Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first African-American poet to be published in English. Her work was well known in England and Europe, as well as in America, and was praised by George Washington and Voltaire, among many others. You can read the official stories everywhere from Wikipedia to the Poetry Foundation, which describes her this way: “[p]ampered in the household of prominent Boston commercialist John Wheatley, lionized in New England and England… and paraded before the new republic’s political leadership and the old empire’s aristocracy, Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual. Her name was a household word among literate colonists and her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.”
Here is how I would tell her story. A child was playing near her home in Africa when she was kidnapped by slavers. She was probably seven or eight, old enough to remember everything (the year given above is a guess). Her real name isn’t recorded it, though she must have known it. When she arrived in America on a slave ship named the Phillis, alone and ill, she was bought—not adopted, bought—by a rich Bostonian for his wife, who needed a household servant. They named her for the ship and themselves. When they realized how bright she was, they educated her—I suppose that is the pampered part—and showed off her talents to others, all amazed that a black child could read and write.
Her poems were especially lauded for their classical references and technical skill. I find them incredibly well crafted, but seldom moving. She writes mostly what she’s been taught, as in this poem:
ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
There’s some assertiveness here: we blacks have as much right to be Christian as you whites do. But that seems like a small victory. Here’s the one passage that seems to me to speak the truth of her real feelings. I’m just sorry there isn’t much more like this, from “The Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth”:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
What of her family? What of her own memories of her life and her abduction? We can only imagine. I think of it as a bleak life made bearable by poetry. I’ll leave it to you to read about her life’s sad last years.
I have been reading her poetry lately and thinking about how she buried some of her pain, it hurt to read how much she seemed brainwashed. And I think about how her book was published in London, not America.