From Slave to Published Poet

Phillis Wheatley was abducted from West Africa and shipped to America in 1761. Her name came from the ship she was transported on and from the last name of her owner, Boston merchant John Wheatley. Thanks to the efforts of John Wheatley’s daughter, Mary, she learned to read and write and was studying Latin and Greek classics by age 12.

A brilliant poet, Wheatley became the first African-American woman published. Her writing was influenced by Alexander Pope, John Milton, Horace, and Virgil—and by the Bible. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 in London, because American publishers refused it.

And we complain?
When I hear writers lament about their lack of writing space or the scarcity of time available to write, I think of Phillis Wheatley. She had little going for her except Mary’s kindnesses. Wheatley wasn’t freed until 1778, five years after publication of her book.

Although Wheatley wrote several individual poems, including one in praise of George Washington, Poems on Various Subjects… was her only published work. After gaining her freedom, she married a storekeeper who went broke. She died in poverty at age 31.

But, in her time, no less than the Lord Mayor of London and George Washington praised her. Today two university buildings are named in her honor. One at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the other at Norfolk (Va.) State University.

What’s stopping you?
What keeps you from educational improvement and disciplined writing? As a poet, Wheatley showed a determination and a commitment to her craft that puts my own life and writing in perspective.

I have every privilege. She had none. She used the ability God gave her and is seen today as a distinguished poet, a woman educated ahead of her time who used well the intellect God gave her.

Phillis Wheatley inspires me.

Learn more about Phillis Wheatley.

Photo: Roger PalmsRoger Palms, a long-time Guild mentor, is the former editor of Decision magazine and the author of 15 books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles.


  1. says

    Thank you for calling our attention to Phillis Wheatley. She was probably the most intelligent of all the American writers. When you consider that she learned Latin, Greek, and English while working as a slave, and then could write heroic poetry in her teens her intelligence was obvious. I used her to model by fictional character named Louisa in a book by the same name. Therefore, you are correct. Phillis is inspiring.

  2. cathrine McCulloch says

    So true. Our perspective of who we are, is what closes or opens our doors.I agree when you probed the reader. I have numerous hidden disabilities. I have a lot or reasons to sit back and not act. God uses my disabilities to fuel His fire in me. There is only a future and hope, that rises out of my expectations.God can only do so much when we sit back and do nothing.

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