1753 – December 5, 1784
Born about 1753 in West Africa,maybe Senegambia and was kidnapped in 1761 and taken to America on a slave ship called "Phillis" (from which she took her name). She was purchased in Boston by John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant. Wheatley and his wife Susanna instructed the young girl and encouraged her education, including study of Latin and history. She was tutored by the Wheatleys’ son, Nathaniel , in English, Latin, history, geography, religion, and the Bible. She was baptized a Christian at Old South Meeting House.
Wheatley’s popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately gained her freedom on October 18, 1773. She appeared before General George Washington at a poetry reading in March, 1776. She was a strong supporter of American independence, reflected in both poems and plays she wrote during the Revolutionary War.
She married a free black grocer named John Peters; they had two children who died as infants. Wheatley's husband abandoned her in 1784, when she was pregnant again. She struggled to support herself and had completed a second volume of poetry, but no publisher seemed interested in it.
Phillis Wheatley died from complications of childbirth at the age of 31. Her newborn infant died several hours later. By then she was living in a boarding house in poverty.
In 1768, Wheatley wrote "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty" in which she praised George III for repealing the Stamp Act. However, as the American Revolution gained strength, Wheatley's writing turned to themes from the point of view of the colonists.
In 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim. Wheatley's poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. One of the few which refers to slavery is "On being brought from Africa to America":
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Most of this refers to how she was enlightened to God and how anyone can do it.
Many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that an African woman could write poetry, and Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.
Through her poetry, Wheatley is credited with helping found African American literature.
In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. Hammon never mentions himself in the poem, but it appears that in choosing Wheatley as a subject, he was acknowledging their common bond.
Wheatley wrote in the formal poetic style that was popular in her time, often focusing on moral and religious subjects.