[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Engberg points out that Wheatley was not the only African American poet active in the American colonies, and that others experienced some success in oral performance and even publication of their work.]
A PHILLIS rises, and the world no more Denies the sacred right to mental pow’r; While, Heav’n-inspired, she proves her Country’s claim To Freedom, and her own to deathless Fame. Matilda, 1796
Hailed as a child prodigy, Phillis Wheatley, at the age of eighteen, became the first woman in 120 years to publish a freestanding volume of poetry in the New World—in fact, since Anne Bradstreet. Wheatley’s story begins July 11, 1761. Aboard a schooner named Phillis, Wheatley was brought from West Africa to Boston. Apparently six or seven years of age, “from the circumstance of shedding her front teeth,” Wheatley was at a wharf on Beach Street, near the home of a seasoned agent for slave ship captains, John Avery. The cargo was cleaned, greased, and made presentable for sale. Avery advertised in the Boston Evening Post and the Boston Gazette and Country Journal on July 29:
To Be SoldA Parcel of likely Negroes, imported from Africa, cheap for cash, or short credit; Enquire of John Avery, at his House next Door to the White-Horse, or at a Store adjoining to said Avery’s DistillHouse, at the South End, near the South Market; Also, if any Persons have any Negro Men, strong and hearty, tho’ not of the best moral character, which are proper Subjects for Transportation, any have an Exchange for small Negroes.(Robinson 5)A Wheatley descendant described the small female child among the “Parcel of likely Negroes”:
Aunt Wheatley was in want of a domestic. She went aboard to purchase. In looking through the ship’s company of living freight, her attention was drawn to that of a slender, frail, female child, which at once enlisted her sympathies. Owing to the frailty of the child, she procured her for a trifle, as the captain had fears of her dropping off his hand, without emolument, by death.(Robinson 5)Mistress Susanna Wheatley acquired the young black girl as a personal domestic for a mere 10 sterlings—a bargain, since the standard price for a prime male slave was 35 sterlings. As Wheatley’s first biographer, another descendant of the Wheatley family, described:
[The Mistress] visited the slave market, that she might make a personal selection from the group of unfortunates offered for sale; There she found several robust, healthy females, exhibited at the same time with Phillis, who was of a slender frame, and evidently suffering from change of climate. She was, however, the choice of the lady, who acknowledged herself influenced to this decision by the humble and modest demeanor and the interesting features of the little stranger. The poor, naked child, (for she had no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her like a fillibeg) was taken home in the chaise of her mistress, and comfortably attired.(Robinson 6)Named after the...