Out of Print: The Religion of Phillis Wheatley
*For the month of February, our Out of Print column will reintroduce black women figures in North American history.*
The etymology of a black American name often bears brutal grace. There is the formal meaning, derived from the old language from which it came, and the logistical one that explains the name’s complicated journey. The first black poet to be published in the United States received her American name when she was sold off to a wealthy family in Boston in 1761, when she was eight. As was custom, the Wheatley family gave her their surname. For the girl’s first name, the wife, Susanna, chose the slave ship on which she’d arrived to Massachusetts from West Africa: *The Phillis.* The history of how Wheatley got her name is the stuff of what cultural critic (1) called, centuries later, ” (2).”
Young Phillis demonstrated precociousness; Susanna Wheatley and her daughter, Mary, gave her an education considered elite for any pupil, much less an enslaved domestic servant. At age 11, Phillis Wheatley was well-versed in Greek tragedies, English plays, and the Vulgate. Phillis grasped European history and cartography just a couple of years after she learned to speak English. She took to religious text in particular, absorbing the influences of clerics like George Whitefield and poetry by Alexander Pope. Wheatley’s first poem, “On Messrs Hussey and Coffin,” was published in the *Newport Mercury* in 1767, when she was 13 years old. By the time Wheatley was in her early 20s, she had gained patronage from royals in England and maintained correspondences with premier contemporaries like John Newton and Thomas Paine. She published her first volume of poetry, *Poems on Various Subjects,* *Religious and Moral,* in London in 1773. Three years later, Wheatley visited with George Washington, who was an admirer of her proto-American, deeply religious elegies.
America’s great female poets die young — Dickinson, Plath. And so too did Phillis Wheatley, at 31. Although Wheatley was freed following the death of her masters, she was destitute and often in poor health. Wheatley’s ability to publish hinged completely on the whims of her English and American patrons, whose focus shifted during the height of the Revolutionary War. Wheatley was subjected to a series of tribunals convened to adjudicate whether a slave could truly write such sophisticated poetry. She and her one surviving child were buried in an unmarked grave.
June Jordan, Alice Walker, and the womanist writers of the late 20th century reclaimed Wheatley’s name. Pivotal essays like Jordan’s aforementioned “Black Poetry” grapple with the inherent tragedy of this first black poet, virulently faithful to the religion and nation that took her from her homeland: “Virtually absurd … except, consider what it took for that young African to undertake such personal abstraction and mythologies a million miles remote from her own ancestry, and her own darkly formulating face!” In Massachusetts, to her white audience, Wheatley seemed an exceptional Negro, an example of what white education and refinement could achieve. In her second life, Wheatley’s poetry — and the imagined determination it took to create it, to appropriate the language of white imperialism for her personal truth — has become a founding myth, of a newer black-female canon.
*Doreen St. Félix is the editor-at-large of Lenny.*