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Poet, 1753?-1784

Phillis Wheatley was the first black literary figure of the United States. She was born in West Africa, in the area of Senegal or Gambia, sometime around 1753. Abducted when she was eight years old, Phillis was brought to North America as a slave. Her native name, which is not known, was replaced with one given her by the Boston tailor John Wheatley. Her owner soon discovered that Wheatley showed an incredible aptitude for learning, and instead of trying to crush her intelligence like most slave owners, he nurtured it. Wheatly was taught English literacy, then given a thorough education in the Classics. She quickly absorbed Latin and Greek works of literature. Converting to Christianity, she plowed through the Bible with little ado. Her greatest influence, however, was the work of English poets at the time, from the Elizabethan era to Post Restoration. Taking their lessons to heart, Wheatley began producing her own poetry, and by the age of thirteen had her first work published.

Wheatley's poetry remained only a private affair until 1770, when she composed a eulogy for the clergyman of the Anglican Church, George Whitehead. Its popularity in Boston inspired her to publish a collection for England, to which she travelled with John Wheatley's son. The idea of poetry written not only by a slave, but a woman as well was simply mind-boggling, but no one could deny her talent. The publisher had the copies signed by prominent members of the Boston community to attest that it really was Wheatly who had written the poems.

Returning to Boston, Wheatly continued to publish poetry that was widely enjoyed. When the American Revolution broke forth, her works gained a patriotic bent. In a fledgling country of little artistic achievement, Wheatley's beautiful celebrations of the cause of democracy were much appreciated. Her most famous poem of this period is a dedication to the commander of American forces, "To His Excellency, George Washington." Washington was so impressed by her work that he invited her to his headquaters, an unprecedented honor for a woman who was still in theory a slave.

After John Wheatley's death, Phillis Wheatley was given her freedom. She married another freed slave, John Peters, but the man was unable to hold a job in post-Revolution Boston and he was eventually sent to debtors' prison. To add to her hardships, Wheatley bore three children, but two died early in life. Moving on to new currents, the American public lost their infatuation with her poetry, and each newly published work fell into increasing obscurity. She died alone and impoverished in 1784.

Thompson, Eileen. The American Experience, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Literature, 1991.
Phillis Wheatley, the Early American Review - http://earlyamerica.com/review/winter96/wheatley.html
Phillis Wheatley - http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/treasures/american/wheatley.html

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