Phillis accepted Washington’s invitation, arriving in Cambridge in March of 1776. Washington asked her to recite some her of other poems for the soldiers, but not his poem for obvious reasons. A month after her visit, Thomas Paine published the Washington poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette. (see ) Despite the publicity, Phillis found it more and more difficult to make a living as a poet during wartime.
Phillis continued to write and remained with the Wheatley's until the deaths of John Wheatley and his daughter, Mary, in 1778. By this point, Phillis obtained her freedom and was left on her own as Nathaniel had married and moved to England. With her family gone and prospects for a young, single Negro woman slim, the 25-year-old married John Peters, a free black man, against the advice of her friends.
Despite being a local merchant, Peters struggled providing for the couple as they lived in poverty. Phillis attempted to publish a second book of 39 poems, yet with the struggles of war, Phillis was unable to garner the patronage needed for its printing. However, she managed to publish a few poems as pamphlets.
Three primary themes appeared throughout her writings: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. She boldly professed her new faith in Christ, which she found in America along with her knowledge of Greek and Roman principles. Yet, she preserved her African culture and parents’ worship of sun gods within her poems, using their god’s names and mentions of “light” throughout her work.
Phillis and Peters had two children that died in infancy and in 1784, Peters was imprisoned for his debts, leaving Phillis and their third infant child, a sickly son, to fend for themselves. Phillis obtained a job as a scullery maid at a boarding house. Ironically, Phillis worked harder domestically as a free woman than she ever did as Wheatley's slave. This was most certainly a highly unique situation at the time. Her illness took a strain on her body, and on December 5, 1784, Phillis passed away at age 31 with her last child dying just hours after her.
As the abolitionist movement gained momentum at the turn of the century, supporters argued that Negros were just as intelligent, competent, and capable as any white person. During the 1820 Missouri Compromise discussions in Congress, they held as examples the exemplary accomplishments of Phillis Wheatley, Wentworth Cheswell (see ), and Benjamin Banneker (see ), among others.
Liberty, when I was in 5th grade, I did a report on Phillis Wheatley. Unfortunately, over the past 30-35 years, the education system has been horribly affected by progressivism. Their agenda is to destroy America, annihilating her roots so they can rebuild the country in their socialist/communist Utopia. To do this, all stories of Negros defying the odds, especially in early times, are ignored.
While I in no way want to diminish or ignore what happened to Africans due to slavery, Americans need to realize that is not the whole story. I want to celebrate those that laid the path for freedom, liberty, and equality despite the hardships and obstacles. Free blacks before the Civil War are rarely if ever discussed because it damages the narrative that all Africans were slaves in America. The fact that the first official slave owner in the colonies was black has been ripped from all history books as that reality would be devastating to the indoctrination. (see)
Therefore, Liberty, continue to learn and share these stores of brave, patriot Americans that deserve a place in the fabrics of our country along with the likes of our Founding Fathers. They are as much a part of our history and foundations as anyone else.
Unfortunately, Phillis did not benefit from her efforts. Yet the generations that followed were blessed from her work as it proved the only difference between the colonists and the Africans was the color of their skin. So as you travel through life, realize you many never reap what you have sown, but know God will bring harvesters after you that will receive the rewards of your labor.
That’s my 2 cents.
"I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric [lofty praise], the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents. In honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem had I not been apprehensive that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations." George Washington to Phillis Wheatley
During this time, America was experiencing the (First) Great Awakening, led by preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg (see ), and George Whitefield. (see ) Millions were brought to Christ along with Phillis. When Whitefield died in 1770, Phillis wrote, “On the Death of the Rev. George Whitefield.” Due to Whitefield’s notoriety throughout England and American, the poem launched her into the public consciousness in both the New World and the Old as it was published in Boston, Philadelphia, Newport, and eventually London.
With the widespread interest in her poetry, Susanna Wheatley helped Phillis promote a collection of 28 poems in 1772. Several advertisements in newspapers failed to generate the monetary support needed to publish the book. Many doubted a Negro girl could write such literature. As a result, Phillis was forced to defend herself in court over their authenticity. This led to her obtaining a preface for her book signed by 17 leading Bostonians, including John Hancock (see ), Governor Thomas Hutchinson (see ), Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver (see ), and John Wheatley, declaring the legitimacy of Phillis’ authorship. Other leading citizens, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, became admirers as well. (see )
Unwilling to give up, Mrs. Wheatley contacted Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and parishioner of Whitefield, for help. Wheatley forwarded a copy of Phillis’ eulogy to Hastings, which references the Countess. Hastings not only sent the poem to London papers, which printed it several times, she agreed to fund Phillis’ book.
As Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, planned a business trip to England, arrangements were also made for Phillis to accompany him so as to receive treatment for her chronic asthma. They left in May of 1773 and spent the summer overseas. While she was unable to personally meet Hastings, Phillis was introduced to distinguished Philadelphian and statesman Benjamin Franklin. A close Whitefield friend, Franklin quickly took an interest in Phillis and her work and presented her around town. On September 1, Phillis’ first and only book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published. That same month, word of Mrs. Wheatley’s failing health prompted Phillis to return to the New World immediately. An audience with King George III had also been arranged, but the meeting never occurred due to her unexpected and quick departure.
Phillis’ book received four reprints in London and was made available in the colonies in 1774. However, an American version was not printed until 1786, over a year after her death. Yet, by the end of the century, seven editions were printed. Regardless, her book placed her in history as the first African-American woman to publish a book and work as a poetess.
Shortly after Phillis’ return from England, the Sons of Liberty, led by Samual Adams, sent Parliament a message regarding their taxes against the colonists. (see ) Adams and his men dumped 340 chests of tea into the harbor on December 16, known as the Boston Tea Party. (see ) Despite her earlier support for the king, Phillis soon garnered sympathy for the colonists which eventually revealed itself in her later writings.
Mrs. Wheatley passed on March 3, 1774. A year later, the colonists found themselves at war with the British. (see ) With the country now deep in the Revolutionary War, Phillis found herself producing works from the perspective of the colonists. She composed multiple poems about General George Washington, Continental Army commander. After forwarding him “To His Excellency, George Washington” in 1775, the general invited Phillis to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to meet him. Impressed and honored by her words, Washington considered publishing it. Yet he reconsidered, concerned it would appear he promoted the poem, not because of its elegance and beauty, but because of the subject matter.
Decemeber 5, 2018
Phillis rubbed her eyes as she climbed out of bed. Unable to sleep, words swirl in her head. She lit her lantern, grabbing her paper and quill pen. Then the words danced and flowed and swirled again.
While just a child of about seven years old, a little girl was either kidnapped or sold by a local chief to slave traders in West Africa. Brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on the boat The Phillis, she was sold to the local tailor and wealthy merchant, John Wheatley, on July 11, 1761. He purchased the young girl for his wife Susanna, despite her being a sickly child with asthma. Naming her after the ship she arrived on, Phillis, the Wheatley’s also gave her their last name, which was common practice at the time. (see )
The family quickly noticed Phillis’ potential. Uncommon at that time, their 18-year-old daughter, Mary, began tutoring Phillis in reading and writing, using the Bible as their textbook. Phillis graduated to Greek, Latin, and theology by age 12, before advancing to ancient history, astronomy, modern geography, and mythology. Soon after, Phillis wrote her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New England,” espousing Christianity and redemption through Jesus’ blood to Harvard College students. (see )
“…Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav'n,
How Jesus' blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands out–stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall'n,
He deign'd to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,..”
This was not her first published poem, however. Phillis wrote “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”, regarding the near drowning of two men. Mercury Newport published the work on December 21, 1767, introducing Phillis to the world.
Recognizing her exceptional intellect and talent, the Wheatley’s relieved Phillis of her domestic duties. Encouraging her with her studies, they treated her more as a daughter than a slave. When the Wheatley’s received prominent visitors, Phillis socialized with the guests as part of the family as her poems gained recognition within local circles.
Over the next few years, Phillis composed over two dozen poems, including “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” praising King George III for repealing the Stamp Act in 1768. The same year she wrote her best known poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which both celebrated her captivity for introducing her to Christ, while rebuking Christians who didn’t accept Negros into the faith. It would be her only poem that referenced slavery.
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.