Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa but sold into the North American slave-trade around the age of seven or eight. Her first name comes from the ship that she came to the colonies in, The Phillis, and her last name comes from the Bostonian family who purchased her, John and Susanna Wheatley. John and Susanna’s daughter, Mary, taught her how to read and to write, and when they noticed her great talent in poetry, they encouraged her to continue writing and even had her stop her household labor in order to pursue poetry. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published September 1, 1773 and launched her into fame in both England and the new American colonies. Many people began to recognize and commend her for her work. She even was able to travel to England with her master’s son, where another African American poet, Jupiter Hammon, complimented her work in one of his own poems. Soon after her book was published, she was emancipated and later married John Peters in 1778. She attempted to publish another volume of poetry in 1779; however, because of her low finances, loss of patrons since she was emancipated, and the Revolutionary War, she was unable to have them published. Of her and her husband’s three children only one survived past infancy, and after her husband was sent to prison in 1784 for being in debt, Wheatley and her surviving son died from illnesses soon after.
So, even though her story did not end the happiest, think of the amazing obstacles that she overcame in her life. In those days not only were women seen as uneducated and unpolitical, but African Americans were respected even less. However, this African American woman was given the opportunity to read, write, and learn about Greek and Latin classics along with the Bible. This was not normal by any means. Women in those days did not even receive that much education. The Wheatleys, however, believed in her so much that they risked their own names in order to elevate hers. She aimed to express Christian themes in her work and even called out Christians in one of her poems called “On being brought from Africa to America.”
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
She reminded so-called Christians that no matter the color of their skin they can still join heaven the same way that they do—through the blood of Jesus. Think about how scandalous this poem would have been then. Even today the topic of racism and equality seems to consume the media. Every day there is a new trial, a new murder, a new reason to feel divided. However, Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the end there will not be “blacks” or “whites” or any other color of the world; all that we will see is the never ending love of Jesus Christ.