Africans in America
Title page. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. (Library of Congress.)
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1754–1784) was most likely born in Senegambia, a region comprised of modern-day Senegal and the Gambia. She arrived in America in 1761 at the age of seven, traveling on a slave ship known as the Phillis, from which she took her name. Within a few years, the young Wheatley—who had spoken a language called Wolof—mastered English and began writing poetry. Among her influences, she later said, were Alexander Pope and John Milton. With the help of her wealthy masters, her work appeared in local literary periodicals, and in 1773, she produced her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was the first book published by an African American, and its appearance was met with skepticism and derision, but also with genuine fascination and admiration. Boston publishers wanted nothing to do with the work, and the Wheatleys had to produce the book in London. Even then, Wheatley had to endure an interrogation by a panel of Boston intellectuals, who quizzed her on her knowledge of literature, and eventually vouched for her competence. Around this time, she was emancipated, and continued to write poetry. During the American Revolution, Wheatley went against the political views of her former masters and wrote poetry that praised the ideals of independence. This decision cut her off from her British benefactors and advocates, and effectively silenced her career. She died in poverty in 1784.
It can be difficult for a modern audience to evaluate Wheatley's brief career, as her poetry embraced a European influence so strongly. This is in marked contrast to many African and African American writers today, whose work is often framed—at least in part—as being in opposition to what they see as a hegemonic white tradition. Indeed, Wheatley's career depended greatly on white evangelical benefactors, who saw in her a justification of their interpretation of Christianity. Still, her work contributed to the debate over the alleged inferiority of black people, a fact the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. credits when he declares her Poems on Various Subjects to be "the birth of the African American literary tradition" (Short Fiction by Black Women 1900–1920; OUP, 1991).