Black History 2021 - Philiss Wheatley a Colonial-era American Influencer
"Before there was IG, Facebook, or Twitter there were black American Influencers whose thoughts were instrumental in the conversation around the birth of the new nation, like Phillis Wheatley. The Martin Luther King Republicans encourages you to to read her poetry and learn about her contributions not only to the literary world, but the conciseness of the nation. This was because she was a woman of strong faith and believed in her own abilities despite her circumstances. A special thank you the Phillis Wheatley Historical Society at the University of Massachusetts for continuing to honor and recognize Wheatley's contribution to American History. And as always, please COMMENT, LIKE, and SHARE. Thank you."- Jimmy Lee Tillman, II founder, and president.
Who Was Phillis Wheatley?
Although the date and place of her birth are not documented scholars believe that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Senegal or The Gambia. Wheatley was brought to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761.
At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, "To the University of Cambridge, in New England." Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis's education and relieved her of the household labor.
By the time she was 18, Wheatley had gathered a collection of 28 poems for which she, with the help of Mrs. Wheatley, ran advertisements for subscribers in Boston newspapers in February 1772. When the colonists were apparently unwilling to support literature she and the Wheatleys turned in frustration to London for a publisher. Wheatley had forwarded the Whitefield poem to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Whitefield had been chaplain. A wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist causes, the countess instructed bookseller Archibald Bell to begin correspondence with Wheatley in preparation for the book.
Wheatley, suffering from a chronic asthma condition and accompanied by Nathaniel, left for London on May 8, 1771. The now-celebrated poetess was welcomed by several dignitaries: abolitionists’ patron the Earl of Dartmouth, poet and activist Baron George Lyttleton, Sir Brook Watson (soon to be the Lord Mayor of London), philanthropist John Thorton, and Benjamin Franklin. While Wheatley was recrossing the Atlantic to reach Mrs. Wheatley, who, at the summer’s end, had become seriously ill, Bell was circulating the first edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American published in modern times.
Poems on Various Subjects revealed that Wheatley’s favorite poetic form was the couplet, both iambic pentameter and heroic. More than one-third of her canon is composed of elegies, poems on the deaths of noted persons, friends, or even strangers whose loved ones employed the poet. The poems that best demonstrate her abilities and are most often questioned by detractors are those that employ classical themes as well as techniques. In her epyllion “Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI, and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson,” she not only translates Ovid but adds her own beautiful lines to extend the dramatic imagery. In “To Maecenas” she transforms Horace’s ode into a celebration of Christ.
In addition to classical and neoclassical techniques, Wheatley applied biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery. For instance, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” the best-known Wheatley poem, chides the Great Awakening audience to remember that Africans must be included in the Christian stream: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.”
The remainder of Wheatley’s themes can be classified as celebrations of America. She was strongly influenced by her studies of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, the ancient Greek epics of Homer, and the Roman poets Horace and Virgil. She was the first to applaud this nation as glorious “Columbia” and that in a letter to no less than the first president of the United States, George Washington, with whom she had corresponded and whom she was later privileged to meet. In 1775, she sent a copy of a poem entitled “To His Excellency, George Washington” to him, and Washington invited Wheatley to visit his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she did in March 1776. Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1776.
Her love of virgin America as well as her religious fervor is further suggested by the names of those colonial leaders who signed the attestation that appeared in some copies of Poems on Various Subjects to authenticate and support her work: Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts; John Hancock; Andrew Oliver, lieutenant governor; James Bowdoin; and Reverend Mather Byles. Another fervent Wheatley supporter was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.