Literary icon Phillis Wheatley

Literary icon Phillis Wheatley

This is a statue of literary icon Phillis Wheatley, who gained international fame for her book, “Poems on Various Subjects.” Phillis was born in 1753 in West Africa [present-day Gambia or Senegal], was kidnapped and enslaved at 7 or 8 years old, and died in 1784 in Boston.

She got her surname from John Wheatley, the man who purchased her for his wife Susanna. Phillis was the name of the ship that brought her from Africa. The Wheatley’s children introduced her to writing letters with chalk. In less than two years, she had mastered reading and writing, and by age 12 she was reading works in Greek and Latin. As a young teenager, Phillis’ first published poem appeared in the Newport Mercury, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”.

Phillis Wheatley’s most famous poem

She was required to prove that she was indeed the author of her book of poems by a group of men, which included John Hancock and the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. In 1773, at the age of 20, Phillis accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley to London in part for her health (she suffered from chronic asthma), but largely because Susanna believed Phillis would have a better chance of publishing her book of poems there. After her book was published, by November 1773, the Wheatleys emancipated Phillis.

Her former enslaver Susanna died in the spring of 1774, and John in 1778. Shortly after, Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free black grocer. They lived in poor conditions and two of their babies died. John was improvident and was imprisoned for debt in 1784. With a sickly infant son to provide for, Phillis became a scullery maid at a boarding house, work she had not done before. She died at the age of 31. Her infant son died soon after.

– Britannica; 11 Things You Should Know about Phillis Wheatley [Historic Boston Incorporated]; and Wikipedia

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