Poetry Spotlight: Phillis Wheatley

In which I return to a childhood heroine

Happy February, all. My American readers will know that this month is Black History Month. I’m going to be spotlighting a few important figures, some of whom I’ve admired for years and others of whom I’ve only just learned abut recently. Also, they’re all going to be women, because Black women are a generally neglected cross-section of the demographic, and as a woman myself I want to do what I can to uplift them and their achievements.

To start us off, fittingly, is the poet who started America off. I was familiar with Phillis Wheatley for quite a while before it occurred to me to openly recommend her work, which began when my fifth-grade class was searching for a new group reading-time text. She is one of the first writers I remember telling other people they should read.

And, if I do say so myself, I had good reason. Wheatley was the first African-American writer to publish a book of poetry. She was born circa 1753 and sold into slavery at age seven or eight, eventually arriving at the Boston home of John and Susanna Wheatley, who named her for the slave ship that had transported her. She was tutored in reading and writing by the entire Wheatley family, first in English and then in Latin, and by age fourteen she was reading  and imitating some of the most renowned poets of both traditions: Pope and Milton in the former, Vergil and Horace in the latter.

That same year she composed “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (that is, Harvard), and the Wheatleys decided to go all in on her education. She accompanied their son Nathaniel to London in the summer of 1773, when she was about twenty years old. The Wheatleys’ prediction that she was more likely to be published in England than in the colonies turned out to be correct. The Countess of Huntingdon financed the publication of Phillis’s first volume of poetry without ever meeting her. She was supposed to have an audience with George III, but it never came to fruition (he was maybe preoccupied with the Beatles?). As for the rest of the London literati, she won them over with ease, and her volume appeared in a matter of weeks. (Remember Washington Irving? Well, Phillis did it first!)

Her poems were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic by the time she sailed back to Boston. The Wheatleys emancipated her, and she became the coveted guests of such illustrious folk as George Washington himself; but no matter to whom she wrote, or how eloquently, on the inherent evils of the slave trade and the inherent rights of Black human beings, the message was not ready to be received. After marrying a free Black grocer named John Peters, she was forced to go to work for a second source of income, which mostly involved household duties that she had never had to do before. She died in the winter of 1784, aged thirty-one, with her work little remembered.

I am fascinated by stories of creators who achieve acclaim in their fields and then are largely forgotten by the time of their deaths. In Phillis Wheatley’s case, I think it has also to do with the adage about the white establishment loving Black culture but not Black people: there was a readership eager to embrace her paeans to institutions of higher education or to the heroes of the Revolution but equally willing to withdraw their support the moment she used her platform to address the issues that mattered to her and a major portion of the population of the colonies. Many, many writers would follow the blueprint she laid, with astonishingly similar results, over subsequent centuries.

For my part, Wheatley helped me teach a grown woman and a bunch of ten-year-olds about the fancy s that looked like an f. If that’s my best hope of spreading the gospel of Phillis, I’ve got no plans to rest.

Image: portrait attributed to Scipio Moorhead

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer-editor based in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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