Phillis Wheatley

Anonymous

Phillis Wheatley, one of America?s most profound writers, has contributed greatly to American literature, not only as a writer, but as an African American woman, who has influenced many African Americans by enriching their knowledge of and exposure to their Negro heritage and Negro literature. As one of America?s most renown writers, Wheatley, said to be the mother of African American Literature, is best known for her sympathetic portrayals of African American thought. Wheatley?s literary contributions are vast in nature and distinguish her apart from most writers of her era. Her writings have helped in the molding of the African American tradition and are favored by people of all ethnic backgrounds.

Phillis Wheatley was born on the West coast of Africa. Her exact birthplace is unknown; however it is assumed that she was born near Senegambia, a territory that today is divided between the nation of Senegal and Gambia. Wheatley?s birthplace is assumed to be near Senegambia because it was in this territory that Wheatley and others were introduced into the vile conditions of slavery. Kidnapped by slave agents at the age of seven, young Phillis had to endure the struggle to America alone. "Frail young Phillis probably survived the grim voyage to America only because she was in a loose pack. If she had been part of a tight pack she might not have survived" (Franklin, 223) Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston Massachusetts in 1761 at the age of eight. It was undoubtedly here where she was first exposed to the harsh conditions of the South. On the "stalls and auction blocks at the slave market", a wealthy Caucasian woman, named Susannah Wheatley purchased Phillis as "her personal servant and companion" (Loggins,98). Phillis Wheatley acquired her last name from Susannah Wheatley--it was the norm during this time period for slave owners to give their slaves their last names. She was named Phillis ironically "after the ship that brought her to slavery" (Loggias, 101).

As a child, Phillis Wheatley was blessed with the gift to recite poetry. Wheatley quickly mastered the English language as well as Latin, and soon began to write verses. During this time, is was uncommon for slaves to be as literate and proficient in the English language or any other language, as Phillis Wheatley was. Wheatley not only knew how to comprehend the language, she also knew how to write the language. This accomplishment made it evident that slaves were equally as intelligent if not more than their slave owners and perfectly capable of understanding any concept. Within sixteen months of her arrival, she was reading astronomy, geography, history, and British literature. Wheatley was able to break a language barrier that had held so many others of her race back. Her desire for learning increased and the quest for knowledge became embedded in her spirit, mind, and soul. By her teenage years, Wheatley was a well known author, reciting poems for the New England elite in homes where blacks could not even sit at the table with whites.

Phillis Wheatley made many contributions to American literature. Other than successfully representing and expressing the feelings of anger, frustration, and impatience of African American people abroad, she has paved the way for young aspiring African American writers. In 1771, Wheatley composed her first major work, "On an elegy to evangelist George Whitefield." After realizing Wheatley?s potential for excellence, Susannah Wheatley arranged a London publication of Wheatley?s poems. As a result of this, prominent Bostonians verified the book?s author as being Black. Britons praised the book, but criticized Americans for keeping its author enslaved. At this time, Americans were only interested in benefiting White America, and were not prepared for the fact that Britons would criticize their slave policy. In 1774, she wrote a letter repudiating slavery, which was reprinted and distributed throughout New England. The fact that she was able to publicly denounce slavery is evidence of influential voice as an African American during this time. In 1775, Wheatley wrote "Reply" which was the first recorded celebration of African American Heritage by an African American. Wheatley?s popularity among the elite of Massachusetts grew rapidly.

As the first African American to compose a book of imaginative writing, Wheatley is the originator of the African American literary tradition and also of the African American women?s tradition. Wheatley combined the influences of religion and neo-classicism in her poems. She articulated the theme of freedom