The Power of Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry
She used her art to quietly rebel against slavery
Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa and sold into slavery shortly after. She was taken to Boston on a ship, The Phillis, before being sold to wealthy Boston merchant who named Phillis after the ship that brought her to America.
The curious and intelligent Phillis received an education that was unheard of for a slave during those times. Inspired by British literature and the classics, Phillis began writing her own poetry by age 14. By her early 20s, Phillis, while still a slave, had become the first African American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Phillis intentionally put her portrait in her book to show readers she was African American.
Phillis was released from slavery in 1774. She married soon after and continued to write many poems but struggled to find publishers. Sadly, she fell into poverty and died of illness in 1784.
But her work made a huge impact. Wheatley used her podium to push leaders to act against slavery. George Washington, John Hancock and a number of important religious leaders read her work. So, in addition to defying the expectations forced upon her with slavery, Phillis Wheatley used her art to change hearts and minds.
Check out other stories from the past:
- Acclaimed actor Ira Aldridge
- Astronomer and abolitionist Benjamin Banneker
- Unstoppable pioneer woman Mary Fields
- Media mogul John H. Johnson