A Woman to Know: Phillis Wheatley
Enlarge the close, contracted mind, and fill it with thy fire. — Phillis
(image via Library of Congress)
In 1761, Phillis was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery at just 8 years old, delivered to the Wheatley household in Boston. The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read and write, and introduced her to the work of John Milton, Alexander Pope and more. She began chronicling her daily life in verse and by 1771, she had written her first book of poetry. And when John Wheatley died in 1774, his final will made Phillis a free woman. She sailed to London, secured a publisher for her book and was honored internationally, even meeting Benjamin Franklin at her book party in England.
George Washington himself wrote to her in 1776, thanking her for a poem written in his honor: " However undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents."
Abolitionists distributed her poetry around the world, but after her emancipation, Phillis struggled to secure patrons for her work. After her husband, a free black grocer, was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Phillis worked tirelessly as a boarding house servant. She and her infant son died later that year — just one year after completing her final volume of poetry.
In one of her last poems, she addresses so-called Christian slave-owners:
But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind
While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace
and held in bondage Afric: the blameless race
Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers
Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.
Add to your library list:
Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro Slave of Boston (Phillis Wheatley)
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Vincent Carreta)
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Wheatley)
A Voice of Her Own (Kathryn Lasky)
Phillis Wheatley (The Poetry Foundation)
The Dinner Party: Phillis Wheatley (The Brooklyn Museum)
Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Her Poetry, Her Legacy (Smithsonian)
A look at female trailblazers (The Boston Globe)
You can't tell U.S. history without black history (The Washington Post)
Slave Poet's 1776 Letter Is For Sale (The New York Times)
A Voice of Her Own (The Library of Congress)
20 Black Women Poets to Honor Phillis Wheatley (The New York Times)
A Biography of a Genius in Bondage (The Massachusetts Historical Society)
** Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition. You can browse the archive here. **