She led a short life of spectacular tragedy, unlikely fortune, and international fame.
Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet, died at just 36 years old, but left an enduring legacy through her art.
The part of her story we know began with fear and loss when, as a 7-year-old child in 1761, she was kidnapped from her home in West Africa (probably Senegal/Gambia). History does not record the birth name of the frail child who, wrapped in a carpet, arrived in Boston on the slave ship Phillis. Too weak to work in the fields, she was sold to Susanna Wheatley, the wife of a prominent Boston tailor, John Wheatley. Susanna Wheatley, who named the child after the ship on which she was imprisoned, wanted a lady’s maid, but what she got was a prodigy, according to the Poetry Foundation.
In just over a year, the child could speak and read English and the Wheatleys, stunned at her intellect, tutored the child. Living a privileged childhood with only light household duties, she had a private room and took meals with the family, according to encyclopedia.com.
The Wheatleys were enthusiastic promoters of Phillis as she grew her literary gifts. Phillis Wheatley was just 11 when she began corresponding with preachers and friends. She was about 14 when her first poem was published, complete with classical Greek references, a sign of her fine education.
In 1773, her fame growing and the first of her books of poetry already published, she traveled to England, meeting important figures of the day. But her fortunes shifted, and five weeks after her arrival, she learned that Susanna Wheatley was gravely ill and returned to Boston. In 1774, Susanna died and Phillis Wheatley was freed. She stayed on with John Wheatley until he died in 1778.
In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a prosperous shopkeeper. Tragedy visited Phillis again when both of her children died during infancy. A third pregnancy proved fatal for both her and the child. She was 36.
Wheatley’s poetry was patriotic and topical, touching on current affairs, but also suffused with Christian themes. She also wrote of slavery and the need to recognize the dignity and humanity of African people. She was the most talented poet of the Revolutionary era, experts say. But in modern times, she has been criticized for not overtly writing about oppression.