Monday, July 02, 2007

Phillis Wheatley

The founding fathers and mothers of the United States of America set in motion what became our present American government and culture. Not only that, but their American experiment has influenced other governments, as well.

We look back at these men and women with great fondness. They had notable strengths of character. Even today, they teach us by their example and the writings they left for us to read.

However, there was one area in which our esteemed founders failed to rise above their times -- and that was with regard to slavery. Though many were bothered in their consciences about this issue, others accepted the institution and the suffering that came with it as simply being part of life. And, even those who did have qualms about slavery could think of no solutions about how to end this practice, for it had become so deeply entrenched in America's economy.

George Washington, for example, became increasingly troubled by the question of slavery. He started meditating about this after he saw black soldiers in the American Revolution fight for freedom. He realized that they were as brave and valiant as their white masters were. He never went so far as to manumit his slaves during his lifetime, but he decreed in his will that his slaves should be freed upon his death. I'm no historian, but, so far, I haven't found any indication that Martha Washington shared her husband's distress in this matter. In fact, it is said that she could never be made to understand why her personal maid chose to run away to freedom. This seems to be a rare issue about which the Washingtons -- who were usually so agreeable to each other -- held somewhat differing opinions.

Considering that this mindset was so established in our Colonial period and in our early days as a country, the life of American poet, Phillis Wheatley, is remarkable. Did you know that this gifted slave woman was the first African American woman writer to be published in the U.S.?

Phillis began her life in what is now Senegal. At age 7, she was captured by African slave traders, who named her after the slave ship, Phillis, and who sold her to white slave traders. She was taken to Boston, Massachusetts, where a wealthy merchant, John Wheatley, bought her. At the time, the thirteen Colonies were still part of England, but the desire for independence was brewing.

Once in Boston, Phillis quickly learned to understand and to speak English. John converted the young girl to a belief in Christ, and Phillis became very devout. Many of her famous poems deal with themes of faith.

Phillis was too young and too frail for hard work, so she was chosen for domestic chores and to be a companion to Mrs. Wheatley. However, the Wheatleys quickly realized that Phillis had a remarkable mind. They felt a responsibility to help her develop her gifts.

So, the Wheatleys made a decision that was unheard of in their day; they allowed Phillis to stop her labors so that she could devote all of her time to study! This was during an era when most slaves were not allowed to read or write! If a slave was educated in that era, the slave was much more likely to be a man and either a household steward or a farm overseer. Seldom did anyone offer a preteen slave girl a chance at higher learning.

Yet, members of the Wheatley family schooled Phillis in such subjects as English literature, Latin, astronomy, geography, and ancient history. Plus, they fostered her growing faith and inspired her to study theology. Through the wealthy Wheatleys, Phillis probably reached a higher level of learning than even most white or free black people of her day could afford.

Phillis found an outlet for her amazing talents. She began to write beautiful poetry. In 1767, the Newport Mercury became the first paper to publish one of her poems. This poem was about two men who nearly drowned at sea and their strengthening faith in God. Later, she published the most famous of her early poems, called "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770". It was an eloquent elegy for a man whose work she greatly admired.

When Massachusetts newspapers published her work, she became an American celebrity. When a book of her poems appeared in England, her celebrity rose to an international scale.

Though there were so very many people who admired her talent, there were also those who refused to believe that a black woman and a slave woman actually wrote such remarkable poetry. In 1772, Phillis was called into court to prove her literary ability. A group of 17 prominent and scholarly Bostonians questioned her and concluded that she was, indeed, the author of her published poems. They wrote a document attesting to her authenticity as the author of her upcoming book -- Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book first appeared in England, as Boston publishers were slow to publish the text.

All the while, the revolution kept fermenting. Did Phillis find it ironic that the word freedom was the cry on every lip in America, when her own freedom had been so cruelly snatched from her? If she did, she never expressed any bitterness over the matter. In fact, in one poem, she expresses gratitude for having been brought to a place where she could learn about Christ. Her attitude was similar to that of Joseph's, who understood that while his brothers meant to do him evil by selling him into slavery, God used that same situation to work good.

In that same poem, Phillis reminds white readers that Christ died for those of African descent, just as she did for the children of European settlers. She implores her readers to think carefully about looking down on her people, for in Christ, all men may find salvation. In a couple of her other poems, Phillis comments about the suffering associated with slavery and prejudice. In one heart-wrenching passage, she imagines the agony her mother must have felt at having her child taken from her arms.

These comments are never delivered with anger. She simply invited people to look at the day's racial dilemma more deeply. Some modern historicans have suggested that she did not dare to upset her readership with more direct comments. I imagine that there is some truth to that. However, I also like to think that her faith was so genuine that she truly held no rancor in her heart. At any rate, the majority of her poems are about faith or are about people she admired. Most do not mention the problems of slavery and prejudice at all.

In 1773, John Wheatley set Phillis free. (Some say she wasn't emancipated until Mr. Wheatley's death a few years later). In 1776, Phillis was invited to read her poetry to George Washington.

Sadly, Phillis' years of freedom were hard ones. When the country was plunged into the Revolutionary War, people quit reading Phillis' moral and religious poems in favor of more political literature. One by one, the members of the Wheatley family died. Without their loving support, her great talent was somewhat forgotten, and she was no longer invited into the parlors of upper-class intellectual society. Despite the fact that she was still young and still gifted, she became what we call in our day, a "has-been".

Phillis married a free black grocer named John Peters. Historical accounts vary a bit in the details after that point. But, we do know that John's grocery failed and that he never made a success at that or any other type of endeavor.

Though Phillis was so greatly educated, there weren't many job openings back then in which Phillis could have used her education. So, she was forced to take on jobs as a scullery maid in order to help feed the family. Whatever work she could find in that area was never enough to support them.

All three children born to Phillis and John died. The last child left this world just a few hours after Phyllis, herself, passed away. It is not clear to me after reading several accounts of her life whether Phillis died from that child's birth. It's possible that she did, or it's possible that the child had already been born at some earlier point. If the latter case is true, I would assume that both mother and child likely succumbed to the same illness. It's also probable that John had completely abandoned Phillis by the time she passed away. At any rate, one thing is certain: Phillis was only thirty-one years old at the time of her death.

There were rumors that Phillis completed a second book of poems during the time she was married to John Peters. That manuscript has never been found, and, thus, has never been published.

So, what can Phillis teach us with regard to our finishing school? She sort of takes our excuses away; doesn't she? If we find ourselves in challenging circumstances -- as she certainly did -- we can still look for opportunities to develop our talents and to share them with others.

If you are interested, you can read some of Phillis' lovely poems online.



Anonymous said...

I remember reading somewhere that Phillis was actually grateful to that "peculiar institution." She understood that without it she would have probably never heard of Christ. It doesn't make what happened any better, but her lack of bitterness shows greatness of mind.

Hope you have a good holiday!


Elizabeth said...

Yes, she wrote a poem about being grateful for having been brought to a place where she could learn about Christ. I agree with you that her lack of bitterness does show greatness of mind. It does seem that the Wheatleys genuinally loved her. Of course, that doesn't make right what happened to her, either. But, it would be better to be in a household where you were loved than where you weren't.

Have a great holiday, too!


Mrs. U said...

This is WONDERFUL!! I remember studying about her in high school and had completely forgotten about Ms. Wheatley!!!

I appreciate her looking beyond circumstances and focusing on the Lord. Too many people (myself included) get caught up in the problems of the day and lose sight of the Lord in the busyness and problems of life. I am thankful for her reminder.

Thank you for sharing this. Wonderful post, indeed!

Mrs. U

Emma said...

THough I do remember a bit about Phillis Wheatly for high school history, it was wonderful to read a more detailed account of her life. Thank you, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Emma and Mrs. U.

I'm glad you enjoyed reading more about Phillis.

Buffy said...

That was interesting. It was ironic that she actually had a better life as a slave than a freed woman.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Buffy

Yes, it's ironic that she ended up in the very situation from which the Wheatleys had tried to save her.