In another time, and/or being another skin color and gender, Phillis Wheatley could have lived a rich and happy life because of her talent. But being an enslaved Black woman caused her to die young and poor, because America is only the land of opportunity for a select few.
–On This Day in History, Shit Went Down: October 18, 1773–
She was born in West Africa around 1753 and sold into slavery when she was about seven years old. Imagine being a young girl making that terrible trip chained for several weeks in the hold of a reeking, diseased-filled ship crossing the Atlantic, fed only scraps, to become the property of another person. That’s what she endured, because humans are fucking horrible.
She landed in Massachusetts in 1761 aboard the slave ship Phillis, from which her slave name was assigned to her. There, she was sold to a prosperous merchant named John Wheatley, and another slave name was added.
John bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna “for a trifle,” as she was “slender” and “frail.” And as far as slaveowners go, the family didn’t completely suck as human beings. The two children, Mary and Nathaniel, who were both in their teens, took on young Phillis’s education. It was unheard of for a Black slave girl to learn to read, but by age twelve Phillis could read Greek and Latin classics in their original languages. They immersed her in studies of geography, astronomy, and history as well.
When she was fourteen, she wrote what was likely her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England.” Despite being among the most well-educated Black girls in the Americas, while also enslaved, the poem speaks of a yearning for a life of academia and further intellectual challenge.
She wrote several more poems, and the family desired to help her publish a book, but American publishers were not interested; many believed she could not have possibly authored them. And so, Nathaniel traveled with her to London to find a publisher. In 1773, when she was about twenty, she met with several prominent members of British society, and on September 1st her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published. With publication the Wheatleys realized they could no longer keep her as a slave, and on October 18th, 1773, they emancipated Phillis.
But that is where the “happy” tale ends. Despite immense talent and intelligence, America was no land of opportunity for one of her skin color and gender. She married a free Black grocer when she was twenty-five, but they lived in poverty and two of their babies died. Her husband was sent to debtors’ prison and she was left alone to raise a third child who was also sickly. To survive she worked as a scullery maid, but became ill and died at the age of thirty-one. Her infant child followed her to the grave soon after.
Modern Black scholars proclaimed her poetry suffered from “Uncle Tom Syndrome;” it lacked awareness of her identity as a Black slave. Other than the horrid trip from Africa, Phillis was not treated as other slaves, and rather was molded by her owners to become a person they could control and display to white society as non-threatening.
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