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Phillis Wheatley, America's First Published Black Poet

 

Phyllis Wheatley lived a remarkable life filled with triumph over adversity. She was the first African-American poet to be published in the New World and the first black woman to become a household name in the fledgling United States, but she had to prove herself over and over again, even in a court of law.

Becoming Philis

Wheatley was only seven in 1761 when she was kidnapped from her home in Senegal, forced on the slave ship The Phyllis, and sold to John Wheatley to become his wife's personal slave. They named him after the ship that took him, and Little Phyllis quickly learned English and got used to his new reality as a slave.

John and Susannah Wheatley valued education for all people and recognized Phyllis's potential. They also spared his household chores so that he could devote more time to his studies. His daughter, Mary, became Phyllis's first teacher, teaching him to read and write. Phyllis proved to be a gifted student, mastering arithmetic, astronomy, Greek and Latin, but where he shone brightest was in poetry.


Poetic Justice

Inspired by the works of classic authors such as Homer, Virgil and John Milton, Philip Wheatley began writing poetry as a teenager. The Wheatley loved to show how brilliant she was, and John Wheatley became her unofficial literary agent. Newport Mercury published her first poem, a piece she wrote when she was just 13 years old, in 1767, and within six years, she published her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

His poems made him famous in the colonies, but the attention he earned also caused trouble. Many critics in and around Boston refused to believe that a young slave girl could write such excellent poems. Wheatley was actually put on trial in 1772 for the suspected crime of impersonating a poet, interrogated and put on trial until his accusers were satisfied that he was in fact a sensible, considerate person. was a person.

Although the institution lasted for another century, the trial of Phyllis Wheatley made the first significant dent in the belief of the American slave-owning class that people of African descent were less intelligent and better served as slaves. The next year, Wheatley freed Phyllis, who a few years later settled with another free black man, but happily, this was not the case. Despite being the most famous black American at the time, Philip and his family were poor and ill, and he fought for the next 10 years to provide for his children and keep them alive. Unfortunately, all three of them died, as did he in 1784 at the age of only 31.

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