The Story of Phillis Wheatley Peters

Phillis Wheatley Peters, a name well-known among literate colonists, was quite popular during the nascent antislavery movement in the 19th Century. To some she was just a slave amongst many picking cottons and being kept captive in the home of wealthy Boston businessman John Wheatley, who was revered in England and New England, but Phillis’ story didn’t start there.

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley Peters.

Born in Gambia around 1753 and sold as a slave in Boston in 1761, Phillis Wheatley Peters was a young infant who was bought by John and Susanna Wheatley. Drawn to the little girl from her frail and sickly stature, she was given the names ‘Phillis’ and Wheatley in honor of the ship that carried her to Boston. Phillis had a remarkable aptitude for learning, and with the help of Susanna and her daughter, she was schooled in reading, writing, religion, language, literature, and history. Around the time she was twelve, Phillis started to publish her poetry, and shortly after, her renown began to spread over the Atlantic. To many, and quite evident till this day, she was one of the best-known African-American poets in the pre-19th Century in America.

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.”

You might be familiar with this passage from “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” one of her most well-known poems which can be found in her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Morals.” In this piece, Wheatley confronts anybody who thinks less of her and other enslaved people because of their skin tone in the lines of her poem.

Phillis Wheatley greatly contributed to liberation of slaves during the 19th Century and this was depicted through her poetry. Through her pieces, she wants everyone to understand that she was brought to America and Christianity by “mercy.” She interprets her poetry to suggest that anybody can discover God and salvation regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin and believes religion changed her life for the better and the same can happen for anyone else. Phillis expressed that even though the theme of equal rights is less prominent in this poem than the might of God, it is nonetheless mentioned. After being forcibly brought to America as a slave, God was the finest thing that could have happened to her. Her faith completely transformed her life and despite experiencing poverty along the line, till her very last piece of writing, “An Elegy on Leaving,” Phillis Wheatley offers a considerably optimistic outlook on heavenly afterlife.

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This article was written by Maya Mitala.


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