Phyllis Wheatley: Unheralded Black Poet and African-American Hero
We celebrate Black History Month this week recognizing some of America’s overlooked Black historical heroes, whose contributions to the political, cultural, and economic struggles have made enormous impacts on us all. This week, we remember the poet Phillis Wheatley.
Before there was Amanda Gorman, there was Maya Angelou. Before there was Maya Angelou, there was Gwendolyn Brooks. And before there was Gwendolyn Brooks, there was Phyllis Wheatley.
Born in 1753 in West Africa, Wheatley was enslaved by a wealthy Boston merchant family, where she lived until she turned 20. In 1773, her first book of poetry was published in London, making her not only one of the first professional woman poets in America but the first African-American woman whose writings were published.
In spite of her extraordinary literary achievements, which were recognized even in her own time by figures such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, Wheatley’s life was defined by the racist slavery system that fettered her intellectually as well as physically, and limited the scope of her work along with her abilities. Even as her name became a household word for the literate elite among the colonists and her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement, she still fell into poverty after she was freed, precipitated when her husband, a free Black man who provided legal services and owned a grocery store, was arrested and interned in a debtor’s prison at the age of 31.
Wheatley’s collected works, which comprise 145 poems, is an early example of an independent American literary tradition, one driven by new ideals from the customs of the Old World and indelibly marked by the legacy of slavery. That one of the founding members of this school of thought, which professed to uphold freedom and liberty, was herself enslaved was an irony not lost on her contemporaries. Further evidence of her bravery and heroism have only recently been unearthed, when historians have discovered poems of hers previously believed lost that highlight her connection to 18th-century Black abolitionists.