Black women, often dismissed and under recognised have made remarkable contributions across various fields, the literary world is no exception.
From a background of slavery, Phillis Wheatley Peters, even at such a short time on earth successfully achieved a landmark literary achievement, cementing her legacy as the first African-American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry.
Born in 1753 in Gambia, Africa, by the age of eight in 1761, she was captured and enslaved in New England to the Wheatley family of Boston, her first name Phillis was derived from the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.”Within a year she could read Greek, Latin, selected classics, and British literature. By age 14, she had discovered her love for writing poetry, her passion and talent for writing would see her relieved of her duties in the home and encouraged in learning by the family. By 1767 she had published her first poem.
1770 would prove instrumental to her career as her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” garnered critical acclaim, pushing her to national notoriety, it was published in Boston, New York, as well as London.
In 1771, Wheatley accompanied John Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, to London. There, her literary prowess was greatly adored, she further wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.” In 1773, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which became the first book of poetry published by an enslaved African-American in the United States.
She became the first American slave, the first person of African descent, and only the third colonial American woman to have her work published. It also contained “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
Although many site 1774, it is unclear when Wheatley was freed from slavery. Around this time till 78, most of the Wheatley family had died. Phillis was fazed by a financial crisis, unable to secure funding for another publication or sell her writing. She would later marry lawyer and grocer John Peters, a free black man in 1778, and went on to have three children, who according to narration all died during infancy. The couple battled extreme poverty, and in 1785 debt-led Peters to be jailed.
Phillis continued to write but her work couldn’t sustain her financially so she took up work as a maid in a boarding house. Sadly, at just age 31, the writer who had garnered praise, recognized as the first globally recognized African American female poet, leaving an indelible legacy, died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784.