Who Filled George Washington With Amazement?

George Washington
George Washington

A 23-Year-Old Slave African-American Girl

When in 2020 a free African American citizen says, ‘I can’t breathe’ and becomes prey to racial hatred and police atrocity and dies, it is incredible to even think that the would-be first American President would fail in his words of adulation for a slave black poetess of 23 only, back in 1776, when the anti-slavery bill was yet at almost a hundred year’s distance.

A Slave Girl With Exceptional Poetic Talents

It is interesting to travel almost 270 years back not only to have a glimpse of the life of a slave girl with exceptional poetic talents but to probe into the advent of African-American literature. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), merely at seven or eight years of age was sold as a slave and with other slaves traveled from her native place in West Africa, most probably the Gambia or Senegal to Boston on a slave ship. Then she was again sold to an affluent merchant John Wheatley. She landed in the right company.

John Wheatley and his wife Susana, whose domestic help she was to be, gave a name to the anonymous slave girl after that of the slave ship ‘Phillis’ and the surname was to be after that of the master as was a custom for naming the enslaved. It was fortunate for Phillis that the Wheatleys were progressive and did not treat her as a slave or even as a domestic help as she was given very light work. Instead, the whole family was keen on educating her.

literary Sensibilities Were Miraculous

And she picked up not only well but her inherent literary sensibilities were miraculous. She excelled in Greek and Latin classics and in the field of poetry the works of Horace, Virgil, Homer, Alexander Pope, John Milton and others became her personal companions. And the finest poetic pieces began brewing in her mind. When she was just 14, she wrote her first poem ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’. With the support of the Wheatleys, her poetic talents broke all barriers. Just at 20, with Wheatley junior- Nathaniel Wheatley she landed at London for the publication of a collection of her poems and enamored all with her poetic talents.

The Lord Mayor of London, Countess of Huntington, and even King George III, with whom a meeting was arranged but could not be materialized. And her book ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral ‘ saw the light of the day making her famous both in England and America. She is the first female slave African American to have her book published. And after this publication, Phillis was emancipated also from slavery.

Rest Of The Story Is Not That Rosy

But the rest of the story is not that rosy. Her benefactors, the Wheatleys died, She got married to John Peters, a free African American, but great financial hardship came into her life, her husband went behind the bars for debt, her two babies died, she could not publish her second book because of drudgery and a sick Phillis Wheatley died on 5th December 1785. She was just 31.

If we go through her life with 21st-century specks, we will take it as worth giving a cursory perusal only but we won’t be taken aback. But again when we look around the world filled with racial hatred, religious and caste hostilities despite all legal provisions in favor of equality, we cannot help our astonishment. A slave then was just like any other material article in your possession. And it is almost beyond imagination to think of a slave as one of the pioneers of African-American literature.  

Her Statue At Smithsonian National Museum

The genius of Phillis cannot be forgotten. We have her statue at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. And her exhibits are there.


And genius recognizes the genius. Once in 1775, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem on George Washington and sent it to him with her letter. George Washington was just astonished at her poetic flare. Though he responded late the letter is worth reading exhibiting his humility and his appreciation of her talent. He wrote ‘…  I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me. In the elegant Lines, you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric. The style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents….’

Her Poetry Does Not Display The Emotions

Her poetry does not display the emotions of a black enslaved person, some scholars say. As she had an upbringing with a very progressive family. Much more liberal ahead of their times and practically she could not undergo the travails of an ordinary black slave. But this criticism will be an injustice to her genuine poetic talents. They just missed seeing her poetry in totality. She is one of the few names with which African-American literature begins. And one who earned her living with pen.(by sanjay kumar kundan)

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