Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, one of America’s most
profound writers, has contributed greatly to American literature, not only
as a writer, but as an African American woman, who has influenced many

African Americans by enriching their knowledge of and exposure to their

Negro heritage and Negro literature. As one of America’s most renown writers,

Wheatley, said to be the mother of African American Literature, is best
known for her sympathetic portrayals of African American thought. Wheatley’s
literary contributions are vast in nature and distinguish her apart from
most writers of her era. Her writings have helped in the molding of the

African American tradition and are favored by people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Phillis Wheatley was born on the West coast
of Africa. Her exact birthplace is unknown; however it is assumed that
she was born near Senegambia, a territory that today is divided between
the nation of Senegal and Gambia. Wheatley’s birthplace is assumed to be
near Senegambia because it was in this territory that Wheatley and others
were introduced into the vile conditions of slavery. Kidnapped by slave
agents at the age of seven, young Phillis had to endure the struggle to

America alone. "Frail young Phillis probably survived the grim voyage to

America only because she was in a loose pack. If she had been part of a
tight pack she might not have survived" (Franklin, 223) Phillis Wheatley
arrived in Boston Massachusetts in 1761 at the age of eight. It was undoubtedly
here where she was first exposed to the harsh conditions of the South.

On the "stalls and auction blocks at the slave market", a wealthy Caucasian
woman, named Susannah Wheatley purchased Phillis as "her personal servant
and companion" (Loggins,98). Phillis Wheatley acquired her last name from

Susannah Wheatley--it was the norm during this time period for slave owners
to give their slaves their last names. She was named Phillis ironically"after the ship that brought her to slavery" (Loggias, 101).

As a child, Phillis Wheatley was blessed
with the gift to recite poetry. Wheatley quickly mastered the English language
as well as Latin, and soon began to write verses. During this time, is
was uncommon for slaves to be as literate and proficient in the English
language or any other language, as Phillis Wheatley was. Wheatley not only
knew how to comprehend the language, she also knew how to write the language.

This accomplishment made it evident that slaves were equally as intelligent
if not more than their slave owners and perfectly capable of understanding
any concept. Within sixteen months of her arrival, she was reading astronomy,
geography, history, and British literature. Wheatley was able to break
a language barrier that had held so many others of her race back. Her desire
for learning increased and the quest for knowledge became embedded in her
spirit, mind, and soul. By her teenage years, Wheatley was a well known
author, reciting poems for the New England elite in homes where blacks
could not even sit at the table with whites.

Phillis Wheatley made many contributions
to American literature. Other than successfully representing and expressing
the feelings of anger, frustration, and impatience of African American
people abroad, she has paved the way for young aspiring African American
writers. In 1771, Wheatley composed her first major work, "On an elegy
to evangelist George Whitefield." After realizing Wheatley’s potential
for excellence, Susannah Wheatley arranged a London publication of Wheatley’s
poems. As a result of this, prominent Bostonians verified the book’s author
as being Black. Britons praised the book, but criticized Americans for
keeping its author enslaved. At this time, Americans were only interested
in benefiting White America, and were not prepared for the fact that Britons
would criticize their slave policy. In 1774, she wrote a letter repudiating
slavery, which was reprinted and distributed throughout New England. The
fact that she was able to publicly denounce slavery is evidence of influential
voice as an African American during this time. In 1775, Wheatley wrote

"Reply" which was the first recorded celebration of African American Heritage
by an African American. Wheatley’s popularity among the elite of Massachusetts
grew rapidly.

As the first African American to compose
a book of imaginative writing, Wheatley is the originator of the African

American literary tradition and also of the African American women’s tradition.

Wheatley combined the influences of religion and neo-classicism in her
poems. She articulated the theme of freedom in many of her works. For instance,

Phillis Wheatley made political comments supporting American freedom from

Britain. Her numerous elegies suggest a conscious poetic escape from slavery.

She celebrates death and the rewards and freedom of an afterlife. Wheatley
used poetry to escape to a world of imagination,