Love of Freedom
Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 14
Although an enslaved person, Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) is today recognised as one of America’s finest poets and the first African American to publish a book of poems.
Phillis was born along the banks of the Gambia River and is thought to have belonged to the Fulani people who lived in the Gambia region during the mid-eighteenth century.
Phillis was seven or eight years old when she was sold into slavery to the Wheatley family, who renamed her after the ‘slave ship’ the Phillis, which had brought her from the west coast of Africa to Boston, Massachusetts. Her original name is unknown.
Phillis’ time in the Wheatley household was unlike that of other enslaved women of this time. Phillis was purchased primarily to serve as a personal slave to the Wheatley family; her domestic chores included light housework, and she was forbidden from interacting with the other enslaved peoples in the Wheatley household.
While Phillis was likely aware of the inhumane treatment other enslaved peoples experienced, she once witnessed an enslaved African by the name of Prince severely punished just for sitting next to her; Phillis’ poems rarely mention the harsh conditions most of her fellow enslaved peoples had to endure.
Not much is known about how Phillis acquired her great learning. It is said that within sixteen months of arriving in Boston, she was able to read all parts of the King James Bible. Phillis is also noted to have been able to speak Latin, something the Wheatley family were unable to do.
In 1772, the Wheatley’s tried to assemble a volume of Phillis’ poetry; however, this was met with a frosty reception in Boston. In response, the Wheatley’s sought after a London publisher, thus beginning a series of events that brought Phillis to London in 1773, where a collection of her poems was published.
Following the death of the Wheatley’s, Phillis became more vocal in expressing her antislavery views. In a letter to Native American minister Samson Occom she explained:
“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom… It is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverances; and… I will assert that the same Principle lives in us.”
In a 1778 poem, Phillis castigated the hypocrisy of America’s fight for the freedom to enslave others:
“But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’Almighty mind -
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?”
Though Phillis left a rich paper trail of poems and letters, she never recorded her own account of her life, and, in her writings, biographical details are sparse.
During her life, and for decades following her death, Phillis’ work was used almost exclusively in one argument or another to dispute slavery and the supposed inferiority of Africans.
In more recent times, Phillis’ works have been taken on their merits. Once marginalised as a black woman, Phillis Wheatley now occupies a secure place as one of early America’s best-known poets.