Phillis Wheatley: Famous Female Author

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• Poems of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley made a name for herself despite being African-American at a time when one's skin color usually meant slavery.

She began her life as a slave. She was born in Senegal in 1753 and, when she was 8, was kidnapped and sold at auction, like so many other Africans at that time. Her new owners, however, were a wealthy Boston family, the Wheatleys, who ended up treating her like one of the family, just like their two children. She studied under Susannah Wheatley and learned English, Latin, and Greek. She learned to read quickly and counted the Christian Bible as one of her favorite books. She also enjoyed reading English literature.

She gained her fame throughout her poetry, which became well-known throughout the 13 Colonies. She published her first poem in 1767. Six years later, she became the first African-American and third woman to publish a book in the United States. This was the famous Poems on Various Subjects. It was one of the first books published by anyone in the Colonies. She also wrote a poem to George Washington, to inspire him at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

She did not find fortune with her fame, however. She married John Peters in 1778, but even this did not allow her financial independence. In fact, she found much to loathe in her freedom, especially the fact that she was living in poverty, a far contrast from her life with the Wheatley family. Her last few years were filled with working as a servant, something she never had to do when she was younger. She was planning to publish a second book of poems and letters, but she died in 1784, before she could complete the book. The manuscript has not been found.

Her poems were an inspiration for African-Americans, however, and her writings were republished in the 1830s by abolitionists, as part of their movement to get rid of slavery.

Her importance lies in this, the nature of her words being able to inspire African-Americans two generations later, and from the fact that her publishing a book (of poetry, no less) contradicted stereotypes of African-Americans held at the time.

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David White