Several years ago in a biography of preacher and evangelist Jonathan Edwards, I read the name of “slave poet” Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784). Wheatley wrote an elegy (poem on the occasion of one’s death) for George Whitefield, one of Jonathan Edwards’ dear friends. Whitefield and Edwards were pillars of the Great Awakening that swept the world from England to the United States in the 1700’s and Wheatley had been greatly affected by the move of God in her own life. In fact, much of her strong Christian faith shows up in her poems, which I soon found out when I went looking.
What’s astonishing to me is the language and voice of Wheatley’s work. She was brought to America from Senegal/Gambia at the age of 7 and purchased by a family in Boston to purportedly “accompany the family’s children and share in domestic work.” As a result, she inadvertently was taught to read and write, receiving a stellar classical education alongside the children, something unheard for a slave. She read widely the literature and early works of Virgil and Ovid, John Milton and Shakespeare, and the style of her writing reflects this classical immersion.
The more I read the more surprised I was, assuming that all African slaves in the 1700’s were illtreated and illiterate. Thanks to my Sophomore English teacher, Dr. Kehl, I learned to love the language and style of Shakespeare’s writing (though I often needed assistance in deciphering his meaning.) When I first became a Christian I enjoyed the King James Version of the Bible for just that reason. Reading Wheatley’s poetry was like reading Shakespeare and I was drawn in.
Thanks to her owners and their wide circles in Boston society Wheatley’s work was known and shared widely in Boston and across the Atlantic. Her first published poem was printed when she was only 13 and she went on to write many, many more. Mary Wheatley, Phillis’ benefactress, saw to it that bookseller Archibald Bell begin to circulate Phillis’ work, and the debut edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773. Poems on Various Subjects was the first volume of poetry by an American Negro published in modern times. Its readers included notables like Benjamin Franklin, among others and was well received and widely supported.