however, that the work serves as an homage to her many struggles and successes and brings to light some of the complexities of a woman history all too often neglects.
**Author’s apology — please excuse the .jpg formatting of the poem. Due to its length and style I found myself unable to post it directly in my blog. Hopefully the image form will not dissuade otherwise curious readers. I believe the read is worth it.