Phillis Wheatley: The Life and Legacy of the Slave Who Became Colonial America’s Most Famous Poet

Written by Charles River Editors

*Includes pictures
*Includes excerpts of Wheatley’s poetry
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

“The world is a severe schoolmaster, for its frowns are less dangerous than its smiles and flatteries, and it is a difficult task to keep in the path of wisdom.” – Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley has always been a difficult figure for people to wrap their minds around, both during her life and centuries after it. Indeed, she fits no easy stereotypes that historians or contemporaries liked to use to classify their subjects. Even her name is complicated, with her first name being spelled at times “Phyllis,” and her surname being given without the extra “e” in the final syllable. Like so much of her life, her name was not the one given to her by her parents but instead by the people who first enslaved her. In the same vein, she was married, but for such a short time that her husband’s surname never fully attached to her own.

Then there was the matter of her “career,” which has always escaped definition. In the 18th century, enslaved people were not supposed to have been educated, certainly not to the level that Wheatley was, nor were they supposed to have creative abilities beyond those taught to them by their masters. In a time and place where slaves were rarely taught to read, they were obviously not expected to write better poetry than the vast majority of their peers.

But if Wheatley refused to be placed in a box and labeled during her life, that has been even more the case after her death. Given that she was a child who was transported from Africa and raised in slavery, her poetry contains none of the sorrow or angst that modern readers would anticipate seeing. In fact, in one of her most controversial works, “On being brought from Africa to America,” she wrote:

“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 dye.’
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

This can seem disconcerting, but it is also in keeping with other Christian literature through the ages in that it points to something terrible being used by God to bring about conversion and salvation. In that sense, it is not so much a defense of slavery, as some would interpret it, as it is a glorification of grace that could overcome tragedy. Her work may also have been influenced by the fact that Wheatley’s experience of slavery was an abbreviated one, as she received her freedom upon adulthood.

In the end, Wheatley’s freedom and abilities failed to yield the benefits that she no doubt desired. Her genius stifled under the pressure to make her own way in the world, and she ultimately died a pauper, but she remains one of the most unique and celebrated figures of the 13 colonies. Phillis Wheatley: The Life and Legacy of the Slave Who Became Colonial America’s Most Famous Poet examines Wheatley’s turbulent life and career. Along with pictures depicting important people, places, and events, you will learn about Phillis Wheatley like never before.

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