The Works of Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753. Sometime after her birth, she was brought to America and purchased by John Wheatley in 1761. He turned Phillis over to his wife, Susanna, to work as a personal maid. After realizing Phillis’ intellect, the Wheatley family encouraged Phillis to study the Bible and read English and Latin literature, history and geography.
Wheatley’s first poem was published in a Rhode Island newspaper in 1767. Poems on Various Subjects consisted of thirty-eight poems written by Wheatley, and it could be found in London in 1773. Wheatley died on December 5, 1784.*
Discussion of Wheatley’s Work:
The poetry of Phillis Wheatley should be considered very controversial and powerful. The content of Wheatley’s poetry contains the muscle needed to strike controversy and power, but it also must be understood within the context of history. Wheatley was a black slave writing very methodic poetry in America during a time when African-Americans were considered to be less than animals. Reading and writing was not an option given to an overwhelming majority of slaves. Wheatley was able to do both with ease, and her white masters encouraged her to do so.
The fact that Wheatley’s poetry was read in her time is another impressive factor. She was black and a female, yet she received a decent amount of readership. In addition, she was respected for her art. However, the controversy and power existed not only within the time period Wheatley lived in, but they also existed within the content of her poetry.
"On Being Brought from Africa to America" praised the salvation that Wheatley received by coming to America and being exposed to Christianity. She also wrote that all people would be equal in Heaven; therefore, she is acting a witness for Christianity. "[r]emember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train" (Wheatley 18). There are many ways in which this poem could be read. A white could have read it as either a submissive praise of Christianity or a belief that a slave believed in equality. An African-American could have read it with similar perspectives. The whites would have found the submissive reading to be more favorable, and the African-Americans would have favored the reading of equality. However, it was doubtful that many, if any blacks, were permitted to read any of Wheatley’s work.
Wheatley tended to write many religiously based poems. They all consisted of her true opinions....