By Rachael Whitlock
Phillis Wheatley once said, “In every human beast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance.” When people think of February, Valentine’s Day is typically what first comes to mind. But February isn’t only the month for celebrating love, it is also Black History Month. It is a time to celebrate the most prominent African American leaders in history, and their contributions to society. It is also a time to celebrate the African Americans who, after centuries of oppression, challenged molds and societal roles that were once forced on them. Although there were plenty of well-known leaders who fought for human rights, there were also many artists, musicians, writers, and poets that used their talents to challenge the oppression they faced. One of these people was Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet whose work helped set the stage for the abolitionist movement in the late 1700s.
After being kidnapped and enslaved when she was just eight years old, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American, and one of the first women, to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Wheatley’s owner, John Wheatley, who originally purchased her to be a servant for his wife Susanna, quickly realized the girl’s intelligence. Although most slave owners at the time discouraged their slaves to read and write, John and Susanna Wheatley were different. The family began to educate Wheatley in theology, Latin, mythology, and Greek, and greatly encouraged her literary pursuits. By the time she was thirteen, Phillis Wheatley had her first poem published in a local newspaper, and continued to publish work as a teenager.
In 1773, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poems when she wrote Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This was a landmark achievement in American history, as it began to change colonists’ perspective on African Americans’ capabilities. Not only was Wheatley now an accomplished poet, she was also a strong supporter of American independence from Britain. She even wrote several poems in honor of George Washington, who eventually invited her to visit him in Washington.
Unfortunately, the years to follow her first book’s publishing became more difficult for Wheatley. Both John and Susanna died a few years apart, which devastated Wheatley, who had come to see them as her own parents. In 1778, Wheatley married a free African American and had three children, but they all died in infancy. The couple’s marriage was constantly strained by poverty because, as growing tensions between America and Britain grew, Wheatley couldn’t find a publisher in London to take any more of her work. Ultimately, Wheatley spent the rest of her life working as a maid in a boarding house and died in her early thirties.
However, despite Wheatley’s hardships and struggles as a writer, she is still regarded as one of the most prominent poets and influential figures in African American history. Her work as a woman, and as a slave, presented opportunities that many previously didn’t think possible. She also proved that African Americans were equally as capable, creative, and intelligent as anyone else, and should be encouraged to read and write. In this way, Wheatley’s work was instrumental in setting the stage of the abolitionist movement and helped pave the way for other African American poets throughout history.