Phillis Wheatley, one of Americas most profound writers, has contributed greatly to American literature, not only as a writer, but as an African American woman, who has influenced many African Americans by enriching their knowledge of and exposure to their Negro heritage and Negro literature. As one of Americas most renown writers, Wheatley, said to be the mother of African American Literature, is best known for her sympathetic portrayals of African American thought. Wheatleys literary contributions are vast in nature and distinguish her apart from most writers of her era. Her writings have helped in the molding of the African American tradition and are favored by people of all ethnic backgrounds.
Phillis Wheatley was born on the West coast of Africa. Her exact birthplace is unknown; however it is assumed that she was born near Senegambia, a territory that today is divided between the nation of Senegal and Gambia. Wheatleys birthplace is assumed to be near Senegambia because it was in this territory that Wheatley and others were introduced into the vile conditions of slavery. Kidnapped by slave agents at the age of seven, young Phillis had to endure the struggle to America alone. “Frail young Phillis probably survived the grim voyage to America only because she was in a loose pack. If she had been part of a tight pack she might not have survived” (Franklin, 223) Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston Massachusetts in 1761 at the age of eight. It was undoubtedly here where she was first exposed to the harsh conditions of the South. On the “stalls and auction blocks at the slave market”, a wealthy Caucasian woman, named Susannah Wheatley purchased Phillis as “her personal servant and companion” (Loggins,98). Phillis Wheatley acquired her last name from Susannah Wheatley–it was the norm during this time period for slave owners to give their slaves their last names. She was named Phillis ironically “after the ship that brought her to slavery” (Loggias, 101).
As a child, Phillis Wheatley was blessed with the gift to recite poetry. Wheatley quickly mastered the English language as well as Latin, and soon began to write verses. During this time, is was uncommon for slaves to be as literate and proficient in the English language or any other language, as Phillis Wheatley was. Wheatley not only knew how to comprehend the language, she also knew how to write the language. This accomplishment made it evident that slaves were equally as intelligent if not more than their slave owners and perfectly capable of understanding any concept. Within sixteen months of her arrival, she was reading astronomy, geography, history, and British literature. Wheatley was able to break a language barrier that had held so many others of her race back. Her desire for learning increased and the quest for knowledge became embedded in her spirit, mind, and soul. By her teenage years, Wheatley was a well known author, reciting poems for the New England elite in homes where blacks could not even sit at the table with whites.
Phillis Wheatley made many contributions to American literature. Other than successfully representing and expressing the feelings of anger, frustration, and impatience of African American people abroad, she has paved the way for young aspiring African American writers. In 1771, Wheatley composed her first major work, “On an elegy to evangelist George Whitefield.” After realizing Wheatleys potential for excellence, Susannah Wheatley arranged a London publication of Wheatleys poems. As a result of this, prominent Bostonians verified the books author as being Black. Britons praised the book, but criticized Americans for keeping its author enslaved. At this time, Americans were only interested in benefiting White America, and were not prepared for the fact that Britons would criticize their slave policy. In 1774, she wrote a letter repudiating slavery, which was reprinted and distributed throughout New England. The fact that she was able to publicly denounce slavery is evidence of influential voice as an African American during this time. In 1775, Wheatley wrote “Reply” which was the first recorded celebration of African American Heritage by an African American. Wheatleys popularity among the elite of Massachusetts grew rapidly.
As the first African American to compose a book of imaginative writing, Wheatley is the originator of the African American literary tradition and also of the African American womens tradition. Wheatley combined the influences of religion and neo-classicism in her poems. She articulated the theme of freedom in many of her works. For instance, Phillis Wheatley made political comments supporting American freedom from Britain. Her numerous elegies suggest a conscious poetic escape from slavery. She celebrates death and the rewards and freedom of an afterlife. Wheatley used poetry to escape to a world of imagination, but never neglected to reveal the factual plight of her people.
“Phillis Wheatley had only to look out her front door to see the impeding conflict of her society coming closer by the day” (Richmond, 13). Phillis Wheatleys political poetry has been widely ignored, but she lived in Boston and was witness to the events leading to the Revolution. The conflicts of society inspired Phillis Wheatley to compose poems on the tragic events she witnessed. Such historic instances, as Crispus Attucks involvement in the Boston Massacre, influenced Wheatleys poetry. In Wheatleys poem entitled, “On the Affray in King Street on the Evening of the 5th of March 1770,” she eludes to the events leading up to the death of Attucks, the first African American to die in the Boston Massacre.
I admire the work of Phillis Wheatley. Her poetry illustrates the humbleness, dedication, and perseverance that is characteristic of many African American women. It also characterizes the state of America during slavery and during a time when so many African American women, men, and children were robbed of their dignity and their pride. Her contributions to American literature concerning the war and slavery have made it evident that she has successfully represented the feelings of anger, frustration, and impatience of African Americans during that era. She has made clear to us all her feelings concerning the plight of the African American people as well as her belief that the African American people have suffered critical setbacks in their quest for equality. Critic Sherley Anne Williams stated in Black World that “her fidelity to diction, metaphor, and syntax–whether in direct quotations or in paraphrases of Black Americas thoughts…rings, even across two centuries, with an aching familiarity that is testament to her skill, to the durability of Black speech and to Black America” (199).
When I think of Phillis Wheatley I can not help but to think of all of the strong African American women I grew up around as a child in the rural South. Though my Great-Grandmother, Grandmother and my mother, as well as most of my Great-aunts and Aunts were either mildly literate or not literate at all, I can remember seeing in them the same charisma and determination that many must have seen in Phillis Wheatley. Growing up around these women, I have always known about the strong women of our past. My Great-Grandmother practically raised me on the stories of the slave trade. She told me of women such Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ellen Craft and Phillis Wheatley. These women embodied what all other African American women of that era did: They were strong, they took matters into their own hands, and they were very successful.
When I look at myself on this very day and at this very point in my life, I see a little of Phillis Wheatleys strength and thirst for knowledge in me. Because of the accomplishments of women like her and faith in my Creator, I am able to return to school and work towards a degree. Phillis Wheatley has not only touched me, but many of the other strong African American women of my era: People like Rosa Parks and Dr. Mary McLeod-Bethune, who paved the way for other African American women such as Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Angela Davis. Undoubtedly, Ms. Wheatley has contributed to the lives of Maya Angelou, Zora Neal Hurston, and Coretta Scott King. The women of my time were just as strong as those of Phillis Wheatleys, but without her, one can not help but wonder what might have become of us.
Phillis Wheatley is an important figure in both American and African American History. She succeeded during a time when the color of ones skin determined whether or not a person lived or died, worked or over-saw, was published or remained unheard. When color mattered so much, and was the determining and dominating factor as to how one was perceived, Phillis Wheatley did not let hers hold her back. In fact, she used it to her advantage as she sent her works to the East, where ones talent outweighed their complexion. She proved to White America that African Americans, if given the opportunity, are capable of not only learning the art of reading and writing, but of mastering it and becoming famous and successful while doing it.
Phillis Wheatley received her freedom and married a Black man in 1778 but, despite her skills, was unable to support her family. Though she obtained her freedom, she still lived in a society where her gender and the color of her skin still mattered. To Phillis Wheatley, her “supposed freedom probably tasted nothing at all like freedom” (Williams, 180). She died in complete poverty, though subsequent generations would pick up where she left off. She was the first African American writer of consequence in America; and her life was an inspiring example to future generations of African Americans. The literature written by Phillis Wheatley helped in letting the world know of the atrocities that occurred in America. Her literature let the world know that she was a poet. In that way, Phillis Wheatley rose above the stipulations put upon slavery to a mock-freedom and from this mock-freedom to the forefront of American Literature.