In early May I had the opportunity to travel to Boston and while there I became intrigued by writer, Phillis Wheatley. I first saw a statue of her in the Old South Meeting House and learned that she was America’s first African American writer and poet. Her likeness is preserved at Old South because she was a member and baptized there at age 17.
Her story is a remarkable one.
Phillis Wheatley’s life began in western Africa; it is guessed that she was born in 1754. The only memory that she put in writing of her childhood in Africa is one of her mother waking to pour water before sunrise. As a small child Phillis was kidnapped, brought to America on a slave ship called The Phillis, and bought at age 7 by John Wheatley of Boston. Years later, she would capture the experience in her poem, To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth;
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 parent’s 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 tyranic sway?
She was educated by Wheatley’s oldest daughter, Mary, and learned to read in just over a year. By age 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and was said to enjoy the poetry of Alexander Pope. This was obviously an unconventional education for a slave, but also for a female. Wheatley’s academic achievements rivaled any boy her age. She wrote her first poem at age 13.
She would go on to write just over 50 poems and publish a book of poetry in London, a first for an African American. In 1775, she wrote To His Excellency General Washington. It was published by Thomas Jefferson in the Pennsylvania Gazette and Wheatley sent the poem to George Washington accompanied by this letter;
I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,
Your Excellency’s most obedient humble servant,
Washington received the letter at the height of the turbulent Revolution, and yet found the time to compose a personal response. On February 28, 1776 from his quarters at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he penned the following note;
Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands ’till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect.
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 panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour 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 favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.
I am, with great Respect
In 1772, Wheatley would go to trial to defend her literary abilities the face of those who believed a slave could not be capable of such poetic heights. She was scrutinized by the likes of John Hancock and Thomas Hutchison (then governor of Massachusetts). They concluded that the poems were most certainly from her mind and being. In the years following, her work would be cited as evidence that an African American was just as intellectually capable as any white man or woman.
Though Wheatley exalted the Revolution in her poetry, times were hard for poets. The chaotic days of war didn’t leave much time for idle thought and contemplation of even the most elegant verse. This confined Wheatley to a life of poverty even after she was freed upon the death of John Wheatley in 1778.
John Wheatley, Phillis' owner, is buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. The location of Phillis Wheatley's remains are unknown.
With health complications of her own, Phillis died at the young age of 31, followed, within a few hours, by the death of her infant daughter. The location of her remains is unknown, but her legacy is long-lasting.
In conclusion, a poem by Phillis Wheatley, America’s first African American author:
To S.M., A Young African American Painter, on Seeing His Works
To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!
Still, wondrous youth! each noble path pursue;
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire,
To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crowned with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation blessed,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chased away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landsapes in the realms above!
There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heavenly transport glow;
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes;
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on the ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.