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Phillis Wheatley: An African American Poet

Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753 – December 5, 1784) was a pioneering African American poet and the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. She was an important figure in American literature and the abolitionist movement, known for her remarkable achievements despite the severe limitations imposed by slavery.

Early Life

  • Birth and Enslavement: Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in West Africa, likely in present-day Senegal or Gambia. She was captured and sold into slavery as a child, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1761.

  • Wheatley Family: She was purchased by John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant, for his wife, Susanna. The Wheatleys named her Phillis after the ship that brought her to America. Recognizing her intellectual potential, the Wheatleys provided her with an education, unusual for an enslaved person at that time.

Literary Achievements

  • Early Poetry: By the age of 12, Phillis was reading classical and contemporary works in Latin and English. She began writing poetry, influenced by her readings and the world around her.

  • Publication of Poems: In 1773, at the age of 20, Wheatley's collection, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," was published in London. This was the first book of poetry published by an African American woman. Her poems often addressed themes of religion, morality, and freedom.

Notable Works and Themes

  • “On Being Brought from Africa to America”: One of her most famous poems, it reflects on her journey from Africa to America and her conversion to Christianity.

  • Political and Social Commentary: Wheatley's poems also engaged with contemporary political issues. For instance, she wrote poems praising figures like George Washington and criticizing the institution of slavery.

Impact and Legacy

  • Recognition and Correspondence: Wheatley's work was widely recognized, and she corresponded with notable figures of her time, including George Washington, whom she praised in a poem. Her talent and intellect earned her fame in both America and Europe.

  • Abolitionist Movement: Her achievements challenged prevailing attitudes about race and intelligence, providing a powerful argument against the institution of slavery. Abolitionists used her work to demonstrate the intellectual capabilities of African Americans.

Later Life

  • Freedom and Marriage: Phillis Wheatley was freed from slavery after the publication of her book. She married John Peters, a free Black man, in 1778. They faced significant financial difficulties, and her later years were marked by hardship.

  • Death: Wheatley died in poverty on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31.


Phillis Wheatley's life and work have left a lasting legacy. She is remembered as a trailblazer in African American literature and an important figure in the early American literary canon. Her ability to rise above the limitations of her time and her contributions to literature and social thought continue to be celebrated and studied.

In summary, Phillis Wheatley was a remarkable poet whose work transcended the barriers of her time. Her literary achievements and the challenges she overcame make her a significant figure in American history and literature

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