Updated: May 6
In honor of Women's History Month, I thought it would be interesting to research and share a little known fact about an African American woman author. Then I thought, hey why not take it all the way back and find out who the very first African American woman author on record is. That search brought me to Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784).
Phillis was born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa and was captured by slave traders and brought to America in 1761. Upon arrival, she was sold to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. She spent the first 8 years of slavery without a name until her owner, John Wheatley finally decided to name her after the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.”
John Wheatley’s daughter, Mary decided to teach Phillis to read. Sixteen months later, Phillis could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. At age fourteen, Wheatley began to write poetry, publishing her first poem in 1767. Publication of An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield in 1770 brought her great notoriety. In 1773, an 18 year old Phillis traveled to London with the Wheatley's son to publish her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book written by a Back woman in America. It included a forward, signed by John Hancock and other Boston notables, as well as a portrait of Phillis to prove that the work was written by a Black woman. She was emancipated shortly thereafter.
Pride in her African heritage was always evident in Phillis' work. Religion was also a key influence that led Protestants in America and England to enjoy her work. Enslavers and abolitionists both read her work. Enslavers used it to convince slaves to convert. Abolitionist used it as proof of the intellectual abilities of people of color.
In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a free Black man from Boston with whom she gave birth to three children. Unfortunately, none of her children survived. She made little to no money from her published work forcing her to take a cleaning job at a boardinghouse to help support her family. Phillis Wheatley died in December 1784, at age 31. Her incredible contributions to literature and the abolition movement should be remembered, acknowledged and celebrated as part of the fabric of American woman's history.
Happy Woman's History Month!