Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was the first African American female poet to be published. She was born in West Africa, sold into slavery and transported to Boston when she was 7 or 8, purchased by the Wheatley family, who taught her to read and encouraged her talent for writing. Interestingly, she published her poetry collection in 1773, three years before she was freed from slavery.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame in the American colonies and England. George Washington, among others, praised her work. Wheatley was emancipated from slavery after her owner, John Wheatley died, but tragedy ensued. She married soon after, had three infants, two of whom died. After her husband was jailed for outstanding debts in 1784, she fell ill and died at the age of 31, followed immediately by her infant son.
Wheatley's lost poem about the Boston Massacre is discussed at The American Literary Blog. The following is a Copy of a LETTER sent by the Author's Master to the Publisher.
PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between seven and eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.
As to her WRITING, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a Time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a Letter to the Rev. Mr. OCCOM, the Indian Minister, while in England.
She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin Tongue, and has made some Progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.
Boston, Nov. 14, 1772.
We feature Wheatley's work in our African American Library