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.

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