250 years ago in the spring of 1773 Phillis Wheatley traveled from America to England to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, making her the first published African-American poet and the first published African-American female writer.
Phillis Wheatley’s life began in West Africa. Taken from her home on a slave ship when she was only 7, she was bought by the affluent and well-connected Wheatley family of Boston. The young girl looked so pitiful and so sickly and was “uncommonly intelligent,” so Mrs. Wheatley educated Phillis and had her work inside the house. She was further separated from other slaves because the Wheatleys didn’t let her associate with them. Phillis Wheatley was between two worlds, belonging to neither. This was made even more apparent when Phillis was not named in Mr. Wheatley’s will. Yet, through the Wheatleys she had met Benjamin Franklin, attended balls, written and published poetry. One poem, dedicated to George Washington, elicited a note from Washington who said he’d visit if he came to Boston. When Washington was in Boston, he sent soldiers to get her and was surprised to discover the poet was a black woman. And he might have been surprised to learn that although Ms. Wheatley was smart and educated and talented, with connections and published works, Phillis died at 31 in poverty in a boarding house with little heat. He would probably not be surprised that her words live on.
The world would be less beautiful, less inspired, without Phillis Wheatley. Dr. Daisy Century, also a published author, portrays this talented poet with respect and flair.
This program is sponsored by the Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage Association as part of the series “Early Black American Women in Words” and proudly supported by NJCH.