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The life and times of phillis wheatley

Every week we tell about someone important in the history of the United States. This week we tell about Phillis Wheatley, the first black female poet in the United States. The girl who became known as Phillis Wheatley was born about seventeen fifty-three in Senegal, Africa. She was kidnapped and brought to the New England colonies in North America on a ship that carried slaves. The ship's name was Phillis.

The girl was between seven and eight years old. She was weak and sickly. So her price was not very high. She was sold in a slave market in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in August seventeen sixty-one.

John Wheatley, an international businessman, bought her to serve his wife, Susannah. Phillis came from a culture that was very different from that of the Wheatleys. She found the food, customs and beliefs to be new and strange.

The other slaves in the house taught her many things about America. Phillis quickly learned the rules of slavery. She learned that slaves could not beat drums because slave owners feared that secret messages were being passed to slaves on other farms. She learned that in Southern states it was a crime to teach a slave to read and write.

In Northern states in the seventeen hundreds, black slaves were treated better than they were in the Southern states. Restrictions against the education of slaves were not as severe as they were in the South. Many of the slaves in New England were even urged to learn to read, especially the Bible, the major book of the Christian religion.

Many people thought that slaves should read the Bible so they could become better believers ofthe Christian religion. Phillis Wheatley had fewer restrictions than most slaves In New England, blacks were free to meet with each other in groups. Many times male slaves were accepted as members of the community for special projects.

These included gatherings to clean corn or to build a farm house. Female slaves cooked for the groups.

Phillis Wheatley, 1753-1784: Early African-American Poet

From her earliest days as a slave, Phillis was a happy, busy person. She liked to keep busy.

  • Beginning in her early teens she wrote exceptionally mature, if conventional, verse that was stylistically influenced by Neoclassical poets such as Alexander Pope and was largely concerned with morality , piety, and freedom;
  • Phillis returned home quickly;
  • And she could read and understand difficult parts of the Bible;
  • So Phillis studied the writings of European writers;
  • Phillis was about twelve years old when she began to write poetry;
  • She relieved the child of most domestic duties and educated her, with assistance from her own daughter, Mary, in reading, writing, religion, language, literature, and history.

She especially liked to do things with her hands. She quickly learned how to clean around the Wheatley house and how to do the dishes. But her mind seemed to move even faster than her hands. She wanted to do everything. Phillis's new family had unusual beliefs for the times. John Wheatley and his wife were educated people.

Susannah Wheatley believed that all human beings, including African slaves, could learn if given the chance. She believed that all people, of any skin color, should love and respect each other. She treated Phillis more as a daughter than as a slave.

Wheatley said, "You're my black child. Wheatley observed how Phillis loved books and the care she took with them.

At times, Phillis would smell the pages of the books and hold them close to her. One day, one of the slaves in the Wheatley home found Phillis writing on the wall of Mr. Wheatley's room with a piece of coal. Phillis had been cleaning the dust from a book.

She decided to copy the letters from the cover of the book. The slave brought Mr.

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Wheatley to inspect the marks on the wall. But Susannah Wheatley did not get angry. Wheatley gave Phillis a pencil and paper and a little table on which to write. She showed the writing on the wall to her daughter Mary. Mary was as surprised as her mother at how well Phillis had copied the letters.

Mary told Phillis she would teach her to write -- on paper, not on walls. Mary Wheatley began to teach Phillis to read and write English.

She also taught Phillis the Christian religion. She learned the English alphabet in a few weeks. In a year and one-half after she arrived in America, Phillis could read English. And she could read and understand difficult parts of the Bible. Phillis loved to learn new words. She enjoyed the new feelings that went with the sounds.

She especially liked writing and creating new ways of saying things. Mary taught Phillis about writings from other countries.

Phillis Wheatley

America was a young nation. It had not yet produced writers and poets like older nations. So Phillis studied the writings of European writers.

She read and re-read the Bible. Phillis was about twelve years old when she began to write poetry. One of her earliest poems was about her religious faith. It questioned how a person could not believe in God: If ther's no heav'n, ah! Whither wilt thou go. Phillis wrote the long poem to honor a famous clergyman who had died. Wheatley's "Memoirs and Poems" was published in 1834 Phillis wrote mostly about religion and morals.

Many of her poems were created at the request of someone to honor a family member who had died. Her poems are representative of the times. They expressed common reactions to personal events such as deaths or marriages.

Or they honored public events such as battles. Phillis had an unusual life for a slave. Wheatley had stopped having Phillis do house cleaning jobs.

She made sure Phillis had time to study and to visit the family friends. But Phillis was not permitted to make friends with other uneducated slaves.

So she remained separate from both white and black worlds. While she was considered above the other black slaves, she was never considered an equal of white slave owners. One time she was invited to dinner in the home of one of Mr. The servants said that it was the first time they ever carried food to a woman with skin their color.

But Phillis usually sat at a table separate from the white people at a dinner party.

  • This story incorrectly said she had;
  • But Phillis was not permitted to make friends with other uneducated slaves.

Phillis Wheatley became famous in Europe as well as in America. She travelled to London in seventeen seventy-three and gave poetry readings there.

She was twenty years old. The writings of the young slave from Africa surprised everyone. During her visit in London, she was to have been presented to King George the third. But she received urgent news from America. Wheatley was very sick and had asked that Phillis return to Boston.

  • If ther's no heav'n, ah!
  • Learn More in these related Britannica articles;
  • She was thirty-one years old;
  • Born in Africa about 1753 and sold as a slave in Boston in 1761, Phillis was a small, sick child who caught the attention of John and Susanna Wheatley;
  • She showed the writing on the wall to her daughter Mary;
  • At the end of her life Wheatley was working as a servant, and she died in poverty.

Phillis returned home quickly. That meant she missed the publication in London of her book poems on various subjects, religious and moral. It contained thirty-eight of her poems. It was the first published book written by a black person in America. And it was only the second book written by an American woman. Newspapers in London highly praised her poems. Her book sold very well there and later in America.

Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy

Phillis Wheatley had one more brief period of being famous. In seventeen seventy-five, she wrote a poem about George Washington. He had become commander of the Colonial forces in the American revolution.