Precursor of American Abolitionism
Born in 1753 in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and sold at a slave auction at age seven to a prosperous Boston family who educated her and treated her as a family member. Rescued from an otherwise hopeless situation by the sympathies of the Wheatley family, Phillis learned English with remarkable speed, and, although she never attended a formal school, she also learned Greek and Latin.
It is clear that the Christian compassion of the Wheatley family was the nurturing womb in which Phillis' rare gifts were cultivated. She came to know the Bible well; and three English poets - Milton, Pope and Gray - touched her deeply and exerted a strong influence on her verse.
She became a sensation in Boston in the 1760s when her poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield made her famous. Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher who frequently toured New England, happened to be a close friend of Countess Selina of Huntington, and the latter invited Phillis to London to assist her in the publication of her poems.
Her literary gifts, intelligence, and piety were a striking example to her English and American audience of the triumph of human capacities over the circumstances of birth. The only hint of injustice found in any of her poems is in the line "Some view our sable race with scornful eye" - it would be almost a hundred years before another black writer would drop the mask of convention and write openly about the African-American experience.
Another theme, which runs like a scarlet thread throughout her poetry, is the salvation message of Christianity - that all men and women, regardless of race or class, are in need of salvation.
Phillis Wheatley received her freedom and married a free black man in 1778 but, despite her skills, was never able to support her family. Although she died in complete poverty, subsequent generations would pick up where she left off. Wheatley was the first black writer of consequence in America; and her life was an inspiring example to future generations of African-Americans. In the 1830s, abolitionists reprinted her poetry and the powerful ideas contained in her deeply moving verse stood against the institution of slavery.