Phillis Wheatley…The first published African-American Woman
I love history (I don’t think you can write historical romances if you don’t)! I particularly love discovering and reading about interesting people who defied the accepted norms of their time and became more. One of the things I find fascinating is how every age has it’s own version of the previous eras of history. We always get a filtered vision. Most men and women famous in their day are quickly forgotten. Until last week, I’d never heard of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American female published author. I don’t have a degree in Georgian Female authors, but some people stand out. I can’t believe I hadn’t read about her before. Born somewhere in Western Africa around the year 1753, she was enslaved and brought to America on The Phillis. Purchased by Mr Wheatley, a wealthy merchant/tailor, as a servant for his wife, she was named Phillis after the ship. The Wheatley’s 18 year old daughter took it upon herself to teach Phillis to read and write in English…which can’t have been easy as she first had to teach her to speak English. Phillis was an intelligent girl and obviously an eager student. Then the son started helping to teach her. By twelve she was reading Greek and Latin classics. By fourteen she’d written her first poem. The Wheatley’s encouraged her to study and write and eventually helped her to get published (the common process of the time meant authors had to guarantee a certain number of people who would buy a copy ie subscribers). She became famous! In 1775 she wrote a poem to George Washington and the next year he invited her to visit him – and she did! She and her book of poems were lauded by various important men and women of her day.
On Master Wheatley’s death in 1778 she was freed in his will. Three months later she married a free black grocer. It sounds like her life after that was short and painful. She died in 1784 (aged 31) and her third infant died a few hours later (it sounds like they both died of a fever). She’d had to find work as a scullery maid because her husband was in debtor’s prison. In her short life she travelled as an adult to England (where she nearly met the King) and made history by publishing a book as a female slave using her own name. Many women authors published anonymously. You can download a free e-book of her work off Amazon. Penguin also offers a book of her complete writings (not free) but it includes her letters and tales (which I’m looking forward to reading).
Having read through the free book of poems, they’re very much of her time. They were clearly influenced by her classical studies (as well as local and famous people of her day) and most of them have a very formal feel. After reading through them I couldn’t help wondering if she’d secretly encoded them with deeper more personal feelings; a poem within the poem! I have no idea, but if you read them and you think you spot a poem within a poem let me know. What a life! Phillis Wheatley deserves to be remembered.
The dates and other information I’ve shared about Phillis Wheatley I found on Wikipedia.