Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Slave Woman Who Wrote George Whitefield’s Eulogy

She's known today as the mother of African American literature.  Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753 and was brought to Boston in 1761 at the age of seven or eight.   She was purchased by an evangelical Christian named John Wheatley as a gift to his wife Susannah and they called her Phillis after the slave ship that brought her from Africa.  
Tutored by the Wheatley’s two older children, the family gave Phillis an extraordinary education for any woman of that time, let alone a slave.  By the time she was 12, Phillis was reading Greek,  Latin, classic literature, and the Bible.     
Recognizing that Phillis had a gift for poetry, Mrs. Wheatley encouraged her to write. 
Phillis’ poetry drew the attention and support of Selina Hastings, the English Countess of Huntingdon, who was a friend and patroness of George Whitefield. Phillis had heard the famous evangelist preach at her church and when he died of an asthma attack in 1770, she addressed the Countess  with  An Elegiac Poem on the Death of that Celebrated Divine and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield”1.   Entitled   “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” ,  the piece was published in Boston and also in London where it received acclaim on both sides of the pond. 
Two years later Phillis compiled a book of 39 poems but was unable to find an American publisher.    In 1773 she traveled to London with her master’s son to make arrangements with a publisher in London and with the funding of the Countess she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  During this time she also established  relationships with many high profile people in England and North American.  
Shortly after her return to America  Phillis received her emancipation. 
That Phillis had become a published author was a remarkable feat not only because she was the first African American to be published, but also because she was only the second woman in America to publish a book. 
The endorsements Phillis received from dignitaries were nothing short of astonishing. 
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral includes…an attestation from eighteen prominent Boston citizens, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson and John Hancock, asserting their belief in Wheatley’s true authorship of the poems. … the book [collected] praise from many notable figures of the time, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and King George III. Her popularity as a writer won Wheatley her freedom that same year.” 2
Although she rarely spoke of herself Phillis wrote beautifully from her heart concerning her personal history.       
On Being Brought from Africa to America” 
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.  

Critics have tried unsuccessfully to fault Phillis for not protesting loudly enough against slavery.   However, lest those who might try and use her as an example to endorse slavery,  it’s important to note that  her works strongly reflect both the goodness and grace of God and the evil of slavery.   “She denounces slave owners as “Modern Egyptians” in a letter to the Indian Presbyterian minister Samson Occom that was widely reprinted in newspapers in March 1774 throughout New England, as well as in Canada.”3 
 From "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth"  
 Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,  
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung, 
Whence flow these wishes for the common good, 
By feeling hearts alone best understood, 
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat 
. . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway? 4

Jeffrey Bilbro writes,
“Four of Wheatley's early poems—"On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield," "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth," "On Being Brought from Africa to America," and "On Recollection"—outline her theodicy regarding the slave trade. In the first three poems, she suggests that while slavery is evil, God nevertheless can bring some good from this evil by bringing hypocritical, white Christians to a place of repentance and then redemption and by bringing the Christian gospel to Africans. By maintaining a clear distinction between the evils of slavery and God's merciful, providential redemption, she offers a way to avoid the imperial Christian rhetoric that some used to rationalize the slave trade." 5  
After the Wheatley’s died Phillis earned a living working as a poet and seamstress.  She married a free black grocer named John Peters and they had three children who all died young.  
Because of the war and a poor economy they fell into hard times and Peter was jailed numerous times for debt.   Though her second volume of poems had been completed, Phillis could not gather the funds needed to have it published.   Once and international success, Phillis’ life ended in poverty.  She died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784 at the age of 31.    The cause of death was unknown, but was believed to have been due to an asthma attack.  
Today Phillis Wheatley has become such a revered figure in African American history that a brief letter written to a fellow servant in 1776 fetched a whopping $253,000 at auction in 2005. 

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley which appeared in Revue des Colonies in Paris between 1834 and 1842 
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