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Phillis Wheatley: A Tale of Hope and Woe

Phillis Wheatley was the second prominent woman poet in New England. Like Bradstreet’s, Phillis Wheatley’s life (1753 – 1784) shows the opportunities and limitations of being a woman in Massachusetts – with the big difference that the eight-year-old Wheatley came to Boston as a slave from West Africa. She was named after the slave ship that carried her on the Middle Passage.

Yet, she had the fortune to be purchased by a progressive family and was taught to read English, Latin, and Greek. When Wheatley began to compose poems, the family even encouraged her. She wrote one of her earlier poems in honor of George Whitfield of First Great Awakening fame. She penned another about George Washington: “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side.” As the first black poet to publish a book in America, Wheatley attracted much attention—a big stir in London, a meeting with George Washington, and admiring letters from the American Naval hero John Paul Jones.

Skeptics who doubted that an African slave could write such verse were eventually silenced when a board that included John Hancock concluded that she had composed her own verse. Only rarely did she touch on the elephant in the room: slavery. But she did occasionally, and then slyly:

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolical dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’angelic train.

And then, disguised as good luck, misfortune struck. When she was twenty-five, her master died. Wheatley was freed and got married. Two of her infants died, however, and her husband, a freedman, was jailed for debt. She wrote a new collection of poems, but the book attracted no publishers. Now nothing was available for Wheatley but the hard life of a scullery maid: scrubbing, cleaning—the lowest of servants. The once celebrated and now impoverished poet died in childbirth at the age of thirty-one. Hours later her infant son died, too. In addition to illustrating the dangers of childbirth, Wheatley’s fate serves as a strong corrective when considering New England’s later role in Abolitionism. If a woman as famous as Phillis Wheatley had been could fall so precipitously in Puritan Boston, just think how far others could fall. Another thing to consider: where did her admirers go? Was there no empathy, no Christian charity? Just a thought.