Phyllis Wheatley - Biography



Phyllis Wheatley

Born on the 5th of December – 1753, time stands witness to a great African American poetess, who set new milestones regarding literatures and arts. Her name was Phyllis Wheatley (in some circles, she’s known as Phillis Wheatley). The bizarre thing about this woman is that her second name is taken from those who enslaved her, and her first name was probably taken from the ship that she arrived in. Unlike other “masters”, the Wheatleys were a little kind on Phyllis. Even though, they did have her working for them day-in – day-out, Phyllis was exposed to education and literacy, just like any other child deserved.

This is her biography, aimed at those who have lost contact with the poets and poetesses of the African American nation.

Phyllis Wheatley Biography – Introduction:

As mentioned above, Ms. Phyllis was enslaved at the mere age of 8. Back in the 1700’s, slaves were treated as a vanity item. Rich people, especially White folks, would buy them as they pleased. Lucky for Phyllis, she was bought by the Wheatley family.

The subject of Phyllis’s origins is a little shady. To put it in a nutshell, many people are not aware of her exact date, place and year of birth. Based on her poetry and general publication dates, readers and biographers have derived a rough idea regarding her D.O.B and such issues. Hence it’d be safe to say that Phyllis Wheatley was born in a nomadic area of West Africa – Gambia.

Between the years of 1761 – 1762, on July 11th, she was brought to Massachusetts on a slave ship. The ship was known as “The Phyllis / Phillis”; it belonged to a guy named Timothy Finch. By the time, the ship hit the trade posts, our young Ms. Phyllis was only 8 years old. She was bought by a Tailor and a part time merchant, known as John Wheatley.

John’s intentions weren’t sadistic; he needed the girl to carry out house errands and to run chores for his wife, Susana Wheatley. It was then that the “elders” named the girl, “Phyllis Wheatley”. The Wheatleys were a nice couple and as per their work ethics and moralities, Phyllis was exposed to a quality education. The little girl was personally taught by the couple’s 18 year old daughter – Mary Wheatley.

Early Education:

Based on Wheatley family’s open mindedness, Phyllis was never pressurized that much for house work. Or in other words, she was never pressed on for carrying out errands because her mental capabilities and learning curve were far better than other slaves in the family. At 12 years of age , she was already proficient in Greek and Latin languages. She could orate complicated passages from the Bible and was already taking courses in classic literature.

Her literary abilities were amazing, which is why, she was made a strong part of the family. The other slaves were assigned to make do with the laborious tasks, but not Phyllis… at least not with the same level of intensity anymore.

Poetry and Influences:

Phyllis was greatly inspired by famous writers and poets, such as John Milton, Virgil, Horace, and Alexander Pope. Such great intellectual giants convinced her to fall in love with the realm of poetry. In 1767, there used to be a newspaper, known as “Newport Mercury”. They published Ms. Phyllis’s first poem on December 21; it was titled: “On Messrs.’ Hussey and Coffin”.

“Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? Or did Consideration bow?"

To any untamed eye, the above verses will truly seem like an impressive work of poetry. However, most of the publisher in those days, refused to even consider reading “On Messrs.’ Hussey and Coffin”. If it weren’t for the influence and connections of John and Susana Wheatley, Phyllis’s poetry may not have made it to the papers at all.

The poem was just the beginning of what began to define the scope of Ms. Wheatley’s work. Soon enough, she was combining Classical allusions, Christian pieties, death, friendship, affiliation, love and life of a slave. Several years later, Ms. Phyllis wrote an elegy that was based on the funeral theme. It was addressed to the countess of Huntington, after the passing of her Chaplain, Reverend George Whitefield. This elegy was published in Boston and some well-known regions of the U.K. Needless to say, the poetess’s fame and popularity instantly grew to an exponential degree.

In 1753, David Hume made the following statement, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion other than white”. His “perspective” immediately brought upon a wave of rebellious protests from the Black authors within America.

The U.S., in those times, wasn’t too keen on printing anything that was written by a darker fellow citizen. Ms. Phyllis Wheatley, just like her fellow beings, was also treated the same way. Her poetry didn’t make it to the American shores, but all thanks to Susana Wheatley, the poems started getting respect and fair treatment in the U.K.

By May 8 – 1773, Phyllis was going through respiratory problems. These health constraints, alongside her poetry based objectives, made her go to England. As much as the English air suited her lungs, she also used the opportunity to market her work. The trip went way beyond successful parameters, because Ms. Phyllis was finally able to get her book: “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, published.

It was an unusual book because it opened up with a moving attestation. Written in the foreword section, it was written that the book was a work of a slave girl. The attestation was signed by John and Susan Wheatley, the Governor of England and different judges in the court of the English Law. Life in England didn’t last long because Phyllis had to go back to Ms. Wheatley. The old woman’s health was declining at a constant pace.

Marriage and Tragic Demise:

In 1778, Mr. John Wheatley passed away. According to his last will, Phyllis was free to go. Later on she got married to a free black man: John Peters. History, at this point, doesn’t have a lot of details about the whereabouts of Peters. No one exactly knows about his level of achievements, his capabilities of supporting the family and education level.

Just because Phyllis Wheatley’s life didn’t turn out to be so good, to this date, John Peters’ influence on her life is still questioned. By 1784, this couple had already lost three kids, while the 4th one was already drastically sick.

Fate didn’t favor Phyllis well, because she was unable to get her poetry published. It’s sad to know that she had to go back to where she started from. A house maid’s position was in store for her, despite of her literary proficiency and recent achievements.

Phyllis Wheatley died on December 5th – 1784. At the time of her death, she was alone in Boston Massachusetts.