At some point in my life, I would like to compile a list of notable (and/or “badass” depending on the media I use to publish it) women of history. There are many to choose from and many of them you’d know. Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, and so on and so forth. But there’s one that was incredible for her time, yet is mostly unknown today.
I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of Phillis Wheatley. I believe she was a part of an educational game on the Revolutionary War I played once. And then there was a fictional children’s book written about her life. But I was impressed by her life story.
Let me start from the beginning. Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal in 1753. She was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 7 or 8 and transported to New England. To be of African descent in this time period was bad enough, but to be a young girl in poor health was even worse. She was sold at a bargain price because it was assumed she would die soon.
However, the young girl’s new owners had just lost a daughter about her age. So they took her in and named her (after the slave ship Phillis that brought her to the country). In a time when literacy in slaves was looked down on, she was actually given an education. And, as it turns out, she was rather brilliant. Not only did she learn English, as she did not speak a word of it when she was taken, she learned multiple other languages beside. She was well versed in the classics of Roman and Greek literature, as well as biblical stories. But her first love was poetry.
At the age of 17, Phillis wrote an elegy (aka, a poem written for a deceased person) for the late Chaplain of a notable countess. It gained her serious amounts of fame, both in the colonies and across the Atlantic.
Over the course of her life, Phillis wrote 2 poetry volumes, publishing one, and around 145 poems aside. She lived through the Revolutionary War and was very patriotic about the new country, although she considered slavery to be its greatest sin.
To abolitionists, Phillis Wheatley became a great symbol that people of darker skin could be just as intelligent and artistic as Caucasians. She’s still held by modern literature scholars to be one of the greatest American poets. But she didn’t always rise above the times.
After her master and mistress had both died, Phillis Wheatley became a free black woman. That unfortunately sounds a lot better than the reality. In a world still very much filled with racism and slavery, a free black person lived in relative squalor. She married a free black man named John Peters and they lived out the rest of their lives more or less unknown. Phillis continued writing, but struggled to get supporters to publish another novel.
Phillis Wheatley died in the slums at the young age of 31, alone as her husband was in jail for unpaid debts. Her newborn son died shortly after and they were buried together.
Hers was a short life, but it was a notable one. She was precocious, brilliant, and an artistic master. Her second volume of poetry was eventually published after her death. To large groups of poets and poetry enthusiasts, she’s an important part of the art’s history. But to the majority of people, she’s completely unknown.
Perhaps it’s the historian in me speaking, but the beauty of keeping these types of records is that no one’s memory needs to truly die. Not unless we let it.